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Baldwin, James Arthur (1924-1987)  
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James Baldwin, a pioneering figure in twentieth-century literature, wrote sustained and articulate challenges to American racism and mandatory heterosexuality.

The circumstances of Baldwin's birth were unremarkable: He was born on August 2, 1924, at Harlem Hospital in New York City to a poor, unmarried, twenty-year-old woman named Emma Berdis Jones. But his death sixty-three years later on December 1, 1987, at his home in southern France was an event reported on the front pages of newspapers around the world. Indeed, his journey from a difficult childhood in Harlem to his eventual status as a legendary artist with a large and loyal international audience constitutes one of the most compelling American life-stories of the twentieth century.

Baldwin's early years were deeply troubled. At home, he was terrorized by an abusive stepfather; outside the home, he was taunted by his peers because of his diminutive stature and effeminate mannerisms. As an adolescent, he sought refuge in the church, and after an emotionally charged spiritual conversion, he became at age fourteen a minister who regularly preached at evangelical churches in and near Harlem. As a young adult, he held a variety of odd jobs: He was at times a railroad construction worker, waiter, busboy, and elevator operator. It was during this time that he began to write seriously, beginning with book reviews and essays.

During his young adulthood, he also became fully aware of the implications of being black in America. Everyday exposure to racism left him deeply wounded. His increasing consciousness of his homosexuality added to his pain and confusion. To escape what he felt was impending madness, he left for Paris in 1948 with forty dollars in his pocket and no knowledge of French. In France, where he would spend the better part of his remaining years, he became a professional writer.

A prolific artist, Baldwin published twenty-two books during a career that lasted nearly forty years; he wrote formal essays, fiction, drama, and poetry. In his early collections of elegantly written essays--such as Notes of a Native Son (1955) and Nobody Knows My Name (1961)--he combined autobiography with trenchant cultural analysis to create brilliant critiques of American race relations.

In Fire Next Time (1963), Baldwin's most famous nonfiction work, he relentlessly challenged the logic of white racism and proposed a redemptive journey away from racial apocalypse. In his more controversial texts--such as Blues for Mister Charlie (1964) and The Evidence of Things Not Seen (1985)--he insistently explored the interconnections between sexual insecurities and racial hostilities. Though he was an angry prophet, behind his rhetoric of racial outrage lurks a poignant and reassuring message of reconciliation, forgiveness, and love.

To understand Baldwin's significance for the gay literary heritage, one must begin with Baldwin's little-known essay titled "The Preservation of Innocence." He published it in Zero, an obscure and now defunct Moroccan journal, in the summer of 1949; it did not appear in print in the United States until 1989, when it was published in Out/Look with a foreword by Melvin Dixon.

In this early essay--one of very few nonfiction narratives in which Baldwin explicitly engages the subject of homosexuality--he defends the naturalness and legitimacy of homosexual desire and suggests that is a consequence of heterosexual panic. Hostility toward homosexuals, like racially motivated hostility, signals a radical failure of imagination and an inability to acknowledge the fullness of one's own humanity. These early insights anticipate his subsequent treatment of gay and bisexual themes in his fiction.

"Outing," a short story published in 1951, is Baldwin's first fictional text that thematizes . A story of sexual awakening, it centers on two adolescent boys, Johnny Grimes and David Jackson, who spend much of a day together on a church picnic. As the day progresses, Johnny becomes increasingly conscious of his sexual feelings for David--feelings that excite as well as terrify him. The narrative ends on a hauntingly ambivalent note, as Johnny gains a heightened awareness of his emerging sexuality that holds new possibilities as well as perils.

Baldwin develops this theme of adolescent homosexual awakening more elaborately in his first and perhaps his best novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953). Though arguably a record of Baldwin's own attempt to come to terms with his inheritance, Go Tell is much more than merely autobiographical. Imbued with an epic sense of history and resonant with elaborate biblical imagery, it is a universal story of initiation, of coming of age, of a young man's struggle to forge an autonomous identity in opposition to surrounding authority figures.

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James Baldwin in 1955.
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