Drug abuse compelled his mother to leave his father. Therefore, he was raised by a stepfather, David Baldwin – who was a preacher. Growing in Harlem made James Baldwin cut out for the issues that were the focus of his literary works. Harlem the scene of impoverishment of African-Americans. Harlem the theatre of inequality, violence and police brutality and refuge for those the economy pushed to the edge. His Harlem was the home of jazz, jobless and drugs. Baldwin asked many difficult questions. He gave uncomfortable answers to so many questions of inequality, injustice, racial discrimination and poverty. Till the end of his life on December 1, 1987 he was engaged in asking questions and giving answers. Through novels and essays Baldwin established himself as the master of interrogating America’s perpetual ‘racial’ and ‘inequality’ puzzles. But what is the size of his influence?
The most known work of Baldwin is “Go Tell It on the Mountain” (1953) Often described as ‘semi autobiographical’ the novel is about a young man’s difficult relationship with his religiously overzealous stepfather. Through seminally woven sentences Baldwin was able to show contradictions in religious righteousness and how the church shapes the lives of African-Americans right from the earliest stage. Through these one encounters spectacles of poverty and disappointment when a young man could not meet the expectations of his family, the church and the society generally.
“Another Country” published in 1962 is another work of Baldwin that is full of symbolism and ironies. The rise and fall of Rufus through abusive relationship with a white woman, the tensions in all subsequent relationships and the defining role of racial contentions made this novel a pack of the impact of racial conflicts on the lives on African-Americans. Rufus, the leading character ended up committing suicide – and what follows his death was not in anyway much different from the conflicts that dominated his tumultuous life.
Again, Harlem was the setting of Baldwin’s love story “If Beale Street Could Talk” (1974) Fonny was in prison for false rape accusation. His girlfriend Tish was pregnant. Both of them are an irony of how life can be so difficult for people who are disadvantaged in a society. Race against the prospects of a baby born while the father was in prison united families and communities living with the same disadvantages.
Baldwin was as good in prose as he was in verses. But his impact is more lingering in essays written with lyrical structure and flourishing sentences. One can say, ‘Stranger in the Village’ is Baldwins best known essay. Not for its title but for its reflections on history, racism, Africa, and histories and ironies of the encounter between black people and white people – at all levels. His visit to a village in Switzerland made him talk of the village, a sight to behold. Because he is black the people he met found it difficult to reconcile that fact with the fact that he was American. Baldwin’s visit to this village in 1951 provided him with the stark reality of the shock that comes with being the first black person seen by some white children – during winter – in a Swiss village. The essay captured Baldwin’s thoughts on history, slavery and colonialism. In that village Baldwin came across how a local church donated money to buy ‘Africans’ so that they can be converted.
Many of the things Baldwin spent his life trying to bring attention are still unresolved. His own life, early enough provided him the material for his fiction and essays. As a writer Baldwin won the exalted position of a writer who constantly kept the debate on poverty, injustice, inequality and racial tension going on. He took the debates beyond America by creating awareness on the many layers of challenges African-Americans live with. He also balanced the perspective by also asking African-Americans questions whose answers are in them, not in the other direction.