Notes of a Native Son

by James Baldwin

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James Baldwin was a black novelist and essayist who is widely regarded as one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century. His groundbreaking works were among the first realistic portrayals of the black experience in America and elsewhere. Among his most famous works are the novels Go Tell It on the Mountain, Giovanni's Room, Another Country, and If Beale Street Could Talk as well as essay collections such as Notes of a Native Son and A Fire Next Time.

Baldwin was born to a single mother in Harlem, New York, on August 2, 1924. He never knew who his father was. As a teen, Baldwin served as a Christian youth minister and took numerous jobs to help support his family. In 1943, he relocated to Greenwich Village, a neighborhood in New York that at the time was a haven for writers and other artists. He earned a writing fellowship with the assistance of fellow author Richard Wright and began to publish stories and essays in national magazines.

When he was twenty-four, Baldwin immigrated to Paris, where he felt freer and less inhibited as a gay black man. He spent most of the rest of his life in France, with occasional forays to Turkey and Switzerland. He eventually settled in a villa in the south of France. As a renowned writer, he frequently hosted celebrities such as Ray Charles, Miles Davis, Sidney Poitier, and Harry Belafonte. He continued to write throughout his life, although his later works are not as well known as his early ones. He died at home in France on December 1, 1987.

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James Baldwin (1924-1987) was an important American writer and critic who tackled issues of race, sexuality, and social inequality in his novels and essays. Born into a large, poor family in Harlem, he was the grandson of a slave.

Much of his work reflects on the hardship he faced as a young man—and the hardship that many black families faced in the United States in the mid-20th century—and his identity as a black man both at home and abroad. (As an adult, he spent years living abroad, most notably in France, which is also where he died.) His identity as an expatriate is important to understanding his work. As he told The Paris Review in an interview in 1984, the US was an oppressive place for a young black man to live:

It wasn’t so much a matter of choosing France—it was a matter of getting out of America. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me in France but I knew what was going to happen to me in New York. If I had stayed there, I would have gone under, like my friend on the George Washington Bridge.

His best-known works include Native Son (1955), an essay collection that explores issues of race, and Giovanni's Room (1956), a novel that deals with the complexities of identifying as homosexual in mid-century America. Another of his works, an unfinished piece called Remember This House, was adapted into an acclaimed documentary film, I Am Not Your Negro, which was nominated for an Academy Award in 2016.

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