Black History Month: James Baldwin

Born on August 2, 1924, in New York City, James Arthur Baldwin published the 1953 novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, going on to garner acclaim for his insights on race, spirituality and humanity. Other novels included Giovanni’s Room, Another Country and Just Above My Head as well as essay works like Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time. Having lived in France, he died on December 1, 1987 in Saint-Paul de Vence. 

Although he spent a great deal of his life abroad, James Baldwin always remained a quintessentially American writer. Whether he was working in Paris or Istanbul, he never ceased to reflect on his experience as a black man in white America. In numerous essays, novels, plays and public speeches, the eloquent voice of James Baldwin spoke of the pain and struggle of black Americans and the saving power of brotherhood.

His essays, as collected in Notes of a Native Son (1955), explore palpable yet unspoken intricacies of racial, sexual, and class distinctions in Western societies, most notably in mid-20th-century America, and their inevitable if unnameable tensions. Some Baldwin essays are book-length, for instance The Fire Next Time (1963), No Name in the Street (1972), and The Devil Finds Work (1976).

Baldwin’s novels and plays fictionalize fundamental personal questions and dilemmas amid complex social and psychological pressures thwarting the equitable integration not only of black people, but also of gay and bisexual men, while depicting some internalized obstacles to such individuals’ quests for acceptance. Such dynamics are prominent in Baldwin’s second novel, Giovanni’s Room, written in 1956, well before the gay liberation movement. 

James Baldwin — the grandson of a slave — was born in Harlem in 1924. The oldest of nine children, he grew up in poverty, developing a troubled relationship with his strict, religious stepfather. As a child, he cast about for a way to escape his circumstances. As he recalls, “I knew I was black, of course, but I also knew I was smart. I didn’t know how I would use my mind, or even if I could, but that was the only thing I had to use.” By the time he was fourteen, Baldwin was spending much of his time in libraries and had found his passion for writing.

During this early part of his life, he followed in his stepfather’s footsteps and became a preacher. Of those teen years, Baldwin recalled, “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.” Many have noted the strong influence of the language of the church, the language of the Bible, on Baldwin’s style: its cadences and tone. Eager to move on, Baldwin knew that if he left the pulpit he must also leave home, so at eighteen he took a job working for the New Jersey railroad.

After working for a short while with the railroad, Baldwin moved to Greenwich Village, where he worked for a number of years as a freelance writer, working primarily on book reviews. He caught the attention of the well-known novelist, Richard Wright – and though Baldwin had not yet finished a novel, Wright helped him secure a grant with which he could support himself as a writer. In 1948, at age 24, Baldwin left for Paris, where he hoped to find enough distance from the American society he grew up in to write about it.

After writing a number of pieces for various magazines, Baldwin went to a small village in Switzerland to finish his first novel. Go Tell It on the Mountain, published in 1953, was an autobiographical work about growing up in Harlem. The passion and depth with which he described the struggles of black Americans were unlike anything that had been written. Though not instantly recognized as such, Go Tell It on the Mountain has long been considered an American classic.

Over the next ten years, Baldwin moved from Paris to New York to Istanbul, writing two books of essays, Notes of a Native Son (1955) and Nobody Knows My Name (1961), as well as two novels, Giovanni’s Room (1956) and Another Country (1962). The essays explored racial tension with eloquence and unprecedented honesty; the novels dealt with taboo themes (homosexuality and interracial relationships). By describing life as he knew it, Baldwin created socially relevant, psychologically penetrating literature … and readers responded. Both Nobody Knows My Name and Another Country became immediate bestsellers.

Being abroad gave Baldwin a perspective on the life he’d left behind and a solitary freedom to pursue his craft. “Once you find yourself in another civilization,” he notes, “you’re forced to examine your own.” In a sense, Baldwin’s travels brought him even closer to the social concerns of contemporary America. In the early 1960s, overwhelmed by a sense of responsibility to the times, Baldwin returned to take part in the civil rights movement. Traveling throughout the South, he began work on an explosive work about black identity and the state of racial struggle, The Fire Next Time (1963). This, too, was a bestseller: so incendiary that it put Baldwin on the cover of TIME Magazine. For many, Baldwin’s clarion call for human equality – in the essays of Notes of a Native Son, Nobody Knows My Name and The Fire Next Time – became an early and essential voice in the civil rights movement. Though at times criticized for his pacifist stance, Baldwin remained an important figure in that struggle throughout the 1960s.

After the assassinations of his friends Medgar Evers, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, Baldwin returned to St. Paul de Vence, France, where he worked on a book about the disillusionment of the times, If Beale Street Could Talk (1974). Many responded to the harsh tone of If Beale Street Could Talk with accusations of bitterness – but even though Baldwin had encapsulated much of the anger of the times in his book, he always remained a constant advocate for universal love and brotherhood. During the last ten years of his life, he produced a number of important works of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. He also turned to teaching as a new way of connecting with the young.

By 1987, when he died of stomach cancer at age 63, James Baldwin had become one of the most important and vocal advocates for equality. From Go Tell It on the Mountain to The Evidence of Things Not Seen (1985), James Baldwin created works of literary beauty and depth that will remain essential parts of the American canon.  Source: PBS
 

 

 

Black History Month: Althea Gibson

The sociological and historical significance of August 25, 1950 was enormous for African-Americans in their pursuit of breaking down color lines and paving the way for equal opportunities as Althea Gibson became the first African-American to compete at the U.S. National Championships. Gibson’s inclusion in America’s biggest tennis event wasn’t just about gaining acceptance in the sporting world, but seen as a momentum builder for blacks in the game of life. 

What Jackie Robinson did for baseball by being in the Brooklyn Dodgers’s starting lineup at first base on April 15, 1947, Althea Gibson did for tennis when she made her historic debut, defeating Barbara Knapp, 6-2, 6-2, in the first round.Gibson had a jam-packed eight-year career, with all of her major championships coming from 1956 to 1958, when she appeared in a stunning 19 major finals and won 11 titles. Five were in singles: the French in 1956, Wimbledon in 1957 and 1958, and the U.S. Nationals in 1957 and 1958; five in women’s doubles: the French 1956, the Australian in 1957, Wimbledon in 1956, 1957, 1958 and one in mixed doubles, at the U.S. in 1957. After that remarkable run of accomplishment, Gibson became the first African-American to compete on the women’s professional golf tour in 1960. 

The sociological and historical significance of August 25, 1950 was enormous for African-Americans in their pursuit of breaking down color lines and paving the way for equal opportunities as Althea Gibson became the first African-American to compete at the U.S. National Championships. Gibson’s inclusion in America’s biggest tennis event wasn’t just about gaining acceptance in the sporting world, but seen as a momentum builder for blacks in the game of life. What Jackie Robinson did for baseball by being in the Brooklyn Dodgers’s starting lineup at first base on April 15, 1947, Althea Gibson did for tennis when she made her historic debut, defeating Barbara Knapp, 6-2, 6-2, in the first round.


Gibson had a jam-packed eight-year career, with all of her major championships coming from 1956 to 1958, when she appeared in a stunning 19 major finals and won 11 titles. Five were in singles: the French in 1956, Wimbledon in 1957 and 1958, and the U.S. Nationals in 1957 and 1958; five in women’s doubles: the French 1956, the Australian in 1957, Wimbledon in 1956, 1957, 1958 and one in mixed doubles, at the U.S. in 1957. After that remarkable run of accomplishment, Gibson became the first African-American to compete on the women’s professional golf tour in 1960.

Until Evonne Goolagong Cawley, who was from an Australian Aboriginal family, won the French Open and Wimbledon Ladies Singles Championship in 1971, Gibson held the distinction of being the only woman of color to win a major championship for 15 years. It took 43 years, when Serena Williams won the 1999 US Open, for another African-American female to win a major singles title.

Hailing from the small, rural town of Silver, S.C., the Gibson family moved north in search of a brighter life and stronger financial future, settling in Harlem in 1930. Few could predict that 20 years later Gibson would become the first African-American to grace the August 26, 1957 cover of Time Magazine and September 2, 1957 cover of Sports Illustrated.  
Source: International Tennis Hall of Fame