James Baldwin is an important literary figure both for his writing and for his civil rights work, the two of which were closely related.
Baldwin wrote about two "taboo" subjects at the time: being black and being homosexual. During a good portion of the 20th century these were not subjects discussed in the open and Baldwin did so with a simple honesty that was his trademark.
He left the United States as a young man disillusioned with the double dose of prejudice he endured because of his race and sexual orientation. Though he would return to America during the sixties and throw himself headlong into the civil rights movement, he spent much of his life as an exile in France.
"American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it," he said, and that about sums up his relationship with the world around him. As a writer, that is the world he helped to expose, explore, destroy, and celebrate.