James Arthur Baldwin (August 2, 1924 – December 1, 1987) was an American writer and activist.
As a writer, he garnered acclaim across various media, including essays, novels, plays and poems. His first novel, “Go Tell It On The Mountain,” was published in 1953; decades later, Time Magazine included the novel on its list of the 100 best English-language novels released from 1923 to 2005. His first essay collection, “Notes of a Native Son,” was published in 1955.
Baldwin's work fictionalizes fundamental personal questions and dilemmas amid complex social and psychological pressures. Themes of masculinity, sexuality, race, and class intertwine to create intricate narratives that run parallel with some of the major political movements toward social change in mid-twentieth-century America, such as the civil rights movement and the gay liberation movement. Baldwin's protagonists are often but not exclusively African American, and gay and bisexual men frequently feature prominently in his literature. These characters often face internal and external obstacles in their search for social and self-acceptance. Such dynamics are prominent in Baldwin's second novel, “Giovanni's Room,” which was written in 1956, well before the gay liberation movement.
In the novel, the protagonist David is in Paris while his fiancée Hella is in Spain. David meets the titular Giovanni at the bar that Giovanni owns; the two grow increasingly intimate and David eventually finds his way to Giovanni's room. David is confused by his intense feelings for Giovanni and has sex with a woman in the spur of the moment to reaffirm his sexuality. Meanwhile, Giovanni begins to prostitute himself and finally commits a murder for which he is guillotined. David's tale is one of love's inhibition: he cannot "face love when he finds it," writes biographer James Campbell. The novel features a traditional theme: the clash between the restraints of puritanism and the impulse for adventure, emphasizing the loss of innocence that results. To Baldwin's relief, the reviews of “Giovanni's Room” were positive, and his family did not criticize the subject matter.
His reputation has endured since his death and his work has been adapted for the screen to great acclaim. An unfinished manuscript, “Remember This House,” was expanded and adapted for cinema as the documentary film “I Am Not Your Negro” (2016), which was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 89th Academy Awards. One of his novels, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” was adapted into the Academy Award-winning film of the same name in 2018, directed and produced by Barry Jenkins.
In addition to writing, Baldwin was also a well-known, and controversial, public figure and orator, especially during the civil rights movement in the United States.
Pier Angelo was born in Italy, moved to England at the age of 17 and learned English at the Nelson School of English. He attended college and graduate school in Manhattan. In 2009 he founded SFGN with Norm Kent. Now he’s retired with his husband Tom and his Affenpinscher Cabbage. He still enjoys writing his column Off The Wall for SFGN.