James Baldwin, the noted essayist, novelist, playwright and activist was the son of Emma Jones who left Baldwin's father because he was addicted to drugs. She moved to Harlem and married David Baldwin, a preacher. A strict stepfather, Mr. Baldwin was harsh on his sensitive stepson, a highly intelligent boy who loved to read. Young Baldwin was fortunate to have encouraging teachers both in grammar, middle school and high school. He graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School, where he was editor of the school magazine.While just an adolescent, he became a junior minister and was known for his uplifting sermons. However as he progressed through his adolescent years, he began to become skeptical of organized religion, while recognizing its importance to many American black people.
As Baldwin matured and became more self aware, he realized that he was attracted to men. This realization, along with the racial discrimination he experienced, led him to leave the United States at the age of 24 and live in Paris. Eventually he would purchase a villa in the south of France ( in 1970) and spend several months a year there, writing and entertaining friends. He learned to speak fluent French. For part of the year he would return to the United States. In the 1980's he taught at various American colleges and gave lectures. He worked diligently while in France. In 1953 his first novel " Go Tell It on the Mountain" was published and in 1956 he published "Giovanni's Room." Responding to the discontent of the racially charged 1960's, he published " The Fire Next Time". He travelled throughout the southern United States in the late 1950's and 60's and met and befriended Medger Evers, MalcomX and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He and others met with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. They were somewhat disappointed with the results of the meeting, but overall it did help the civil rights movement.
Baldwin was an inspiration and friend to other important writers such as Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison. He was highly praised for his brilliant writing and civil rights work after he died of stomach cancer on December 1, 1987. While he died at his home in France, he is buried in a cemetery near New York City.