Emmanuel S. Nelson
The circumstances of James Baldwin’s birth were unremarkable. He was born on 2 August 1924 at Harlem Hospital in New York City to a poor, unmarried, twenty-year-old woman named Emma Berdis Jones. But his death sixty-three years later on 1 December 1987 at his home in southern France was an event reported on the front pages of newspapers around the world. Indeed, his journey from a difficult childhood in Harlem to his eventual status as a celebrity-artist with a large and loyal international audience constitutes one of the most compelling life stories of the twentieth century.
Baldwin’s early years were deeply troubled. Three years after his birth his mother married David Baldwin, many years her senior, who was a laborer and a fundamentalist Baptist minister. With him she had eight children. Her husband, meanwhile, grew increasingly angry, abusive, and violent; soon he began to terrorize his wife and children. James, presumably because he was a stepchild, became a favorite target for the elder Baldwin’s violent outbursts. This problematic relationship with his stepfather would haunt Baldwin for many years to come.
At age fourteen Baldwin underwent an experience of spiritual conversion—an experience vividly recreated in his first and explicitly autobiographical novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, and for the next three years he was a teenage minister who preached in evangelical churches in and around Harlem. He left the church at age seventeen, but the three years in the ministry were crucial to his personal and artistic development. Though he formally abandoned the pulpit when he was seventeen, he remained very much a preacher for the rest of his life. The language of the church—the biblical imagery and cadences, the grand rhetorical strategies of the African American pulpit oratory—left its unmistakable imprint