Go Tell It on the Mountain: Biography: James Baldwin

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James Baldwin, novelist, playwright and essayist, was born in New York in 1924 to his then unmarried mother, Emma Berdis Jones. She married David Baldwin, a labourer and lay preacher, when her son was in his third year. Baldwin was adopted by his strict step-father and grew up in Harlem as the eldest of nine children. Between the ages of 14 and 17 he was a preacher in a small revivalist church. The semi-autobiographical Go Tell it on the Mountain (1953) is a fictionalised account of Baldwin's sense of isolation and neglect in the guise of John who is the main protagonist.
As well as working as a boy preacher, Baldwin also began writing at school and contributed to the school newspaper, which he went on to co-edit. He graduated from high school in 1942 and moved to Greenwich Village in 1944. At this time, he began to realize the possibility of being a freelance writer and earned money writing book reviews as well as working as a waiter. In his early twenties, he was awarded the Saxton Fellowship and then the Rosenwald Fellowship which enabled him to commit to writing more fully. In 1948, he moved to France and stopped reviewing books to finish his own, Go Tell it on the Mountain, which went on to receive great critical acclaim. The decision to live in France also allowed him to escape the more pernicious effects of racism and sexual bigotry that he had experienced in the United States as a black homosexual. He returned sporadically to the United States to help fight in the burgeoning civil rights movement, but lived in Turkey and France predominantly for the rest of his life.
Baldwin was a prolific writer of novels, poetry, drama and essays and often dealt with themes such as homosexuality and the racist treatment of African Americans in American society. Of his earlier work, Notes of a Native Son (1955) is his first collection of essays and this was followed by his second novel Giovanni's Room (1956), which has homosexuality as a major thematic concern. Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son (1961), a second collection of essays, was followed by Another Country (1962), a novel. The Fire Next Time (1963), a work of non-fiction that engages with racism and history, was a national best-seller. The play Blues for Mister Charlie (1964) was first performed in 1964 and explores racist oppression. As his writing career progressed, his work received fewer plaudits. If Beale Street Could Talk (1974) and Just Above My Head (1979), which are both novels, are two examples of his work in the 1970s.
He continued to write in the 1980s and The Evidence of Things Not Seen (1985) was his last book-length study. This was concerned with the murders of African-American children in Atlanta. In 1986, as a mark of esteem for their adopted son, the French government made Baldwin a commander of the Legion of Honor. He died in 1987 of cancer aged 63.

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