10 Questions About the Life of James Baldwin

Answers to the 10 questions below offer two levels of information with the goal of encouraging readers to think critically and engage the complexity of James Baldwin’s humanistic message.

First, you will find a narrative answer that touches upon literary, social, and cultural contexts of Baldwin’s lifetime. Second, online resources that allow for a deeper search into these contexts. We do not shy away from controversy and offer facts as well as often conflicted interpretations of Baldwin’s life and works. Learn more about James Baldwin’s life, literary impact, and legacy through our online exhibition, Chez Baldwin

When he moved to France, he did not know much French, though he was first taught that language by the French-speaking poet Countee Cullen in high school. Once he moved to France, Baldwin learned to speak it fluently, and picked up idioms and slang easily.

Watch Interviews with James Baldwin speaking French

Baldwin never married or had children. He had a deep love for children and had different partners who inspired him to dream of fatherhood. (He loved his many nieces and nephews very much.) When his nephews and nieces visited him in his house in southern France, he loved playing with them and introducing them to the village. In 1949 Baldwin met and fell in love with a Swiss man, Lucien Happersberger, whom he met in Paris. They never married after their romantic relationship faded a couple of years later. After Happersberger married, Baldwin became a godfather to Happersberger’s first child, a boy named Luc.

Photographs of James Baldwin engaged with children

Baldwin was not recognized as an outspoken advocate for gay and lesbian rights, though he was always out himself and supported sexual minorities. At the end of his life, he advocated for gender equality and androgyny (“Here Be Dragons” (1985)). He pioneered depictions of men who loved other men, often across the lines of color and nationality, in works such as Giovanni’s Room, Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, Another Country, and Just Above My Head. In addition to a discussion of his sexuality in Sedat Pakay’s short film “James Baldwin: From Another Place,” his interview with Richard Goldstein, “Go the Way Your Blood Beats” published in The Village Voice (1984), contains his best-known statements on sexual minority rights, nomenclature, and his own life.

Readings on James Baldwin and LGBTQ rights

While popular accounts often neglect Baldwin’s relationships with women, scholars and biographers have shown that he was always deeply enamored of women and counted them among his closest family, friends, and most important influences. Black women, especially the “sisters,” as he called Maya Angelou, Lorraine Hansberry, Nikki Giovanni, Audre Lorde, Eleanor Traylor, Toni Morrison, Paule Marshall, Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, Florence Ladd, Josephine Baker or Nina Simone, were his role models and fashion icons whom he strived to imitate in his personal style. His novel If Beale Street Could Talk (1974) is narrated by a nineteen-year-old Tish Rivers who is pregnant. As Joyce Carol Oates writes in its review, “Tish’s voice comes to seem absolutely natural and we learn to know her from the inside out.” In his last novel, Just Above My Head, women are central to the narrative, while his unpublished play, The Welcome Table (1987) portrays many of his friends and even himself through female characters. His best friends in his home town of St. Paul de Vence were Yvonne Roux and her daughters, Hélène and Pitou; he was close with the actor Simone Signoret and Jeanne Faure, from whom he first rented and then bought his house.

Readings that address Baldwin’s relationship to women

Anyone who wanted to read and learn, and who did not fear confronting their own fears and prejudice could be counted among his audience. He was popular among white and black readers alike, male and female, while his honest look at sexuality and homophobia garnered him many readers among the LGBTQ+ communities world-wide; his works were selling well in translation into many languages: e.g., German, Turkish, French, Italian, Korean, Japanese, Polish and many others. Some proponents of black nationalism and the Nation of Islam, who viewed homosexuality as an aberration, rejected Baldwin (e.g., Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice is a prime example), although he and Malcolm X became friends and allies after Malcolm’s trip to Mecca.

Learn more about James Baldwin and his audience

Baldwin loved music, theater, and campy performances with singing, in which he engaged with gusto, especially during his years in Turkey and France. As a young writer in Greenwich Village, he played guitar and sang; his voice was deep and heartfelt. His recording of the hymn, “Precious Lord,” can be heard in the footage from his funeral in the documentary “The Price of the Ticket” (1989). Baldwin’s album collection includes artists who are representative of almost every genre of music.

Learn more about Baldwin’s love of music

Baldwin believed race and racism had nothing to do with biology, but everything to do with history, economics, greed, and power that had shaped national and international politics across the world. This critique was not easy to grasp for those who insisted on seeing the issue in proverbial and local “black and white.” Even today, his humanist mission to make all people see themselves for who they are, or as complex and conflicted human beings who need one another like family members, is frequently misunderstood and misrepresented. To Baldwin, all Americans are members in the national family scarred by the sins of its forefathers, who constructed the republic on the backs of genocide of the Native peoples, enslaved Africans, and exploited immigrants. Baldwin wanted to make his audiences all over the world realize that they were divided not by who they were, but by the interests of those in power. The rich and the powerful have always protected their interests and benefitted from race- and ethnicity-based conflicts which prevented the masses of the poor and disenfranchised from working together to fight and liberate themselves.

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Baldwin resisted sexuality- and gender-related labels, especially given that the names used to refer to those in same-sex relationships changed over time, and were often a product of white privilege (e.g., “queer” was in vogue in 1940’s and then was replaced by “gay,” which is still widely used, and, in some circles, “queer” and “quare” are also common; Stonewall riot lore omitted the key presence of people of color and drag queens like Sylvia Rivera). Baldwin preferred to be taken for someone who chose love, no matter its recipient, the sentiment that is expressed most fully in his essays “Here Be Dragons” (1985) and “To Crush the Serpent” (1987), as well as his last unpublished play, The Welcome Table. During his early life, he had some relationships with women, both black and white, while in his later life his love was directed toward men. Until the end, he was looking for a man with whom to settle down and build a home and family. He has become a hero for some trans-activists, e.g., Janet Mock, who embraced his advocacy of androgyny and non-binary identities in his late works, especially “Here Be Dragons,” which was originally published in Playboy magazine under the title, “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood.”

Consider these sources about James Baldwin and sexuality

It did in many ways, mainly because critics, readers, and even activists often separated his race from his sexuality, which unfortunately is happening these days, too. These efforts often came in the wake of the “politics of respectability” in black communities that rejected non-normative gender and sexuality. They also belonged to nationalists and religious leaders in the Civil Rights Movement, who not only excluded black queer activists like Bayard Rustin or Joseph Beam, but also prevented Baldwin from speaking during the March on Washington in 1963. All of Baldwin’s works promote indivisibility of such aspects of identity as race, gender, sexuality, class, religion, and language; we are all sums of all our parts. When in 1990’s black feminists propagated the term “intersectionality” and by early 2000’s queer studies scholars discussed “disidentification,” they barely noticed that Baldwin explained the workings of both these terms already in the 1950’s and 1970’s in his works like Giovanni’s Room (1956), The Devil Finds Work (1976), and Just Above My Head (1979). In 2001, eight authors came to New York’s Lincoln Center to pay homage to James Baldwin.

Read more about the event at Lincoln Center

The nationalists like Amiri Baraka and Eldridge Cleaver, as well as religious leaders in the Civil Rights Movement, not only excluded black gay activists like Bayard Rustin or Joseph Beam from being acknowledged as such, but also prevented Baldwin from speaking during the March on Washington in 1963. On the other hand, the seldom-acknowledged “mother” of the Black Arts Movement, Lorraine Hansberry, was a close friend of Baldwin’s; he loved her deeply, and mourned her passing in a beautiful Foreword to her autobiography, To Be Born Young, Gifted, and Black (1970). The poet and activist, Nikki Giovanni, interviewed Baldwin on the Ellis Haizlip’s famous TV show, “Soul!” and convinced him to think about gender and the ways in which black men often mistreated or excluded black women from governance and political representation.

Learn more about James Baldwin during the Civil Rights Movement

Questions and answers written and compiled by Professor Magdalena J. Zaborowska and Kaylee Skweres, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.