James Baldwin’s first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, was published on this day in 1953.
Baldwin was born in Harlem, New York, in 1924, the oldest of nine children in a family that was dominated by his strict, religious stepfather, a Pentecostal minister with whom James had a difficult relationship.
Baldwin recalled in a 1984 interview with the Paris Review, “Given the conditions in this country to be a black writer was impossible. … My father didn’t think it was possible — he thought I’d get killed, get murdered. He said I was contesting the white man’s definitions, which was quite right.”
When his stepfather died in 1943, James left home. He then immersed himself in the international, artistic atmosphere of Greenwich Village, making his living as a dishwasher, busboy, factory worker or waiter, working multiple jobs at once and writing in the moments around them.
When he was 24 and beginning to recognize his own homosexuality, Baldwin moved to France. He had only $40 to his name and he didn’t know a word of French. He said that he hoped to find himself in a larger context, somewhere he could see himself as more than “merely a Negro; or, merely a Negro writer.”
It was a move that would also allow him to escape American prejudices toward blacks and homosexuals. In Paris, he found the distance he needed to write about his personal experiences and the struggles of black Americans.
Baldwin had his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, published in 1953. The loosely autobiographical tale focused on the life of a young man growing up in Harlem grappling with father issues and his religion. “Mountain is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else. I had to deal with what hurt me most. I had to deal, above all, with my father,” he later said.
In 1954, Baldwin received a Guggenheim fellowship. He published his next novel, Giovanni’s Room, the following year. The work told the story of an American living in Paris, and broke new ground for its complex depiction of homosexuality, a then-taboo subject. He also explored interracial relationships in his novels, another controversial topic for the times.
Around this time, Baldwin explored writing for the stage. He wrote The Amen Corner, which looked at the phenomenon of storefront Pentecostal religion. The play was produced at Howard University in 1955, and later on Broadway in the mid-1960s.
In the ’60s, Baldwin returned to the United States to take part in the civil rights movement. He became friends with Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X, and because he didn’t see himself as a public speaker, used his ability to craft stories and essays to write about black identity and race in The Fire Next Time and No Name in the Street.
One by one, Baldwin’s outspoken friends were killed and, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Baldwin was sick at heart. Unable to escape the pain of his loss, he fled again to Europe, which remained his home until his death in 1987.