146 McDougal Street, 1943 – a three story building with a basement is filled with busy customers eating West Indies cuisine. Connie Williams owns the restaurant, Calypso, offering authentic cuisine and music from her native Trinidad. Connie went on to become a huge inspiration to a very young and confused James Baldwin.
Fleeing from the responsibility of his family, Baldwin, who would go onto write “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” “Notes of a Native Son,” and others, moved into the apartment of modernist painter, Beauford Delaney, after being introduced by a mutual friend. In 1943 Baldwin began working at Calypso, bussing tables and cleaning dishes. Here, under the influence of his new roommate and employer, in the small basement filled with people dancing to the sound of Calypso music known for its mixture of Afro-Caribbean and French Creole sounds, the young author learned that blacks too could be great artists.
James Baldwin was born on August 2, 1924, to Emma Berdis Jones. At a young age Jones divorced James’s father and remarried to a poor preacher named David Baldwin. Early in his life James experienced racially based police brutality when a gang of police officers beat him, as the story is told in a 1966 report by The Nation. James’s step-father was particularly harsh on him compared to his seven younger siblings. Despite being terrorized by his step-father Baldwin followed in his footsteps and became a youth minister in a Harlem Pentecostal Church.
A fair amount of his work reflects his time as a minister, his writing sharing the same cadences and tone, according to a PBS report. Baldwin attended the DeWitt Clinton School in the Bronx. He worked on the school newspaper, The Magpie, with future famous photographer Richard Avedon. His step-father died on July 29, 1943, the same day his eighth sibling was born. His father’s funeral was held on James’s birthday, according to Anne Johnson at Encyclopedia.com.
After graduating Baldwin put his college aspirations on hold to support his family of nine. He took a job laying track for the army in New Jersey. During his work he faced extreme racism from colleagues, restaurants, and bars, according to Biography.com. He soon left Jersey and abandoned his family in Harlem.
While living with Delaney, the African American artist helped Baldwin understand that blacks could be artists. Beauford was born In Tennessee and moved to New York in 1929. “Can Fire in the Park” was one of his first works painted in New York and showed the bleak reality of The Depression, according to a Smithsonian Institute report. It was Beauford, who in 1943, introduced James to Connie Williams. Connie had just opened The Calypso Café and was looking for workers.
While working at Calypso, Baldwin found his next roommate, actor Marlon Brando, who was studying at the American Theatre Wing Professional School as part of the Dramatic Workshop of the New School. Brando was later quoted in James Grissom’s “Follies Of God,” from an interview in 1990, as saying of Baldwin:
“If you wish to ask me what I cared about most now–if you ask me to state what was important or lasting–it would have to be that I walked and sat and dreamed next to a man named James Baldwin. James–or Jimmy–knew how to analyze, place, describe, repair, and destroy things–all in the right way and for the right reasons. Baldwin, as I liked to call him, taught me to think in a piercing way about things far more important than scripts or contracts or poems–he taught me to look into and understand people and their motives and their identities. And I didn’t always like what I saw, but it led me toward something that might be called freedom.”
Also at the Calypso, Baldwin met Stan Weir, who would become a close friend. Introduced by Connie Williams, Stan Weir tells the story of how the two debated political problems and came to an agreement that both the United States and Soviet Union could not run a country correctly.
Weir, an open socialist, essayist, and founder of Singlejack Books, a publishing house dedicated to the cause of working people, worked for the Merchant Marines at the time. Weir tried to recruit Baldwin to help the Worker’s Party, rooted in socialism. Baldwin declined, saying that his homosexuality would be a closed door that all conversations would lead to. Furthermore, Baldwin believed there were already writers and painters who had been silenced in the party because of their homosexuality.
In a time where many writers in Greenwich Village fell into a deep pit of depression as a result of the oppressive political climate, Baldwin was able to stay afloat by the encouragement from Connie Williams and Beauford Delaney. Through their teaching and support he started writing his own essays and novels. Greenwich Village and the lessons he learned there have appeared in many of his novels, essays and stories including “Sonny’s Blues,” written in 1957.
James Baldwin died of stomach cancer on December 1st, 1987, while living in Saint- Paul-de-Vence, France. In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante included Baldwin on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans. In 2005, the USPS created a first-class postage stamp dedicated to Baldwin, which featured him on the front, with a short biography on the back of the peeling paper. In 2012, Baldwin was inducted into the Legacy Project, an outdoor public display in Chicago that celebrates LGBT history and leaders.
This article was written by Jay Carhart, an 11th-grader from Trevor Day School in the Summer of 2015 as part of a partnership between Literary Manhattan and the New-York Historical Society Summer Scholars program. Click here to learn more.