When James Baldwin was born in Harlem, New York, he was “set down in a ghetto” where society “intended you should perish”.
But he became one of the foremost writers of the Civil Rights struggles of the 1950s and 60s.
His plays, novels and essays were an indictment of how oppression distorts people’s lives and he wrote poignantly about how racism persisted as the movements retreated.
While life in Harlem wasn’t defined by the legal segregation of the US South, black people in the North suffered a different form of segregation.
Baldwin’s family was poor. He spent much of his time caring for his eight siblings, and faced police harassment from a young age.
In a collection of essays, The Fire Next Time, Baldwin described the impact. “You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason,” he wrote in one of the essays, a letter to his 15 year old nephew.
“The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever.
“You were born into a society that spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being.”
His writings weren’t just a description of his experiences, but a call to arms against racism.
His radicalism was influenced by the Harlem Renaissance, a movement that celebrated black culture and mixed it with socialist and nationalist politics.
When Baldwin was 15 years old, he’d sought out and got to know one of its leading lights, painter Beauford Delaney. He would later write that Delaney was “the first living proof, for me, that a black man could be an artist”.
During his teenage years, Baldwin realised he was gay. His second novel, Giovanni’s Room, in 1956, dealt with sexual oppression more than a decade before the gay liberation movement.
This, initially, set him apart from other figures in the Civil Rights Movement who accepted homophobia.
To escape Harlem, a 24 year old Baldwin travelled to Europe and settled in Paris, where he engaged with radical and anti-colonial politics.
Baldwin returned to the US in 1957 in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement and reported on the battles in the US South. He travelled to Montgomery, Alabama, and Charlotte, North Carolina, where racists were resisting attempts to desegregate the schools.
Baldwin identified with the Congress of Racial Equality and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He toured the south and joined Martin Luther King’s “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” in 1963.
For Baldwin, the Civil Rights struggle was about the “liberation of the entire country”. He argued that “racism is crucial to the system to keep blacks and whites at a division so both were and are a source of cheap labour”.
And Baldwin talked about his belief that socialism would come to the US. “The price of any real socialism here is the eradication of what we call the race problem,” he wrote. Although he remained sceptical of revolutionaries, associating them with Stalinism.
When Baldwin died of stomach cancer in France in 1987, he was working on Remember This House. It was a memoir centred on Civil Rights leaders Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.
The manuscript formed the basis of the 2016 film, I Am Not Your Negro, bringing his writing and radicalism to a new generation.
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