James Baldwin, the bestselling works such as Go Tell it on the Mountain and The Fire Next Time, was the first author to be “born and bred in Harlem” as Susan Edmiston and Linda Cirino, authors of Literary New York put it.
The grandson of a slave, he used his literary talents to write about the struggles of being a black man in a white America, becoming a quintessential black writer and leader of the Civil Rights movement.
But as a black and openly gay author it was Baldwin’s Harlem upbringing and residence in the progressive literary hub of Greenwich Village that helped define his identity, heavily influencing both his character and writing. As Baldwin is widely quoted:
“An identity would seem to be arrived at by the way in which the person faces and uses his experience.”
James Baldwin was born in 1924 at Harlem Hospital. He first became interested in writing at his elementary school, P.S. 24. Growing up in a Harlem neighborhood known for being filthy, nicknamed “Junkie’s Hollow,” Baldwin recalled in Notes of a Native Son that he didn’t know how he would use his mind, or even if he could, but knew that “it was the only thing I had to use.”
In the same novel, published in 1955, Baldwin described how his time at P.S. 24, now the Harlem Renaissance School at 22 East 128th Street, helped nurture his natural talent. There, a teacher saw promise in a play the young author had written and offered to take him to “real” plays, an encounter that inspired him to become more serious about writing
At his middle school, Frederick Douglass Junior High (also called P.S. 139) on 120 West 140th Street (now converted into public housing), Baldwin’s math teacher convinced him to become editor of the school newspaper, The Douglass Pilot. By the age of 13, he wrote his first article for the school newspaper, a profile of Harlem titled “Harlem – Then and Now” and was taught by prominent black poet Countee Cullen, furthering the young prodigy’s interest and skill in literature.
As Baldwin got older, he described in Go Tell it on the Mountain that his religious life went on to dominate his adolescence. Baldwin’s three years at Fireside Pentecostal Assembly, his preacher stepfather’s church, were a huge part of his personal journey and had a strong influence on his character. The language of the church and bible clearly started to influence his writing style, especially its cadences and tone. He attended the church several nights a week from eight to midnight and preached once a week on Young Ministers’ Night.
“Those three years in the pulpit – I didn’t realize it then – that is what turned me into a writer, really, dealing with all that anguish and that despair and that beauty.”
His experiences at the church also directly inspired Baldwin’s mixed feelings on religion that later informed pieces of writing like his first novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain (1953). On the one hand, he believed Christianity justified slavery and oppression by delaying salvation until a promised posthumous afterlife. On the other hand, he also thought that a redeeming quality of religion was the way it provided a medium through which African Americans were compelled to unite and fight together, which was necessary for them to gain their civil rights.
By the time Baldwin graduated high school, he had moved to Greenwich Village and frequently spent his nights at San Remo, an Italian restaurant that was, “the writer’s bar in the Village” during the late forties, according William Corbett, author of New York Literary Lights.
There, Baldwin rubbed shoulders with other members of the artistic elite including Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Miles Davis, Norman Mailer, Jackson Pollack, and Dylan Thomas. The rest of the bar’s diverse crowd writer Michael Harrington described as “heterosexuals on the make; homosexuals who preferred erotic integration to the exclusively gay bars on Eighth Street; Communists, Socialists and Trotskyists; potheads…,” and so on. By the time he first went to Paris in 1948, thanks in part to his visits to San Remo, Baldwin was a familiar figure around the Village.
While Baldwin frequently commuted between Paris and New York, he spent his time in New York residing in a townhouse at 81 Horatio Street. Baldwin lived there during the late 1950s and early 1960s, one of the most prolific and successful periods of his career. The townhouse’s location in Greenwich Village helped it provide a refuge for the gay, black Baldwin to examine his identity and meet like-minded individuals. For these reasons, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation broadly credits the “village scene” for influencing his writing and activism.
In 1965, at the height of Baldwin’s fame, he bought a remodeled rowhouse at 137 West 71st Street on the Upper West Side, which he would live in off-and-on from then until his death in 1987. During this time, Baldwin wrote the most memorable works of his later career, including If Beale Street Could Talk, Just Above my Head, and the unfinished manuscript Remember This House that was adopted to film as the critically acclaimed documentary I Am Not Your Negro. The space was set up so that Baldwin’s mother Emma lived on one floor and his sister Paula lived on another, leaving the ground floor apartment for himself. He hung a large painting by his mentor Beauford Delaney on one of his walls depicting a black boy playing with snowballs.
Though Baldwin lived most of his adult life as a self-described “transatlantic commuter” between New York and Paris (a city which he deemed to be more racially tolerant), he was a New Yorker at heart, as he writes in his groundbreaking novel Giovanni’s Room:
“Paris is old” and “you feel, in Paris, all the time gone by.” On the other hand, he describes New York as a place where one feels like they have “all the time to come… everything is in such movement. You can’t help wondering – I can’t help wondering – what it will all be like– many years from now.”
On December 1, 1987, James Baldwin died of stomach cancer in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France. His New York legacy, however, physically lives on through James Baldwin Place, a rededicated block located near where he went to school at P.S. 24. He was a crucial leader in the Civil Rights Movement, championing an ideological middle ground between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X by emphasizing the importance of brotherhood and racial understanding.
His radical and innovative writings are still widely read, many of which are autobiographical and vividly recount Baldwin’s Harlem childhood. One of his most memorable quotes was:
“Know from whence you came. If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.”