In the last half of my sixteenth year I was now living in Detroit but had recently moved from Harlem in New York City where I had lived for a short 8 months with my father, who I had fallen out with over disciplinary issues that I had rejected. My mother had already failed there. My hero was my older cousin, Willie,
who shared with me the bedroom in the attic in my mother's oldest sister's, Auntie, house on Fischer Street on the East Side of Detroit. Willie had been a paratrooper in the army during the Korean War. I was fascinated with that aspect of his life and the many stories of his conquest on the streets, namely bar fights. He was a Muslim in the Nation of Islam. I was further impressed by his large vocabulary. He encouraged me to read everything and to study the dictionary. When I turned seventeen I joined the army and I, too, became a paratrooper just like him. I'm proud to say that I was with the 101st Airborne Division.
Another hero of mine was James Baldwin who was from Harlem where I had lived with my father. I think that because he was from Harlem is why I took a special interest in his writings. In Note of a Native Son he writes:
ON THE TWENTY - NINTH O F JU LY , in 1943, my father died. On the same day, a few hours later, his last child was born. Over a month before this, while all our energies were concentrated in waiting for these events, there had been, in Detroit, one of the bloodiest race riots of the century. A few hours after my father's funeral, while he lay in state in the undertaker's chapel, a race riot broke out in Harlem. On the morning of the third of August, we drove my father to the graveyard through a wilderness of smashed plate glass.
The day of my father's funeral had also been my nineteenth birthday. As we drove him to the graveyard, the spoils of injustice,anarchy, discontent, and hatred were all around us. It seemed to me that God himself had devised, to mark my father's end, the most sustained and brutally dissonant of codas. And it seemed to me, too, that the violence which rose all about us as my father left the world had been devised as a corrective for the pride of his eldest son. I had declined to believe in that apocalypse which had been central to my father's vision; very well, life seemed to be saying, here is something that will certainly pass for an apocalypse until the real thing comes along. I had inclined to be contemptuous of my father for the conditions of his life, for the conditions of our lives. When his life had ended I began to wonder about that life and also, in a new way, to be apprehensive about my own.
It was passages like these, the profundity and elequence of his style, that made me a life long fan of James Baldwin. Born in New York in 1924, his family was very poor and he was often required to care for his younger siblings. The events of his 19th birthday, which included his stepfather’s funeral, the birth of his last sibling, and a riot in Harlem, were documented in his essay, Notes of a Native Son.
Baldwin became involved in the artistic community of Greenwich Village when he was a teenager. In 1948, he moved to Paris to move beyond the restrictions of being an African American writer.While there, he began publishing work in literary anthologies.
Go Tell It on the Mountain, his first novel, was published in 1953. Notes of a Native Son, a collection of essays, was published in 1955. The two books would become some of his best known works.
They were followed in 1956 by Baldwin’s second novel, Giovanni’s Room. The novel was controversial for its explicit homoerotic material. It was followed by two additional novels dealing with race and sexuality, 1962’s Another Country and 1968’s Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone.
Throughout his career, which continued until his death in 1987, Baldwin published seven novels and seven collections of essays, along with several plays and a volume of poetry, titles Sonny’s Blues. He was also involved in the civil rights and peace movements through the 1960s. This was at the base of many of his essays, including 1963’s Down at the Cross.
Go to top