How Jimmy Baldwin Wrote His Way Out of Poverty to Become the Beloved, Legendary James

Jimmy Baldwin’s mother, Emma Berdis Jones, came north for opportunity, safety, and to have a chance. She wasn’t alone.

In the early part of the 20th century, six million African Americans left the Jim Crow south for cities in the north in what’s known as the Great Migration. Between 1910 and 1920, New York City’s Black population grew by 66 percent.

New York’s influx of African Americans helped fuel the Harlem Renaissance, which produced writers such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Countee Cullen. 

And the Great Migration brought Berdis Jones to New York City. She met a man, got pregnant, and gave birth to a child she named Jimmy. Jimmy’s dad used drugs, though, and Berdis took her son and left.

In May 1927, Berdis married a preacher named David Baldwin, who adopted Jones’s son, making him Jimmy Baldwin.

Jimmy Baldwin grows into James

Over the years, the Baldwin family grew to include eight kids, James being the oldest. They lived in tenement buildings across Harlem, and money trouble followed the Baldwins wherever they went. 

And David was a harsh disciplinarian. He and Jimmy butted heads frequently, with Berdis often stepping between the two to deescalate a conflict. 

But Berdis was more than a peacemaker in the Baldwin home. She recognized and encouraged James’s inclination toward books. 

“I read just about everything I could get my hands on—except the Bible, probably because it was the only book I was encouraged to read,” James Baldwin later wrote about his childhood.

Jimmy Baldwin in 1955.
James Baldwin in 1955, when he was 31 years old.

Another person who saw potential in young Jimmy Baldwin was a white schoolteacher named Orilla Miller. Miller took an interest in the boy’s creative curiosity, bringing books to the Baldwin home. And Miller offered to take James to see plays, which conflicted with David Baldwin’s parenting. 

“Theater-going was forbidden in our house,” James Baldwin recalled. “But, with the really cruel intuitiveness of a child, I suspected that the color of this woman’s skin would carry the day for me.”

Miller was white, and David Baldwin didn’t feel he could tell a white person no. So, David consented to Miller taking James to the theater.

The exposure opened James’s eyes. Through books and plays, James saw a way out of the racism and poverty he knew. 

“I knew I was Black, of course, but I also knew I was smart,” Baldwin said. “I didn’t know how I would use my mind . . . but I was going to get whatever I wanted that way, and I was going to get my revenge that way.”

Baldwin graduated high school and worked odd jobs around New York City. But America’s racism was suffocating him. 

“I knew what was going to happen to me,” Baldwin said. “My luck was running out. I was going to go to jail, I was going to kill somebody or be killed.”

Baldwin in Paris

At 21, Baldwin moved to Paris. There, he grew into himself and took up writing. Baldwin published his first book, Go Tell It On a Mountain (Amazon | Bookshop), at 28. The novel’s based on Baldwin’s teenage years when he preached in churches throughout Harlem.

James Baldwin

Baldwin returned to America in 1957. He’d published an essay collection, Notes of a Native Son (Amazon | Bookshop), and another novel, Giovanni’s Room. (Amazon | Bookshop) The works established Baldwin as one of America’s leading writers, a reputation that remains today. 

Baldwin produced more books, including Nobody Knows My Name (Amazon | Bookshop) and If Beale Street Could Talk (Amazon | Bookshop). He befriended artists from Marlon Brando to Maya Angelou and Nina Simone. 

And James Baldwin inspired a new generation of writers, many of whom are Black.

James Baldwin was the grandson of formerly enslaved people and the son of a woman who fled the segregated South. He grew up poor in a country that kills and oppresses Black men, but he found a way to survive. 

“I had to become a writer or perish,” Baldwin said.

Books by James Baldwin

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