James Baldwin lived a life full of words and boldness in his dark skin and beliefs. Born in Harlem, New York on August 2, 1924, Baldwin spent a large part of his 63 years blessing the world with words, books and a strong belief in who he was with no apologies. He started writing about his experiences throughout his life while he faced constant racism and abuse both in school and on the streets just because he was Black.
Baldwin’s passion for writing started in public libraries where he stayed to avoid his stepfather David Baldwin, a preacher who married his mother after she left Baldwin’s biological father due to drug issues. David was stern with Baldwin. But Baldwin’s mother Emma Berdis Jones was different. She was a tolerant parent who gave Baldwin all the support he needed to pursue his creative ambitions. In fact, she was also a fantastic writer in her community and often shielded her son Baldwin from his abusive stepfather while reminding Baldwin and his eight siblings about the importance of love, forgiveness and freedom. Those themes would be highlighted in much of Baldwin’s writing.
Not much was known about Berdis until recently when Anna Malaika Tubbs decided to write a book about the mothers of Baldwin, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. and how they inspired their sons’ fight for racial justice even though they had their own difficulties.
Baldwin’s mom Berdis came from a poor, rural community on Deal Island, Md. Berdis’ mother died after giving birth to her while her father was a waterman. People in the community relied on Berdis’ father for water and that gave him more freedom than many other poorer Black men at the time, Tubbs said. It was possible that while growing up, Berdis heard about Black greats in Maryland like Harriet Tubman, who passed away when Berdis was 10.
Berdis, who would become a talented writer and poet, later left home for Philadelphia and New York, and there, she worked as a cleaner before having her first child, Baldwin. She married David when Baldwin was about two or three and the family lived in housing projects located alongside the “American Park Avenue,” uptown in Harlem.
From an early age, Baldwin exhibited very high intelligence and was encouraged to stay in school despite his family being poor. When his stepfather died, leaving the family with nothing, Baldwin helped his mom take care of his eight siblings. Berdis also supported him throughout his career. Being a talented writer herself, she was known for writing beautiful letters to Baldwin’s teachers. They admired her writing skills and later connected Baldwin’s success to her.
“She had the gift of using language beautifully. Her notes and her letters, written to explain her son’s absences, were admired by the teachers and me. This talent transmitted through her is surely the basis of James’ success,” Tubbs quoted Gertrude Ayer, the principal of James’ first school in New York, as saying.
In Tubbs’ book, The Three Mothers, she also highlighted how Berdis always taught her children to forgive because hatred is unhelpful. When Baldwin’s abusive stepfather was dying in 1943, Berdis urged Baldwin to visit him in the hospital and “gain the closure he needed to let go of the hatred he’d carried for so many years,” Tubbs writes.
Baldwin was often away from his mother as he pursued his writing career and activism, but he wrote to her most of the time, making sure that they were still close. His death of cancer at 63 in 1987 left Berdis heartbroken but she was surely proud of her son’s legacy.
Known for several publications including Go Tell it on The Mountain (1953), Notes of a Native Son (1955), and Giovanni’s Room (1956), Baldwin is a must-read author who touches on freedom, humanity and social issues affecting African Americans and the Black race in general. His honest opinions are thought-provoking and his writing skill makes his reading enjoyable, relatable and unforgettable.
He never forgot his parents’ southern roots: “You can take the child out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the child,” he once said.
“My father was a son of a slave … I’m really a southerner born in the North.”
“I had to become a writer or perish.”