Black Art Has Always Been a Powerful Tool for Social Change
by Jacklin Bolduan
James Baldwin was born in Harlem in 1924. He was the grandson of a slave and the oldest of nine children. When he was about three years old, Baldwin’s mother married David Baldwin, who was a Baptist minister. Following in his stepfather’s footsteps, Baldwin himself stepped to the pulpit and was a youth minister at Harlem Pentecostal Church from age 14 to 16. It is said that he credits this time in his life to developing his passion and skills in writing. In high school, he worked on DeWitt Clinton High School’s magazine, where he met and worked with future famous photographer Richard Avedon. At the paper, Baldwin began exercising his literary muscles, writing poems, plays, and short stories.
When he graduated high school, he took a job laying railroad tracks for the U.S. Army in New Jersey to support his mother and siblings. He was ultimately fired from the job and decided to move to Greenwich Village in 1943, where he encountered other writers and artists. He met Richard Wright, a fellow writer, who helped him secure a fellowship to write his novel. He began to be published in national works such as The Nation. Three short years later, however, by way of another fellowship, Baldwin moved to Paris, where he felt he could more accurately and honestly write about American society. He would travel between Paris, New York, and Istanbul throughout his career.
He went on to publish his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, a work that reflected Baldwin’s own struggles. In 1954, with the help of a Guggenheim fellowship, he published his second novel, Giovanni’s Room, a now widely read text dealing with the complexities of race and homosexuality. Baldwin has since published several other well-known novels, poetry, plays, as well as many essays such as the collection that was published in 1963 entitled The Fire Next Time. By the early 1970s Baldwin began participating in civil rights activism and publishing works that addressed race in American Culture. He taught on these and other topics as a professor in his later years at both the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Hampshire College, leaving behind a literary legacy before his death in 1987.
Toni Morrison, born Chloe Anthony Wofford, was born in 1931 in Lorain, Ohio. Both of her parents were laborers and instilled in her an appreciation for culture and folklore. Her family lived in an integrated neighborhood and Morrison said that she was unaware of racial tensions until she entered high school. As a child, she was the only black student and the only one who could read in her class. She pursued an undergraduate degree in English at Howard University in Washington, D.C. and continued on to complete her Master’s degree at Cornell University. In 1955 she moved to Texas to teach English at Texas Southern University.
In 1957 she continued to teach English, this time returning to Howard University. She met her husband and had her first child, Harold, in 1961. It was here that she began work on what would be her first and one of her most read novels, The Bluest Eye, which was published in 1970. This work was the beginning of Morrison’s exploration of themes of Blackness, friendship, loss, and self-love. She went on to publish other highly respected works, such as Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977), and Beloved (1987), which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was made into a movie in 1988 starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover.
In 1993, Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for her contributions to American literature. She was the first Black woman to receive the award. Morrison was then already a professor at Princeton University where she started a program to help writers produce work in many different fields. She continued to produce her own work and still does to this day. Her latest novel, God Help the Child (2015), a book about a young Black woman working in the cosmetics industry, has received praise amongst critics and readers alike.