James Baldwin, the fairly well-known novelist, was born in Harlem, NY, in 1924. He never knew his father, had a strained relationship with his step-father (whose name he adopted) and ended up leaving home at age 17.
His writing career began when he was twelve. This was when he had a story published in a local church's newspaper. However, it was only after graduating high school that Baldwin really became a professional writer.
Baldwin's first work was pretty much panned by critics. However, he had been reviewing books and writing essays for several national publications, which netted him a fellowship so that he could pursue more writing. In 1948, with his familial relationships on the outs, issues with racism coming to a head, and other difficult problems in his life, Baldwin moved to Paris.
It was in Paris that Baldwin finished his first acclaimed novel: Go Tell it on the Mountain. Through the following years until his death in 1987, back in France, Baldwin published several novels, the majority of them critically appreciated. However, there was a period of several years in which critics called his work flat and filled with simple characters.
It was Baldwin's experiences with racism that got him into the Civil Rights movement. He felt mis-used and abused by the FBI on several occasions. Later it would be revealed that due to Baldwin's actions with the Civil Rights movement, the FBI had gathered a file on him that grew to over 1700 pages.
Baldwin was involved in the Civil Rights movement initially only as a writer. He explored black-white relationships in a collection of short stories entitled "Nobody Knows My Name." Later, he declared to America that if the white people's attitudes toward black did not change, violence would ensue. This warning came in a book called "The Fire Next Time," which was a book that discussed and explored the Black-Islam movement in the States.
Later, Baldwin became a reviewer and defender and reporter of the Civil Rights movement. His work publicized the movement and its goals, as well as its leaders and actions. You could almost say that he was one of the major PR men for the Civil Rights movement. He also wrote essays that explored how it was to live as a black person in the US. One collection of his that explores this issue is called "Notes of a Native Son."
In the late 1960's Baldwin's attitude toward violence in the Civil Rights movement was changing. Dr. Martin Luther King had been shot and despair was spreading. At one point, Baldwin began to demonstrate that he thought violence might be the only answer to the racism and prejudice surrouning him and other black people. However, a few years later he mellowed- perhaps due to age or perhaps due to simple hope returning. It was in the 70's that his artistic abilities began to return and he began to publish work with higher critical acclaim than previously.
Baldwin finished his career as a professor at the University of Massachusetts. He taught Afro-American studies. He died on Nov. 30, 1987 in the Riviera, France, of stomach cancer.
James Baldwin's passion for his subjects and for the Civil Rights movement truly infused most, if not all, of his work. As one of the most visible proponents of the movement, he brought the public's eye to the problems face by black people in America, and for this and for his great novels, he must be thanked.