In honor of Black History, historian Daina Ramey Berry asks curators from the National Museum of African American History and Culture to share important stories of trailblazing African-American figures. Today we celebrate prolific writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin whose artifacts remind us of his worldview and his commitment to family.
James Baldwin was one of the leading writers, intellectuals, and activists of the 20th century. Born in New York, Baldwin left the United States at age 24 to live and work in France. He sought to escape the physical and structural violence perpetuated against African Americans and to establish psychological distance to pursue his literary craft. Baldwin returned home periodically to engage in Civil Rights activism, meet with his publishers, visit family, and teach language and literature.
Most of Baldwin’s works explore the tensions of race, sexuality, and class in the United States. Precision, clarity, and honesty characterize these writings, many of which focus on his own experiences growing up poor, gay, and black in urban America. Baldwin’s prolific writings include essays, novels, plays, articles, poems, and sermons. The exhibition at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), “Making a Way Out of No Way” offers a compelling multi-media display that underscores the themes of activism, creativity, and identity, which frame Baldwin’s life.
Apart from his public role as a writer and activist, Baldwin was a family man. He was the oldest of nine siblings, with whom he maintained close ties despite the physical distance. His family also included literary kin, such as Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, and Lorraine Hansberry.
Early Life: Big Brother and Preacher
James Baldwin was born in Harlem, New York on August 2, 1924 to Emma Berdis Jones. He was reared by his mother and stepfather David Baldwin, whom Baldwin referred to as his father and whom he described as extremely strict. As the oldest of nine siblings, Baldwin took seriously the responsibility of big brother. He cared for and protected his younger siblings in a household governed by the rigid religious rules of their father.
Between the ages of 14 and 16, Baldwin became a preacher in his father’s Pentecostal church. His preaching style, prose, and cadence were often more celebrated than his father’s. Baldwin’s brief experience in the church conditioned a strong literary voice, which he further developed during his middle and high school years.
As a setting in which he would thrive, school provided Baldwin with an outlet for his critical and creative thinking and writing. He attended Frederick Douglass Junior High School in the Bronx, where he met his mentor Countee Cullen, who achieved prominence as a poet of the Harlem Renaissance. Baldwin went on to DeWitt Clinton High School, where he edited the school newspaper and participated in the literary club, just as Cullen had done when he was a student there.
Explore the Baldwin Collection in the Smithsonian Transcription Center
Baldwin’s Heart Connection to Richard Wright’s Work
The 1940s marked several turning points in Baldwin’s life. In 1942 he graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School, and a year later he witnessed the New York Race Riots and experienced the death of his father. In 1944 he met Richard Wright, whose written work spoke to his heart. Baldwin appreciated Wright’s strong opinions about race in America, and he greatly valued their intellectual exchange. In 1948, as a result of Wright’s influence, Baldwin left the United States for Paris. When asked about his departure, he said in a 1984 Paris Review interview: “My luck was running out. I was going to go to jail, I was going to kill somebody or be killed.”
Baldwin and Wright reconnected in Paris; however, the two were often at odds about the ways in which they approached race in their work; this conflict eventually led to the demise of their friendship. But he would strike up another friendship with poet Maya Angelou, whom he met for the first time in Paris while she was touring with Porgy and Bess. In the tribute she would deliver at his funeral, Angelou noted that “His love opened the unusual door for me, and I am blessed that James Baldwin was my brother.”
Life as a ‘Transatlantic Commuter’
Baldwin would spend the next 40 years abroad, where he wrote and published most of his work. He lived in France — both in Paris and in the South of France; Switzerland, where he finished his first novel Go Tell It On The Mountain (1953) and Turkey, where he spent a decade and filmed From Another Place (1970), in which he describes his pen as his weapon and his role as a witness in the freedom struggle. Referring to himself as a “transatlantic commuter,” Baldwin returned to the United States frequently to engage with family and negotiate with publishers. He also testified at hearings on Civil Rights violations and attended the 1963 March on Washington and the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March. Toward the latter part of his life, he taught at the University of Massachusetts and Hampshire College in Amherst.
On December 1, 1987, Baldwin lost his battle with stomach cancer. A week later, he was laid to rest at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. Family members and friends participated in a large service during which Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Amiri Baraka delivered touching remarks about their friend and brother. During his lifetime, Baldwin received prestigious awards and achieved international acclaim for his writings. Through these works, James Baldwin firmly remains in eloquent discourse with society on issues as critical and pressing now as they were during his lifetime.
Artifacts: Traveling & Sibling Love
We have a rich written, audio, and visual record of Baldwin’s life to appreciate and admire. One provocative artifact in the possession of the NMAAHC, (above) is Baldwin’s United States passport from August 1965. It has stamps from all over Europe, particularly France and Turkey, but it also has evidence of multiple trips to the United States. Baldwin also visited Africa and the Middle East.
The second artifact (below) is a touching photograph of Baldwin with his younger sister Paula. The two are pictured smiling warmly, Baldwin’s arm wrapped protectively around the younger girl. Baldwin is wearing a bowtie adorned with small rectangles, and Paula has on a white dress with a round collar. They are positioned with their heads touching, indicating their close relationship. Those who knew and loved him like Paula, affectionately called him “Jimmy.” This is a photograph of “Jimmy,” the big brother that his younger sisters and brothers knew and loved.
A Master of His Craft
Most of what we know about Baldwin comes from his prolific writings, interviews, and speeches. Artifacts that belonged to James Baldwin also offer insight into his personal experiences and the ways in which he placed them into a national and international context. This abundant evidence of Baldwin’s life reveals his keen understanding of the fundamental use of language in its ability to define and dictate human experiences. He believed, in the words of fellow writer Audre Lorde, that “the master’s tools can never dismantle the master’s house.” Toni Morrison, one of Baldwin’s dear friends, alluded to his use of and discourse on language during her tribute at his funeral, stating that Baldwin “made American English honest” in the “6,895 pages” of his written work.
Watch an interview with Tulani Salahu-Din about the Baldwin Collection: