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James Baldwin: A Hero That Shines Like the Sun

Updated: Jan 16, 2023

Freedom is not something that anybody can be given; freedom is something people take and people are as free as they want to be. One hasn’t got to have an enormous military machine in order to be un-free when it’s simpler to be asleep, when it’s simpler to be apathetic, when it’s simpler, in fact, not to want to be free, to think that something else is more important,” says James Baldwin. James Baldwin, born on 2 August 1924 in Harlem at the time of the Harlem Renaissance, is considered one of the most important voices of the Civil Rights Movement. He dedicated his entire life to writing against the brutality of white supremacy and was a groundbreaking writer who constantly challenged the status quo. A master of expressing his inspiring ideas on racism and sexual oppression, he became a cultural and literary icon, cementing his signature in our hearts that will live forever. Let us discover how he contributed to literature, human rights, and Civil Rights Movement through his unique and humanitarian works.

Photo: Bob Adelman / Associated Press

Giovanni’s Room Is An Example of Courage

Giovanni's Room (1956), which Baldwin wrote in Paris where he lived for ten years, is a book about "love" between two men, a subject that took a lot of courage to write about at the time. In the story, there is a protagonist named David who moves from New York to Paris where he meets his soon-to-be lover Giovanni. The characterization of the story, the narration, the Parisian life, and the social norms of America make the novel a masterpiece. The story reflects the society of its time. It also portrays the struggles of women through his first girlfriend, Hella, and exposes the problems of class differences in Parisian life. David says in the story, "People are too various to be treated so lightly. I am too various to be trusted. If this were not so I would not be alone in this house tonight. Hella would not be on the high seas. And Giovanni would not be about to perish, sometime between this night and this morning, on the guillotine." The feeling of alienation could not have been better described than this. His feelings speak louder than words. As David comes from a repressive country, there was no place for homosexuality in America at that time. The whole novel, especially the image of the "room", becomes a metaphor for David to realize his true self. Long story short, it takes a big heart to write a story like this, where everyone can find themselves in every detail Baldwin describes. If you want to know more about the novel, we highly recommend it!

The Short Movie: From Another Place

James Baldwin: From Another Place is a film by Turkish director Sedat Pakay, shot in 1970 in Istanbul, where James Baldwin lived for a time and wrote some of his works. In the film, Baldwin talks about what it felt like to live abroad, his experiences as a black man in America, and his private life, which was considered controversial. Baldwin began living in Istanbul in 1961 and lived there for almost ten years. The story goes that he wanted to leave the oppressive environment in America and find a haven where he could breathe. At the time, he told his friend Zeynep Oral, "I can not breathe, I have to look from the outside." Through the film, we can see how America has failed its society. He says, "one sees it better from a distance ... from another place, another country." Turkey gave him the space to complete his unique novels, namely Another Country (1962) and Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone (1968), his play Blues for Mister Charlie (1964), a book of short stories Going to Meet the Man (1965), and the essay collections The Fire Next Time (1963) and No Name in the Street (1972). With these literary masterpieces, he enables us to see the issues of race and sexuality from a deep perspective that challenges America and allows us to understand the experiences of people on the margins of society in a remarkable way.

Photo: Sedat Pakay

An Activist for the Civil Rights Movement

"Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced," Baldwin says. At the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, he became a crucial advocate for the Civil Rights Movement, supporting Martin Luther King J. In 1963, he organized support for the March on Washington at the American Church of Paris with other artists and delivered a statement to the American Embassy. In addition, Anthony Quinn and other well-known personalities signed a petition initiated by Baldwin calling for the release of Martin Luther King Jr. He also wrote a number of articles about the movement in magazines such as Harper's, The New Yorker, and Mademoiselle.

American Protestant church in Paris, France, Aug. 28, 1963 / Photo taken from Princeton University


Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers, the three most significant figures in the struggle for Civil Rights, are the subjects of the documentary I Am Not Your Negro (2016) directed by Raoul Peck. The script of the documentary is based on his unfinished manuscript Remember This House (1979), which he began writing in 1979 and which recounts the memories of these three murdered African American icons. The story is told in the voice of Samuel L. Jackson, who portrays the problem of race in modern America. You can check the trailer here:

His Influence on Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou is one of the most important literary figures of American Literature and the Civil Rights Movement. When Angelou was depressed following the death of Martin Luther King Jr., Baldwin did everything to cheer her up. He even escorted her to a dinner party where she enthralled the other guests with anecdotal storytelling, laying the groundwork for her acclaimed first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, where she wrote about racism and misogyny. Here’s the interview where they both talk about justice, racism, misogyny, and their life.

“The Fire Next Time”

Baldwin's novel The Fire Next Time, published in 1963, consists of two parts. The first part consists of Baldwin's letter to his nephew, titled “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to my Nephew on the One-Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation.” In the second part, which was titled “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region of My Mind,” the author tells us about America's attitude towards African-American people at that time and the solutions that African-Americans sought. The “American Dream” is what America has wanted to achieve for years, but there is no place for African Americans in this dream. In this book, Baldwin gives place to the inequalities, injustices, and lies of America that have existed since the beginning. The book is very deep and Baldwin achieved to show the great importance of the Civil Rights Movement.

As we have seen, James Baldwin is an undeniable literary icon, a hero to marginalized groups, and a Civil Rights activist. He, all his life, supported the idea that African Americans could achieve the American Dream. His works have a wide range from homosexuality to women's rights and his writings are masterfully written and can cut straight to our hearts. He has the experience of being an African American and homosexual in the mid-20th century. His activism and intersectionality make him one of the greatest writers of all time.

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