Black and white photo of James Baldwin with his name and "1924-1987" in the bottom left corner, and the SCA Pride rainbow logo in the bottom right corner.

Secular PRIDE History: James Baldwin

Throughout the month of June, we will be sharing information about historic American figures who were involved in both secular and LGBTQIA+ spheres. 


James Baldwin (1924-1987) was a novelist, playwright, and journalist who wrote frequently during the Civil Rights Movement and its aftermath in the United States. Though he was opposed to labeling his complex sexual and religious identities, his works discussed themes of race, sexuality, and religion and made significant strides in expanding the white, Christian, and heteronormative cultural mores of the time.


Born in Harlem, New York, Baldwin was raised in a religious family by his mother and stepfather, who was a Baptist preacher. Baldwin himself was raised Pentecostal, and was a youth preacher in the denomination until he was 17. Around the same time, he started to grapple with his attraction to other men, which he initially felt was “a problem which I would have to resolve myself.” He felt that the term “homosexual,” and later the term “gay,” did not fit his complex sexuality, later remarking that he felt “very, very much alone” in his identity. He left the church and Harlem shortly thereafter.


Newly nonreligious, Baldwin worked briefly at a railroad in New Jersey before moving to Greenwich Village to try to make a living as a freelance writer. While there, he received financial support from the novelist Richard Wright, which allowed him to move to France in 1948 to continue writing professionally.


For the next fifteen years, as he moved throughout Europe and the United States, Baldwin penned powerful novels and essays detailing his experiences with his racial and sexual identities, often set against the backdrop of religion. His novels Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), Giovanni’s Room (1956), and Another Country (1962) were revolutionary in their scope, depicting homosexuality and bisexuality, interracial relationships, and the black experience, slowly but surely becoming American classics. The complexities of Baldwin’s personal experience shone through in these works, tackling deeper personal questions of love and religion through the mechanisms of the broader topics these works discussed.


When he returned to the United States in the early 1960s to join the Civil Rights Movement, Baldwin wrote a radical new novel, The Fire Next Time (1963), which touched even more directly on many of the questions he had been pondering in his earlier novels. “If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving…[i]f God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him,” he remarked. Invoking his past as a preacher, he said that“when I faced a congregation, it began to take all the strength I had not to stammer, not to curse, not to tell them to throw away their Bibles and get off their knees and go home and organize, for example, a rent strike.” 


In his last interview, conducted by Richard Goldstein, Baldwin remarked that homophobia was ultimately a matter of control, remaining defiant in his personal expression. “Nobody really cares who goes to bed with whom, finally. I mean, the State doesn’t really care, the Church doesn’t really care. They care that you should be frightened of what you do…[i]t’s a way of exerting control over the universe, by terrifying people.” James Baldwin’s audacity to live openly as his full, complex self and express himself fully through his writing gave a voice to those fighting his same battles, and encouraged them to find their own voices as well.


Spreading Happiness

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