James Baldwin was born in Harlem on August 2, 1924. He was raised by his mother, Emma Berdis Jones, and his stepfather, David Baldwin. As a teenager, he worked as a preacher in a small revivalist church while attending DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx.
After high school, Baldwin moved to Greenwich Village. He began writing seriously after his stepfather died in 1943, publishing essays and reviews in The Nation and other publications. He moved to Paris in 1948.
A major voice in the civil rights movement, Baldwin was best known for his prose written during the 1950s and 1960s. In 1953, he published his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (Knopf). He went on to publish six other novels, including Giovanni’s Room (Dial Press, 1965), as well as several plays and essay collections, including Notes of a Native Son (Beacon Press, 1955).
Baldwin was also a dedicated poet, and he published one full-length poetry collection, Jimmy’s Blues (St. Martin’s Press, 1985), during his lifetime. The posthumous collection Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems (Beacon Press, 2014) features the poems from Jimmy’s Blues alongside poems from a 1989 limited-edition volume, Gypsy (Gehenna Press).
Of his work, Maya Angelou writes, “James Baldwin was born for truth. It called upon him to tell it on the mountains, to preach it in Harlem, to sing it on the Left Bank in Paris. His honesty and courage would lead him to see truth and to write truth in poetry, drama, fiction, and essay. He was a giant.”
Baldwin returned to the United States from France in 1957, and after 1969, he divided his time between the two countries. He died in southern France on December 1, 1987.