5 Things You May Not Know About James Baldwin

The celebrated writer would have turned 90 this year.

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James Baldwin

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James Baldwin—novelist, essayist and simply one of the greatest writers of all time—would have turned 90 this year. New York Live Arts is marking the occasion with “The Year of James Baldwin,” a celebration of the writer’s life and legacy. The festivities begin today and run through April 27, with “Jimmy at High Noon,” a series of daily readings by actors, musicians and writers including Jesse L. Martin, Nikky Finney, Toshi Reagon, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Patricia J. Williams and André De Shields. In the spirit of the celebration, here are five things you may not have known about the noted author.

1. He was a teen preacher.

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From age 14 to 17, Baldwin was a minister—like his stepfather—after he experienced what he called “a prolonged religious crisis.” As he described in The Fire Next Time: “I became, during my fourteenth year, for the first time in my life, afraid—afraid of the evil within me and afraid of the evil without.” He would eventually leave the pulpit after becoming disillusioned by Christianity. Religion would be a theme he would revisit in his works, including his debut novel, the semiautobiographical Go Tell It on the Mountain.

2. He was a film critic.

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James Baldwin with actor Marlon Brandon at the March on Washington in 1963.

Wikimedia Commons

Baldwin didn’t only reserve his razor-sharp intellect to dissect the meatier topics of race and social justice. In his book-length essay, “The Devil Finds Work”—which the Atlantic recently dubbed “The Most Powerful Piece of Film Criticism Ever Written”—Baldwin offers some compelling insights about the politics of American cinema.

Here, for instance, is Baldwin’s brilliant take on the acclaimed 1958 film, The Defiant Ones, in which Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier play escaped convicts who are shackled to each other:

It is impossible to accept the premise of the story, a premise based on the profound American misunderstanding of the nature of the hatred between black and white. There is hatred—certainly: though I am now using this word with great caution, and only in the light of the effects, or the result, of hatred. But the hatred is not equal on both sides, for it does not have the same roots.

This is perhaps a subtle argument, but black men do not have the same reason to hate white men as white men have to hate blacks. The root of the white man’s hatred is terror, a bottomless and nameless terror, which focuses on the black, surfacing, and concentrating on this dread figure, an entity which lives only in his mind. But the root of the black man’s hatred is rage, and he does not so much hate white men as simply want them out of his way, and, more than that, out of his children’s way.

3. He was a poet.

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A new collection of poetry.

Beacon Press

Using an economy of words, Baldwin could say more than most folks do with volumes. Though he only released one book of poems, Baldwin wrote poetry throughout his life. Beacon Press recently released a new collection of his only published book of poetry, titled Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems.

An example:

“Untitled”

Lord,
    when you send the rain,
    think about it, please,
    a little?

Do
    not get carried away
    by the sound of falling water,
    the marvelous light
    on the falling water.

I
    am beneath that water.
    It falls with great force
    and the light

Blinds
    me to the light.

Excerpted from Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems by James Baldwin. Copyright 2014. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.

4. He was a student of noted Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen.

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Countee Cullen

Wikimedia Commons

In the twilight of his career, Cullen—whose book of poetry, Colors, was a touchstone in the Harlem Renaissance movement—worked as a French teacher at Frederick Douglass Middle School, where Baldwin was a student. Cullen exposed Baldwin to great black writers and shared his experiences of living in France.

5. His desire to leave America was partly influenced by his best friend’s suicidal leap off the George Washington Bridge.

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American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin poses at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on Nov. 6, 1979. 

RALPH GATTI/AFP/Getty Images

Baldwin felt the only way he could survive as a black man was to leave the United States and go to Paris, which he did in 1948 with just $40 in his pocket. In a 1984 interview with the Paris Review, he talked about his decision to leave: “My luck was running out. I was going to go to jail, I was going to kill somebody or be killed. My best friend had committed suicide two years earlier, jumping off the George Washington Bridge.”

When asked why he chose France, he said: “It wasn’t so much a matter of choosing France—it was a matter of getting out of America. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me in France but I knew what was going to happen to me in New York. If I had stayed there, I would have gone under, like my friend on the George Washington Bridge.”

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