New York, N.Y.
James Baldwin home
131st Street and Fifth Avenue (private)
A housing project has been on this site in Harlem for almost 50 years, but the first home of writer James Baldwin (1924-1987) was once located here. Baldwin wrote vividly and movingly of the deteriorating neighborhood in his essay, “Fifth Avenue Uptown: A Letter from Harlem,” calling the avenue “wide, filthy, hostile.” “Walk through the streets of Harlem,” he admonished his readers, “and see what we, this nation, have become.”
Baldwin remembered a bleak, poverty-stricken childhood, where his playgrounds were the roof of his building and a nearby garbage dump. He escaped a brutal stepfather and a troubled home life through books and writing. One of his junior-high teachers, Countee Cullen, spent much time working with him on his fiction and poetry. Baldwin also found solace in the church, becoming an evangelical minister at the age of fourteen. Go Tell It On the Mountain (1953), his first novel, is an autobiographical work focused on his early life in Harlem.
Baldwin worked a number of after-school jobs to help his family, and at one such job in downtown Manhattan in 1940, he met the painter Beauford Delaney, who became his mentor and possibly his lover. Delaney introduced Baldwin to jazz, art, and to a circle of African-American artists. “The reality of his seeing,” Baldwin later wrote, “caused me to begin to see.” As a young man Baldwin left his family and Harlem for Greenwich Village, where he worked odd jobs to support his writing. In 1948, he took off for Paris, where he lived on and off for the rest of his life. Though he returned to live in New York for periods of time, he didn’t like to stay long, saying that the racism of the city made him too sad.
Baldwin addressed homosexuality and bisexuality in many of his works, most notably Giovanni’s Room (1956), Another Country (1962), and Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone (1968). His own life included affairs with both men and women, but the love of his life seems to have been a Frenchman named Lucien Happersberger, whom he met in 1949. “I starved in Paris for a while, but I learned something,” Baldwin later wrote. “For one thing I fell in love.” Happersberger became Baldwin‘s lover for a while but didn’t share the dream of two men building a life together; he eventually married a woman and named his son after Baldwin.
In addition to fiction writing, Baldwin authored numerous important nonfiction works exploring race and racism. He was himself active in the civil rights movement of the 1960s and continued to speak out about racism until his death from cancer in 1987.