James Arthur Baldwin

James Arthur Baldwin

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James Arthur Baldwin

James Arthur Baldwin was born the first of nine children during 1924 in Harlem. His father, David, was a clergyman and a factory worker, and was the source of all of James Baldwin's fears. Baldwin's mother, Berdis, was a homemaker. Baldwin first started writing around age fourteen as a way of seeking the love which he was missing from his family life. During this time Baldwin attended Frederick Douglas Junior High School and DeWitt Clinton High School. During his school years, Baldwin won several awards for his writings. The joy that he felt from having others praise his work was overshadowed, however, by his father's disapproval of his non-Christian-oriented writing.

James Baldwin's father was a very religious Christian who forced the church on young James. For a few years (from ages fourteen through seventeen), Baldwin was even a preacher. It was the bittersweet beauty of the church which Baldwin said turned him into a writer. Those few years of lost herding opened James Baldwins' eyes to the fact that he was in need of soul searching. Those years would not be in vain; the cadences of black religious rituals sound throughout his writings. Baldwin was also known to credit his years at the pulpit for morphing him into the writer he was to become.

In 1942 James Baldwin was fed up with his father, fed up with the church, and (at that point) fed up with his life. The brassy, young Baldwin went into a restaurant, which he knew was designated for whites only, and demanded that he be served. When the waitress informed him that they did not serve his "kind" in that restaurant Baldwin picked up a glass and hurled it at her with all his pent up spite for the world. (That was the last straw for James Baldwin, he knew that he needed to leave his home since childhood for new experiences, and did so that very same day.) With a high school diploma under his belt James Baldwin moved to New Jersey and began working as a railroad hand. After two years in New Jersey, Baldwin moved to Greenwich Village. There, he first met Richard Wright (an African-American author whose strong protests against racial prejudice made him one of his generation's most important spokespersons) and began his first novel, In My Father's House.

It was not until four years later that James Baldwin began to receive recognition, such as awards and fellowships, for his writings.

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It was at this time that Baldwin published his first essay, "The Harlem Ghetto". He had become disgusted with race relations in the United States and so decided to move to France. The Harlem Ghetto's echo, The Fire Next Time (1963) was another grueling and spiteful account of racism in the United States. Baldwin would end up making France his home for over ten years.

James Baldwin's time in France was very important for his writing career and his personal life. He would write all day and party all night. Baldwin had several relationships while in France. While many people in the United States frowned upon both homosexuality and interracial dating, Baldwin found social freedom and privacy while in Europe. He also wrote three important works while in France. In 1953 he finished the partially autobiographical account of his youth, Go Tell It on the Mountain. He also won the Guggenheim Fellowship for his play, The Amen Corner (1954). During his seventh year in France, Baldwin won several fellowships for his novel, Giovanni's Room (1955). Giovanni's Room was a partially autobiographical story of his homosexuality. Giovanni's Room told of a white American expatriate and his coming to terms with his homosexuality. Many found it interesting that Baldwin chose a white person to portray himself.

It was in 1960 that Baldwin returned to the United States. Upon his return to the United States, Baldwin became very active in support of the civil rights movement. He also began to write of his newfound observations of New York intellectuals and the racial and sexual tension among them in, Another Country (1962).

In 1961, Baldwin received true recognition for his literary skills. His best selling essay collection, Nobody Knows My Name, was chosen as one of the most outstanding books of the year. Three years later Baldwin would produce two other plays that were very important to his writing career. The Amen Corner opened first at Howard University under the direction of Owen Dodson. Then, there was the publication of, what was quite possibly his most important work, Blues for Mr. Charlie. Blues for Mr. Charlie was based on the true story of a racial murder occurrence in Mississippi in 1955.

James Baldwin was not done writing yet. He still had two good books left in him. First, in 1968, he published Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone as a bitter account of American racism. Then, he wrote The Evidence of Things Not Seen (1985). This was written as an analysis of the Atlanta child murders of 1979 and 1980. Although many of Baldwin's essays come off as being bitter, he should not be looked upon as a bitter man. He was simply fed up with the disgustingly intollerable racial problems in the United States and in the world.

Baldwin wrote novels, poetry, essays and a screenplay in the later years of his life. Sadly, he died of stomach cancer in December 1987, at his home in St. Paul de Vence, France. James Baldwin died, a man loved and respected by many. Even the well-respected writer, Maya Angelou spoke at his funeral.

Blues for Mr. Charlie

In order to get a better understanding of James Baldwin; I read one of his works, Blues for Mr. Charlie. Blues for Mr. Charlie is a story/play loosely based on the murder of the black youth, Emmett Till, in a small town in Mississippi in 1955. The murderer, who was white, was acquitted and Baldwin shows, through his writing, that the African American people did not have a fair chance of justice in the United States.

The play, Blues for Mr. Charlie, was first produced by the Actor's Studio. It opened at the ANTA Theatre on Broadway on April 23, 1964. The play was a racial wake-up call to all of the races and cultures in the United States, which might find racism or ethnocentrism as a social "security blanket". It also called the African American man to the civil rights battlefield and forced the white man to look at and analyze himself through a critical looking glass.

Blues for Mr. Charlie deals with the murder of a young black man, Richard, by a white shop owner, Lyle Britten. Richard is a bitter, busted musician returning home. His open expression of hatred towards whites, we learn, leads to his death. Later, the pastor, Meridian, Richard's father and civil rights leader, expresses his faith in Parnell, a friend and white liberal, to help. Parnell seems to represent Baldwin's belief in the fact that you should not let one or one thousand seeds ruin a good crop of millions. Parnell is a sort of "Great White Hope" for the black man.

Meridian is a kind of Martin Luther King, Jr. figure who is forced to wonder if his non-violent approach is wrong. Meridian must deal with the conflict drawn between the bitterly divided Whitetown and Blacktown (fictitious towns used by Baldwin to simultaneously emulate and mock The United States' racial tension). Baldwin also brought up the relatively new idea of whites being the victims of racism in America (a topic which is still being discussed today).

The play's overall significance not only relates to race relations in the South, but in the entire United States. The contemporary significance of Blues for Mr. Charlie may be evident in the O.J. Simpson outcome or the Million-Man March. (Both of these recent events have increased African-American political awareness and unity.)

Blues for Mr. Charlie received mixed reviews from critics. Many saw it lacking structure. Walter Meserve writes in The Black American Writer: Poetry and Drama, Vol. 2,

Baldwin tries to use theatre as a pulpit for his ideas. Mainly his plays are

thesis plays-talky, over-written and cliché dialogue and some stereotypes, preachy and argumentative. Essentially, Baldwin is not particularly dramatic, but he can be extremely eloquent, compelling, and sometimes irritating as a playwright committed to his approach to life.

Baldwin was less concerned with the success or failure of a play than he was with its impact on the audience. He believed in shocking the reader into thinking. This style of writing has been mimicked and used by other writers such as Orson Scott Card ( a science-fiction novelist ) and George Lucas. In Card's novel, Ender's Game, the reader is forced to see and think through the eyes and ears of a yo0ung genius, Ender Wiggin. In Lucas' trilogy, Star Wars, he use such characters as extra-terrestrials to make the audience think of and respond to normally taboo subjects (such as ethnic tolerance and ethnocentricity). This type of forcefully opinionated writing is what makes James Baldwin's works so hard to put down. This style of writing also caused some critics to accuse Baldwin of advocating hatred of all whites. This is not true. If one were to read Blues for Mr. Charlie they would see Baldwin's expression of hope for racial integration. While African-American anger is definitely a part of Blues for Mr. Charlie, in other works Baldwin wrote of integration as a loving means through which we would force our "brothers" to love one another. In this, and so many more thought provoking philosophies, James Arthur Baldwin captured the hearts and minds of millions.

Works Cited

Hatch, James V. Black Theatre USA: Plays by African Americans, 1847 to Today, Revised and Expanded Edition. New York: The Free Press, 1974, 1996.

"Justice at Last in Mississippi." St. Louis Post-Dispatch, (February 10, 1994): B, 6:1.

Metzger, Linda. Black Writers. Detroit: Gale Research, Inc., 1989.

Nossiter, Adam. " Civil Rights Slaying Raises Speedy-Trial Issue." New York Times, (May 27, 1994): B, 18:1.

Oliver, Clinton F. Contemporary Black Drama. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons., 1971.

Pratt, Louis H. James Baldwin. Boston: G.K. Hall & Company, 1978.

Woll, Allen. Dictionary of the Black Theatre. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1983.
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