On this day in 1987, James Baldwin died in Saint Paul, France.
Born in Harlem, New York City on August 2, 1924, Baldwin developed his love for reading at an early age. At the age of 14, he followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming a preacher in the Pentecostal church. Baldwin graduated DeWitt Clinton High School, where he was a key writer for the school magazine.
In 1944, writer Richard Wright helped Baldwin secure a fellowship. To live and work in a less prejudicial place, Baldwin moved to Europe. While there, he wrote Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), Notes of a Native Son (1955), and Giovanni’s Room (1956).
After nine years overseas, Baldwin returned to the United States and became one of the most popular spokesperson among writers for the civil rights of African Americans. Discovering that life for African Americans had become worse while he was overseas, he responded angrily with three books: Nobody Knows My Name, The Fire Next Time, and More Notes of a Native Son.
In the mid 1960’s, one of Baldwin’s published plays was produced on Broadway. Blues for Mr. Charlie, based on the case of Emmett Till, received much praise from the African American community.
Upon the murders of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, Baldwin returned to France, resigned to the fact that race relations would never be resolved in the United States. While in France, Baldwin wrote several fiction books, such as If Beale Street Could Talk and Just Above My Head. His popular nonfiction works of the time include No Name in the Street, The Devil Finds Work, and The Evidence of Things Not Seen.
Baldwin’s work explored racism among not only blacks, but other groups as well. Aside from racism, the major themes repeated throughout his career include materialism, a global struggle for power, shame regarding sexuality, goodness versus evil, and extending love and grace to people of all backgrounds.
For the last 15 years of his life, Baldwin remained overseas. In 1986, he was awarded one of France’s highest honors, being named Commander of the Legion of Honor. Baldwin died of stomach cancer in Saint Paul, France, but was buried in Harlem.