29Baldwin, James

In document American Writers (Biographies & Literatures) - 449p (Page 48-87)

29 Baldwin, James

(James Arthur Baldwin)

(1924–1987) novelist, essayist, nonfiction writer, poet, playwright

James Baldwin was a prolific writer who con-tributed a powerful voice to the struggle of black Americans during the Civil Rights movement. As an openly homosexual man, Baldwin drew on his own personal experiences of prejudice as well as his analysis of social injustice in his novels and essays.

His most famous and influential novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), was a partially autobiographi-cal account of his experiences as a child coming of age in poverty in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. Although Baldwin spent most of his adult life living as an expatriate, he remained com-mitted to the fight for social justice in America and returned to New York City often in his later life.

Not always praised by his critics, and often disliked by his audiences, he nevertheless touched a vast number of readers with his sharp examinations of issues of personal identity and political prejudice.

Critic and scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., said about Baldwin that “He named for me the things you feel but couldn’t utter. . . . Jimmy’s essays artic-ulated for the first time to white America what it meant to be American and a Black American at the same time.”

James Arthur Baldwin was born in Harlem on August 2, 1924, to an unmarried woman named Berdis Jones. As an illegitimate child, he never knew his biological father and was raised in poverty.

He received his surname at three years old, when his mother married an abusive factory worker named David Baldwin. In addition to his factory job, James’s new stepfather also acted as a storefront preacher in a small church in Harlem. David involved his stepson in the church at an early age, and James, a voracious reader, published his first story in the church newspaper at age 12. By the time he was 14, he had converted from Catholicism and had become a minister at the small Fireside Pentecostal Church in Harlem. Although James later exchanged his passion for religion with a pas-sion for literature, critics have said that the fiery preachings of the black church are still echoed in his writing. He remained a preacher for three more years, until Harlem race riots, as well as his difficult relationship with his stepfather, drove him to leave home and relocate to Greenwich Village in 1941.

In 1943, at the age of 19, Baldwin quit the last of a series of ill-paying jobs and became a full-time writer. His first book, a collection of essays about the storefront churches in Harlem, was not a suc-cess. Publishers repeatedly rejected his work, though he did succeed in publishing numerous book reviews and essays in publications such as The Nation, The New Leader, Commentary, and Partisan Review. These works won him the Rosenwald Fellowship in 1948.

Later that year, due to sexual identity prob-lems, the suicide of a close friend, and the state of U.S. race relations, Baldwin chose to leave New York and take refuge in Paris. It was there, in 1953, that he published his first novel, Go Tell It on the

Mountain. Based on his experiences as a teenage preacher in Harlem, Go Tell It on the Mountain describes the life of a religious and sensitive young boy named John who struggles with issues of sin, guilt, and self-doubt. The novel won him wide-spread acclaim and was well received by both liter-ary critics and the public.

Baldwin was to remain in Paris for the next 10 years, though he returned frequently to the United States to lecture or teach. Despite his living abroad, his work continued to have a strong impact on American readers. In 1955, he pub-lished a collection of essays entitled Notes of a

Native Son, which provided a powerful description of American racism that succeeded in reaching white American audiences. Following that was a second novel, Giovanni’s Room (1956), which depicted a white American expatriate attempting to come to terms with his homosexuality. Baldwin published several other essays assessing American racism and prejudice against homosexuality, and he became increasingly outspoken in condemning discrimination against lesbian and gay people. In 1969, he gave up his year-round residence in France and began dividing his time between France and New York.

Though his writings on racial issues were wide-ly read, and reached a wide audience, his inclusion of homosexual themes angered many in the black community. Following the 1962 publication of Another Country, a novel about racial and gay sex-ual tensions among New York intellectsex-uals, Eldridge Cleaver, of the Black Panthers, asserted that Baldwin’s writing displayed an “agonizing, total hatred of blacks.” Baldwin’s analysis of the civil rights activities of the 1960s also earned him a fair amount of negative attention from the U.S. gov-ernment. Following the 1963 publication of The Fire Next Time, in which Baldwin examined the Black Muslims movement and discussed the role that violence would potentially play in the Civil Rights movement, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) made him a special target, eventually accumulating a file with more than 1,750 pages chronicling his activities.

James Baldwin’s eloquent and honest treat-ment of civil rights issues made him one of the most influential writers of his time. In addition to the works mentioned above, he also published the plays The Amen Corner (1955) and Blues for Mister Charlie (1964) and wrote a volume of poetry enti-tled Jimmy’s Blues (1983). In addition to the Rosenwald fellowship, Baldwin also received a Eugene F. Saxon Memorial Trust Award, a Guggenheim fellowship, a Partisan Review fellow-ship, and a Ford Foundation grant. Baldwin was also a professor in the African-American Studies department of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He spent the last years of his life in St.

Paul de Vence, on the Riviera in France, where he died of stomach cancer on November 30, 1987.

30 Baldwin, James

Author of Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), James Baldwin was a powerful figure in the Civil Rights movement in America, though he lived much of his life abroad in Europe. (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ62-42481])

Further Reading

Balfour, Lawrie. Evidence of Things Not Said: James Baldwin and the Promise of American Democracy. Ithaca, N.Y.:

Cornell University Press, 2001.

Duberman, Martin B., and Randall Kenan. James Baldwin. London: Chelsea House Publishers, 1994.

McBride, Dwight. James Baldwin Now. New York: New York University Press, 1999.

Tosse, Lisa, and Carol Bergman. James Baldwin: Author.

Los Angeles: Holloway House, 1991.

Bambara, Toni Cade (Miltona Mirkin Cade)

(1939–1995) novelist, short story writer, documentary filmmaker

Toni Cade Bambara was a civil rights activist who devoted her life to writing about African-American politics and culture and who was deeply committed to improving the lives of African-American women. Born and raised in the Harlem neighbor-hood of New York City, Bambara in her work spoke to the struggles of African-American life in the racially charged urban America of the 1960s.

Initially gaining recognition as a short story writer and later branching out to include other genres, Bambara continued to focus her work on themes of racial awareness and feminist equality. She also had a significant impact on the arts community by organizing and nurturing emerging African-American writers.

She was born in Harlem on March 25, 1939, to Helen Brent Henderson Cade. Named Miltona Mirkin Cade at birth, Miltona opted to shorten her first name to simply “Toni” when she was in kindergarten. She later adopted the name

“Bambara” after discovering it as part of a signa-ture on a sketchbook in her great-grandmother’s Harlem apartment. Growing up in Harlem was instrumental in forming an important part of her identity, and she later credited the Harlem neigh-borhood as having a large impact on her writing.

It was her mother, however, who was Bambara’s greatest influence and inspiration and who instilled in her a rage against the injustices she saw in the treatment of women and the black community.

In 1959, Toni Cade graduated from Queens College with a B.A. degree in theater arts and English. Shortly after her graduation she published her first short story, Sweet Town, for which she received the John Golden Award for fiction. Bambara returned to school in 1962 and earned her master’s degree while working as an investigator for the New York State Department of Social Welfare. After com-pleting her education she began teaching at the City College of New York, where she stayed until 1970.

During the highly unsettled political atmos-phere of the 1960s, Bambara became increasingly involved as a feminist and community activist. In 1970, she edited and published an anthology of fic-tion, nonficfic-tion, and poetry entitled The Black Woman. Bambara contributed three essays to the anthology, and among the other writers were NIKKI GIOVANNI, ALICE WALKER, and AUDRE LORDE. The book was the first major anthology featuring the work of these prominent black feminist authors.

Bambara edited her second anthology in 1971, entitled Tales and Stories for Black Folks. The collec-tion revolves around the importance of storytelling and examines how the oral tradition is an inextri-cable part of African-American heritage. The fol-lowing year Bambara published Gorilla, My Love, the first book composed entirely of her own work.

A collection of short stories, Gorilla considers the sense of strength and empowerment that can be derived from a community.

Over the following five years, Bambara trav-eled extensively, visiting Cuba, Vietnam, and the southern United States. In her travels she encoun-tered people and situations that fueled her political voice and strengthened her sense of social injustice.

Following her return, Bambara began work on her first novel, The Salt Eaters. Published in 1980, The Salt Eaters depicts a community of black people seeking the healing properties of salt. In her novel, Bambara “looked for a new kind of narrator . . . a narrator as medium . . . a kind of magnet through which other people tell their stories.” This experi-mental technique won her acclaim with some, but was met with mixed reviews.

Bambara was enraged by Hollywood’s portray-al of blacks. Spurred by a desire to chportray-allenge the movie industry, Bambara wrote and directed her first documentary film, The Bombing of Osage Bambara, Toni Cade 31

Avenue, in 1986. The film, which centered on the bombing of a black organization in Pennsylvania, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature that year. She wrote several screenplays for other films during her career, but none were as suc-cessfully received as The Bombing of Osage Avenue.

Bambara’s work earned her numerous awards, including the American Book Award in 1981 for The Salt Eaters, a literature grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1980, and an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from the State University of New York at Albany in 1990. In 1993, at the height of her career, she was diagnosed with colon cancer.

She died in Philadelphia on December 9, 1995, at the age of 56.

Further Reading

Alwes, Derek. “The Burden of Liberty: Choice in Toni Morrison’s Jazz and Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters.” African American Review 30, no. 3 (fall 1996):


Evans, Mari, ed. Black Women Writers. Garden City, N.J.:

Anchor, 1984.

Fleming, Robert. The African American Writer’s Handbook. New York: Ballantine, 2000.

Griffin, Farah J. “Toni Cade Bambara: Free to Be Anywhere in the Universe.” Callaloo 19, no. 2 (spring 1996): 229–231.

Banks, Russell

(1940– ) novelist, short story writer, poet Russell Banks, originally a poet and short story writer, has become best known for his novels about the hardscrabble, working-class struggles of ordi-nary people. He explores how “normal” people come to do horrendous things, and though his work is often full of tragedy and the mundane realities of daily life, his books somehow rise above hopeless-ness with the help of their narrators’ sensitivity, humor, and compassion. Banks has published more than a dozen novels, and two of these, The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction, have been successfully adapted for the screen.

The eldest of four children, Russell Banks was born in Newton, Massachusetts, on March 28, 1940, to Earl and Florence Banks. At age two,

Banks lost the sight in his left eye as a result of abuse from his father, a violent alcoholic who aban-doned the family when Banks was 12. Banks grew up in poverty, living in both eastern Massachusetts and New Hampshire. He attended Colgate University for a time, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1967 from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with the help of his mother-in-law at the time, who footed the bill for his tuition.

Between his studies at Colgate and the University of North Carolina, Banks had numerous adventures, including a trip to Cuba to fight for Fidel Castro that ended in south Florida and a six-week drive cross-country in a borrowed car that ended with Banks on the wrong end of a gun barrel in a Tijuana brothel. “Writing in some way saved my life,” Banks said in an interview with Book mag-azine. “It brought to my life a kind of order and dis-cipline and an attention to the world outside myself that I don’t see how I could have obtained other-wise.”

Since his first marriage at the age of 18, Banks has been married three more times, most recently to Chase Twichell in 1989. He has a total of four grown daughters and has lived for 15 years with Twichell, who is a poet and faculty member in the creative writing program at Princeton University, from which Banks retired in 1998.

Although Banks wrote regularly from the time he was a teenager, it was many years before he could support himself with his writing. When asked by an interviewer how he began to write, Banks answered,

I began as a boy with artistic talent . . . as a visual artist . . . I thought that was what I’d become and in my late teens drifted into reading serious literature. And out of a desire essentially to imitate what I was reading, I began to write, like a clever monkey. By the time I was in my early twenties I had abandoned painting and drawing and had become a beginning poet and fiction writer. Although I still occa-sionally paint and draw, my life has now been shaped by my writing. But really, it was reading that led me to writing. And in 32 Banks, Russell

particular, reading the American classics like Twain who taught me at an early age that ordinary lives of ordinary people can be made into high art.

During the years before he settled into the writing life, he worked as a plumber, shoe salesman, and window trimmer, among other things. Once his writings began to gain recognition, he found work as a teacher and has taught at numerous colleges and universities, including Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence College, New England College, the University of New Hampshire, New York University, and Princeton University.

Banks’s numerous novels include Searching for Survivors (1975), Family Life (1975), The Book of Jamaica (1980), Trailerpark (1981), The Relation of My Imprisonment (1983), Continental Drift (1985), Affliction (1989), The Sweet Hereafter (1991), Rule of the Bone (1995), and Cloudsplitter. His story col-lections include The New World Stories (1978), Success Stories (1986), and The Angel on the Roof:

The Stories of Russell Banks (2000). He has also con-tributed poems, stories, and essays to The Boston Globe Magazine, Vanity Fair, The New York Times Book Review, Esquire, Harper’s, and other publica-tions. His works have been widely translated and published in Europe and Asia. The film adaptation of The Sweet Hereafter won the Grand Prix and International Critics Prize at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival. Affliction was adapted into an Academy Award–winning film.

Banks’s work is known for chronicling the lives of people who are often scorned and derided. Most often set in the Northeast, the stories unfold with irony and compassion for their mostly working-class characters. The novels and stories alike have claimed a long and impressive list of literary prizes and awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowships, the Ingram Merrill Award, the St.

Lawrence Award for Short Fiction, the O. Henry and Best American Short Story Award, the John Dos Passos Award, and the Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Continental Drift and Cloudsplitter were both finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, in 1986 and

1998, respectively. Affliction was short-listed for both the PEN/Faulkner Fiction Prize and the Irish International Prize.

Banks’s film success has led to his latest work on a screenplay adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road for Francis Ford Coppola. About the Kerouac project, Banks said, “I turned eighteen the year it was published (1958), and I thought it was about me. But it was about someone from the late ’40s, a different generation. My own children read the book and thought it was about them in the ’80s.

And now kids in Princeton’s class of 2003 are read-ing it and think it’s about them. And it is. . . . But it’s also about America in that age of innocence.”

In early 2001, Banks was elected president of the International Parliament of Writers, a post pre-viously held by Wole Soyinka and Salman Rushdie.

In 2002, Banks served as producer and screenwriter for the film adaptations of his novels Continental Drift and Rule of the Bone.

Further Reading

Hasted, Nick. “A Working-Class Hero Is Something to Be.” The Guardian. Available online. URL: http://


story/0,6000,388829,00.html. Posted October 28, 2000.

Towers, Robert. “You Can Go Home Again.” The New York Review of Books. Available online. URL:


article_id=3820. Posted December 7, 1989.

Washington Center for the Book. “A Reading Group Toolbox for the Works of Russell Banks.” Audiences for Literature Network. Available online. URL:


grouprgtwcbbanks.html. Downloaded October 15, 2002.

Baraka, Amiri

(Everett LeRoy Jones, LeRoi Jones, Imamu Amiri Baraka)

(1934– ) novelist, playwright, poet, essayist, autobiographer

Amiri Baraka was one of the most outspoken and controversial African-American writers of the 20th century. During the course of his career, Baraka Baraka, Amiri 33

went through several different and distinct phases with respect to his political views and his writings.

In his early 20s, he married a white woman and lived in Greenwich Village among a loose circle of musicians, artists, and writers. In the following years, he turned his back on his previous life, career, and family and became a white-hating radi-cal Muslim intimately involved in the Black Arts Movement. Known for his extreme views, he was once quoted as saying “We must eliminate the white man before we can draw a free breath on this planet.” Then, in yet a third incarnation, Baraka abandoned his spiritual life and became increasing-ly politicalincreasing-ly involved. He aligned himself with Marxist-Leninist philosophy and devoted himself to examining the social and psychological role of race in the United States. Throughout his career, Baraka has been best known for his unflinching

In his early 20s, he married a white woman and lived in Greenwich Village among a loose circle of musicians, artists, and writers. In the following years, he turned his back on his previous life, career, and family and became a white-hating radi-cal Muslim intimately involved in the Black Arts Movement. Known for his extreme views, he was once quoted as saying “We must eliminate the white man before we can draw a free breath on this planet.” Then, in yet a third incarnation, Baraka abandoned his spiritual life and became increasing-ly politicalincreasing-ly involved. He aligned himself with Marxist-Leninist philosophy and devoted himself to examining the social and psychological role of race in the United States. Throughout his career, Baraka has been best known for his unflinching

In document American Writers (Biographies & Literatures) - 449p (Page 48-87)