african american biographies

Born in South Carolina, Viola Davis grew up in Rhode Island, where she began acting—first in high school, and then at Rhode Island College. After attending the Juilliard School of Performing Arts, Davis soon made her Broadway debut in 1996. She won her first Tony Award in 2001, and was nominated for an Oscar in 2008 for Doubt. In 2011, Davis starred in the hit dramatic film The Help. She has also appeared in Ender’s Game (2013) and Get on Up (2014). In 2014, Davis returned to television in the mystery series How to Get Away with Murder, and the following year became the first African-American woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for her work on the show.

Review - James Baldwin: A Biography by David Leeming

Was James Baldwin REALLY bisexual?   

I can’t count how many times I’ve seen author, civil rights activist, journalist, essayist, and all-around lion of literature James Baldwin called gay.   Gay gay gay.  Always gay.   You know, except for all the women he loved, slept with, or almost married that you never hear about *eyeroll*  

So I picked up his official biography, James Baldwin: A Biography, written by his longtime friend David Leeming to get to the truth.   And the truth is that James Baldwin was a VERY complicated man.  

There is no doubt his writing was genius.  He was smart, passionate, and had a way of writing that could inspire the reader.  He was bold and wrote about topics that no one else wanted to touch, even when they alienated the white publishing industry or respectable black leaders.  

But Baldwin also struggled with depression, was terrible with money, often drank way too much, and could throw melodramatic temper tantrums that oten alienated friends and fellow artists.  He attempted suicide several times early in his life and died of complications from esophageal cancer which he’d tried to burn out by drinking lots of whisky.  It says on the first page of his biography “He preferred to use the fact of his illegitimacy, as he did his minority status and his homosexuality, as supporting material for a mythic or representative persona”, which makes it hard to pin down the line between the myth and the man.  

So was James Baldwin gay or bisexual?

The answer I came to is yes, he was what we would now call bisexual.  Throughout the book it’s clear that Baldwin loved many men and women.  He slept with many men and women.   While most of his relationships were with men - both long term and short flings - he there were two women who so captured his heart over the years that towards the end of his life he regretted not marrying them.   

Moreover, Leeming makes very clear that all of Baldwin’s fictional characters were autobiographical to a degree, and several of those characters were bisexual.  Leeming even uses the word bisexual to describe them.   Most of his works deal with homosexuality but few do so in a way that excludes characters who identify as having homosexual feelings from also sleeping with women, much like the man himself.  




James Baldwin was not a man who enjoyed labels.  He did not have much interest in what we would call identity politics or the gay rights movement of his time.  He didn’t understand transgender people, and was frankly cruel and transphobic when a friend told him she would transition.  And he took a lot of care to keep his relationships out of the public eye (though some might say he stuffed his lovers in the closet).   He valued discretion so much that Leeming often obfuscates if some of the people in Baldwin’s life were lovers or just friends.   For example, he never comes out and says Baldwin has a sexual relationship with Lucien, ostensibly the love of his life.   In fact, he says that Lucien’s straightness and subsequent marriages to women were hindrances to Baldwin’s love of the man.  It isn’t until Baldwin painfully breaks up with Lucien after years of togetherness that the reader realizes they were TOGETHER TOGETHER.  

So anyone looking to Baldwin to be a perfect bisexual role model won’t find what they are looking for.   

Baldwin is a complex and sometimes contradictory man.  He was deeply invested in the American the civil rights struggle, though he lived most of his life in France and Turkey – away from the Harlem homeland where he set most of his novels.   He claimed to have no shame about his homosexuality, but he rarely took his male lovers to public events.   He was admittedly very lonely and longed for love, but he also preferred to hook up with emotionally volatile men much younger than himself, pursuing almost parental dynamics rather than look for a relationship of equals.  His writing sparkles with a depth and dynamism that challenged both white and black people to examine their inner selves, but he often failed to live his own advice.  

- Sarah

A “Jeopardy” answer might be: “He was the most famous civil rights activist not to attend the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” The correct question to that answer is “Who was Stokely Carmichael?” Another such answer might be: “He invented the slogan ‘Black Power’ and married famed South African singer Miriam Makeba.” The question again is “Who was Stokely Carmichael?”



Deborah Hopkinson

Smart and sure, hardworking, talented, professional and passionate, loving wife and mother, daughter, sister, friend. This is the story of a girl from Chicago who dared to dream big, worked hard to make things happen, and grew up to be an extraordinary woman: Michelle Robinson Obama.  Deborah Hopkinson and AG Ford capture the inspiring story of the first African American First Lady in this beautiful picture-book biography.