Welcome to the “Black History Month” edition of the Evolving Man Project’s ‘Evolved Man of the Week’ profile. Each week in February, we will highlight a historical black male figure who embodies what it meant to be an evolved man, famous and non-famous alike. The world needs to know their stories and deeds. This week’s honor goes to author, poet, playwright, social critic, and literary icon James Baldwin. At the age of twenty-four, he escaped extreme racial oppression in the United States by fleeing New York City to France.
“It wasn’t so much a matter of choosing France—it was a matter of getting out of America. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me in France but I knew what was going to happen to me in New York. If I had stayed there, I would have gone under, like my friend on the George Washington Bridge.”
James Baldwin was born in Harlem, New York in 1924. He spent most of his youth looking after his several brothers and sisters. His mother married a preacher named David Baldwin. They lived in extreme poverty, but James still developed a gift for writing and was an avid reader during his youth. He was encouraged to pursue writing by one of his teachers, the great Countee Cullen, during his middle school years, and he served as his school paper’s editor at DeWitt Clinton High School.
In Paris, France with little money and no contacts, he made a name for himself in Europe as a burgeoning young writer. Like many black folks of his era, Mr. Baldwin was disillusioned at the treatment of gays, and black people in the United States.
“But the politicians are not working for the people; they’re working for exactly the people I say we have to attack. That is what has happened to politics in this country. That is why the political machinery now is so vast, and so complex no one seems to be able to control it. It’s completely unresponsive to the needs of the American community, completely unresponsive. I’m not talking only as a black man, I mean to the whole needs of the American people.”
He returned to the United States during the summer of 1957 while the Civil Rights Act was being debated in Congress. He aligned himself with the ideals and philosophies of the Congress of Racial Equality and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Along with many social critics, activist, celebrities, and religious leaders, he made a prominent appearance at the Civil Rights March on Washington D. C. in 1963. Due to his eloquent critique of American society and very radical writings on race, sexuality, and politics, it earned him an almost 2,000 page FBI file.
James’s impact on history, literature, the black experience, and gay liberation movement are quite notable. During his sixty-three years, James Baldwin befriended and influenced many iconic people such as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Marlon Brando, Richard Wright, Amiri Baraka, Miles Davis, Maya Angelou, Nina Simone, and Toni Morrison to name a few.
“The question you have got to ask yourself — the white population of this country has got to ask itself — North and South, because it’s one country, and for a Negro, there’s no difference between the North and South. There’s just a difference in the way they castrate you. But the fact of the castration is the American fact. If I’m not a nigger here and you invented him, you, the white people, invented him, then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that. Whether or not it’s able to ask that question.”
His work can be found in the Library of America, and he made the list of 100 Greatest African-Americans, and he has been inducted into the Legacy Walk. He was the author of numerous novels such as Go Tell It on the Mountain, Giovanni’ss Room, Just Above My Head, If Beale Street Could Talk, and Another Country. Being an ever-prolific writer, his additional works included poems, plays, and essays such as No Name in the Street, Notes of a Native Son, and The Amen Corner. The brilliant documentary, I’m Not Your Negro, highlights James Baldwin’s final unfinished novel, Remember This House, which focused on his three good friends from the Civil Rights Era, Dr. King, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers. Having lived in France most of his adult life, he died on December 1, 1987, in Saint-Paul de Vence. Today, we honor James Baldwin as our Evolved Man of the Week.