The Lane to Literature
In 1929, Baldwin began elementary school, soon developed a passion for reading, and demonstrated a gift for writing. In a 1952 autobiographical essay, he recounts, “I began plotting novels at about the time I learned to read.” At Baldwin’s first public school, his teachers and the principal Gertrude E. Ayers, the first and only black principal in New York City until 1963, fostered his interest in reading and writing. They encouraged Baldwin to engage with the collections of African and African Diaspora materials of black scholar Arturo Alfonso Schomburg that had been acquired in 1926 by the nearby 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library. In 1964, Baldwin offered insight into his appetite for reading, saying,
I went to the 135th Street library at least three or four times a week, and I read everything there. I mean, every single book in that library. In some blind and instinctive way, I knew that what was happening in those books was also happening all around me. And I was trying to make a connection between the books and the life I saw and the life I lived.
As settings in which he would thrive, James Baldwin’s junior and senior high schools provided him with outlets for critical and creative thinking and writing. Baldwin would later reveal in a 1986 interview at the National Press Club, that many of his public school teachers “were survivors of the Harlem Renaissance and wanted us black students to know that we could do, become, anything.”
At Frederick Douglass Junior High School in Harlem, Baldwin received encouragement in his studies from two African American teachers, the acclaimed Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen and Herman W. Porter, a Harvard-educated math teacher, who helped Baldwin run the school magazine. Cullen’s French class and experience living in France influenced Baldwin’s later decision to move there. Porter introduced Baldwin to New York’s great 42nd Street Public Library, called “an important sanctuary during the rest of his school years” by Baldwin biographer David Leeming.
Cullen convinced Baldwin to attend his own alma mater, the largely Jewish, prestigious DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, considered one of the top public schools in the city. There he edited the school literary magazine Magpie and participated in the literary club, just as Cullen had done when he was a student there. At the school he met his close friends—Richard Avedon, Emile Capouya, and Sol Stein. In 2014, DeWitt Clinton High School honored the memory of its outstanding alumnus with The James Baldwin Memorial Outdoor Learning Center.