If Black English Isn't a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is? | Study Guide

James Baldwin

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James Baldwin | Biography


Early Life

James Baldwin was born in Harlem, New York, on August 2, 1924. He was the oldest of nine children and never knew his biological father. When Baldwin was three years old, his mother married his stepfather who was a preacher. Baldwin did not get along well with his stepfather. Despite their differences, Baldwin also began to preach and served as a youth minister for a couple of years in his teens. He also started on his path toward a writing career, publishing poems, plays, and short stories in his high school magazine. Baldwin took various jobs after high school and spent time in Greenwich Village in New York City to learn from other writers. Becoming acquainted with another black writer Richard Wright (1908–60) changed Baldwin's life. Wright helped Baldwin get a fellowship to provide income for Baldwin in 1945. After this Baldwin was able to publish his writing in established magazines and journals such as Commentary, The Nation, and Partisan Review. He moved to Paris in 1948. That same year he won a Rosenwald Foundation Fellowship which is a financial award given to talented individuals in the arts and other fields. Baldwin left the United States in part because he wanted to get away from the discrimination he faced as a black, gay man.

Writing During the Civil Rights Movement

Baldwin won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1954. When he came back to the United States in 1957 the civil rights movement had begun and Baldwin was an eager participant. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was a time when black people and those who supported them worked to end segregation and to further equal rights. In 1959 he won one of the grants that the Ford Foundation offers in their quest to fight inequality. Baldwin used the money while he concentrated on his writing. His 1961 book of essays Nobody Know My Name examined the tensions between black and white people in the United States. In 1962 he published the novel Another Country. His next book The Fire Next Time (1963) became a bestseller. It was written to mark the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation and was an urgent call for Americans to demolish racism. The Fire Next Time earned Baldwin the 1963 George Polk Memorial Award. His play Blues for Mister Charlie (1964) garnered him a Foreign Drama Critics Award.

Return to France

Baldwin returned to live in France in 1968 after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–68), but he still made frequent visits to the United States. He was awarded France's highest honor La Légion D'Honneur in 1986.

Before moving to France, Baldwin was an active participant and intellectual leader of the civil rights movement in the United States. He did not stop speaking out about prejudice and injustice in the United States while he lived in France. This continued activism is shown by his decision to address criticism of black English in his essay "If Black English Isn't a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?" James Baldwin died of stomach cancer on December 1, 1987, in St. Paul de Vence, France. His life was celebrated at a well-attended funeral in New York City.


Baldwin's powerful writing and recorded speeches still resonate today. He was bold and uncompromising in declaring a need for social justice and change. His words describe current tensions as well as the injustices he saw while he was living. His books are still in print and still widely read. The Oscar-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro (2016) showcased Baldwin's nonfiction writing.

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