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Photograph of James Baldwin speaking at the conclusion of the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama

James Baldwin

James Baldwin honed his writing skills while living abroad, and through his writings and public appearances, challenged Americans to face racism.

Bearing Witness to the Truth

A photograph of James Baldwin sitting at a typewriter and smoking a cigarette.

James Baldwin by His Typewriter, Istanbul, 1966

Acclaimed writer James Baldwin (1924–1987) used his creative talents to challenge racism in American society and illuminate the African American experience. Born and raised in Harlem, Baldwin moved to France in 1948 in search of greater artistic and personal freedom. His experiences abroad inspired him to reclaim his identity as a U.S. citizen, and he became a prominent activist and spokesman for the Civil Rights Movement.

A photograph of James Baldwin sitting at a typewriter and smoking a cigarette.

James Baldwin by His Typewriter, Istanbul, 1966

Thumbnail of Artist and Activist video

Artist and Activist

This video presents excerpts from two films about James Baldwin that depict his civil rights activism in the United States (James Baldwin: Take This Hammer, KQED, 1963) and his later years living abroad in Turkey.

To tell the truth, one sees [things] better from a distance. You can make comparisons, from another place, from another country, which you aren’t able to make in America because there’s nothing to compare America to.

James Baldwin, 1970

Living and Traveling Abroad

Constrained by racial violence, homophobia, and financial difficulties, James Baldwin sought physical and psychological distance abroad to pursue his craft. Living in France and Turkey and traveling to other countries, Baldwin developed a new perspective on himself and on social issues in the United States. With time, he broadened his perspective to include global inequalities, colonialism, and U.S. imperialism. The primary goal of his travels, however, was to find places where he could write undisturbed and create his prolific writings. Subsequently, most of Baldwin’s works were written outside the United States, even though they were American in their focus. Visit Chez Baldwin to learn more about James Baldwin’s work and life abroad.

Activism

James Baldwin used various platforms—speaking, marching, and especially writing—to become a powerful voice in the Civil Rights Movement. Baldwin’s career as a writer began soon after he graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School in 1942, and it spanned five decades—the 1940s through the 1980s. Although he began his career writing nationally recognized essays, Baldwin’s works would come to represent almost every genre. By the 1960s, he had become a well-known writer of reviews, essays, novels, plays, and short stories. The themes of his writings and public speeches included human identity, gender and sexuality, religion, poverty, race, and the physical, structural, and cultural violence of white supremacy.

Image of Guest badge for the 1968 World Council of Churches Fourth Assembly. James Baldwin's name is typed on the badge.

World Council of Churches guest badge for James Baldwin.

An April 28, 1964 letter to James Baldwin from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee's communications director, Julian Bond, inviting Baldwin to hear testimony from "Negro Mississippians about violations of civil rights..." in Washington D.C.

Letter to James Baldwin from Horace Julian Bond, 1964.

The Resurrection of James Baldwin

Photograph of marchers walking past a mural of George Floyd

Marchers walk by a mural of George Floyd painted on a wall along Colfax Avenue in Denver, Colorado, June 7, 2020

James Baldwin died in 1987 in his house in St. Paul de Vence, France. Thirty-five years later, he stands as a prophetic symbol of resistance against white supremacy and anti-Black violence. For intellectuals, academics, writers, artists, and everyday people of all sorts—as well as modern-day Black Lives Matter activists—his raw dissection of racism and its meaning for the United States helps us understand our present moment. For some, studying Baldwin's writings and speeches is a means of managing and channeling their own anger and disappointment. For others, his voice offers a way of retaining optimism in a nation that remains painfully unfinished. As a gay man, Baldwin also aligns with today’s progressives who view race and sexual orientation through an interwoven lens. He remains one of the most quoted writers among present-day activists.

Photograph of marchers walking past a mural of George Floyd

Marchers walk by a mural of George Floyd painted on a wall along Colfax Avenue in Denver, Colorado, June 7, 2020