A Memphis World article about James Baldwin’s early life and education, 1967.
Rags To Riches
He didn't have much time to play with other children. He was the oldest of nine children and had to take care of the younger ones. James Baldwin says, "As they were born, I took them over with one hand and held a book with the other."
He didn't have nice clothes like some of the other boys. His father was only a poor minister. He wasn't good looking. As a matter of fact he was quite homely, with very large eyes. They called him "frog eyes"!
James Baldwin had a very special talent. He could make up the best stories you ever heard. He wrote poems, songs, plays and stories. He amazed his teachers with his wonderful stories. When he was about ten years old he wrote a play. One of his teachers took an interest in him. She game him books to read and took him to the theatre. This encouraged him to write and write and write.
The teachers asked him to read his stories to the class. The children looked at him. They listened to him. They admired him. They shook their heads and said, "No one can write like James"! He was the best writer in the school. He was the best writer around. Mayor La Guardia, the mayor of New York City, sent him an award for a song he'd written. He was thrilled. His writing delighted his mother, but his father couldn't understand a son who liked to write better than anything else. His father wanted him to be a minister. When he was fourteen he became a preacher, but he stopped preaching when he reached seventeen. One day his father asked, "You'd rather write than preach?" James answered, "Yes." This saddened his father very much. Sometimes parents don't understand how their children feel.
James was determined to become a good writer; a famous writer. He wrote about what happened to him. He wrote about what people did to him and how he felt about what they did to him. He wrote about what he heard, saw, smelled, tasted and felt! He wrote and he wrote. He wrote and he wrote some more. His stories got better and better.
His father died a bitter, unhappy man. His bitterness was the result of conditions under which he was forced to live because he was a Negro. His unhappiness killed him before his time, before he could enjoy the fame and success of his son. Although they never understood each other, James missed his father after he was gone. James wondered, "why don't they want us? What have we done to them?" These thoughts hurt him deeply. His writing gave him a chance to "get it off his chest." He began to have certain feelings about himself and about "those people" who kept him in the slums, living a life of misery and want. There were many bad people in the world! Thank God there were also many good people in the world. One of his kind and generous white teachers helped his family when his father had lost his job. There was hope for his world.
He wrote his way through elementary school, junior high school and high school. He became editor of his high, school newspapers. More and more people began to notice his amazing talent. He gained ad miration and respect, James was small in stature, but he began to look very big in the eyes of his admires. Today he's such an outstanding writer you could call him a giant.
After he graduated from high School in 1942, he worked hard to help his family. He got a job in a defense plant in New Jersey. World War II was going on and many businesses were hiring Negroes for the first time. Most of the young men were in the Army and there was a manpower shortage. Negroes had many terrible experiences in New York. Restaurants would not serve them. It was hard for them to find a place in which to live. Their co- workers often mistreated them. James experiences made him angry. He was full of hatred. He wanted to smash someone. He wanted to kill.
One night he went to a movie with a friend. After the movie they decided to stop at a dinner for a bite to eat. When they entered the counterman roared "What do you want?"
"We want a hamburger and a cup of coffee. What do you think we want," snapped James?
"We don't serve Negroes here," The counterman hissed!
As they walked along James' anger began to build up. It filled him, blinded him, maddened him! He was in a frenzy. Just then a fancy restaurant came into sight. He was positive they wouldn't serve him. He walked in and sat down in nearest vacant seat. The waitress appeared. She was frightened when she saw him sitting there. She didn't ask him what he wanted, but told him flatly, "We don't serve Negroes here."
His fury took possession of him. He wanted to kill, kill, kill. He looked around. There was a water mug half full of water on the table. He snatched it an hurled it at her with all his might. The terrified waitress ducked quickly.
What a close call she had. The mug smashed into the mirror behind the bar with tremendous force. The loud crash startled the diners. They looked at him in horror and ran after him. He ran and ran. He escaped his pursuers, but not his problems.
These experiences made him bitter, but they didn't make him forget what he wanted to be. He wanted to be a good writer and he was determined to become one. He continued to write. He won prizes for his work.
His hard work began to pay off. He was becoming world famous. He went abroad. He traveled through England and France. He lived in Paris, France for a long time. He call it, "the city I love." He met other famous writers. They exchanged ideas. Here for a time, he escaped some of the problems of being a Negro.
He finally returned to America, the land he loves most deeply in spite of all its faults. America, after all, was his home. "There is no place like home."
He has a burning message for America, a plea, a demand. He cries out for freedom and justice for the Negro.
On June 20, 1963 his junior high school, Frederick Douglas, presented him with the "Alumnus of the Year Award." He was deeply touched. He had a message for all mankind." Try to make the world a more human place to live in." Some call him the spokesman of the Negro. He speaks for all men . . . He speaks to America "The American white man must find a way to live with the Negro in order to be able to live with himself."