James Baldwin: Art, Sexuality and Civil Rights

This lesson is part of The Role of Gay Men and Lesbians in the Civil Rights Movement series.
Grade Level


Students will:

  • Develop an awareness of James Baldwin, his work and political activism 
  • Analyze the connection between civil rights and gay rights 
  • Explore artistic expression as a form of political activism 
  • Compare and contrast the issues Baldwin confronted with the challenges LGBT people face today
Essential Questions
  • Why is it important for individuals to develop a positive, healthy image of themselves?
  • How did James Baldwin assert himself as a gay man during the civil rights movement?
  • What do Baldwin’s experiences illuminate about the intersections among race, gender, gay rights and civil rights?
  • How did Baldwin use his art form—his writing—as a form of political protest to shape the objectives of the civil rights movement and extend its reach to the LGBT community?
  • Why is it important that history recognize Baldwin not only as a black intellectual but also as a gay man whose ideas and artistry had an impact on politics, society and culture?

This lesson is part of The Role of Gay Men and Lesbians in the Civil Rights Movement series. In this lesson, students will revisit the life of James Baldwin, an African-American literary writer and critic, as well as an icon for civil and gay rights. Far ahead of his time, Baldwin was “out and proud” before that term became a popular cultural idiom. Baldwin’s life illuminates not just the intersection between gay rights and civil rights, but perhaps even more importantly, the connections among self-identification, artistic expression and political activism. 


Word Work

Seeing Is Defining

  1. Before reading or listening to Randall Kenan’s NPR interview and reading about James Baldwin’s life and work, use the handout and work in groups of three to four to define the following words: ellipticalexpatriateprofoundsereneintrinsicmaverick and polemic.
  2. View each slide of the Seeing Is Defining PowerPoint with your group members. As a class, read each definition. Discuss each word’s meaning in your group. (Note: Consider having students find images that connect to the definition/word. For example, an image of a person sitting near a peaceful lake all in soft blues may be used for the word serene.)
  3. Using the definition as a foundation, rewrite the definition in your own words. Record your group’s definition in the allotted space.
  4. Share your definition with the class.
  5. Repeat steps 2 through 5 until the handout is complete.


Close and Critical Reading

  1. In groups, listen to “American Lives: James Baldwin, ‘Lifting the Veil.’”
  2. Take a minute to discuss your impressions about James Baldwin and his work within your group.
  3. After the discussion, record your initial impressions about James Baldwin, his writings, political activism and historical significance in the space labeled “Pre-Reading Thoughts” on the handout. (Note: Encourage students to incorporate the vocabulary words in their interpretation.)
  4. In your groups, read “James Baldwin, Eloquent Writer In Behalf of Civil Rights, Is Dead,” and answer the reading comprehension questions using complete sentences. (Note: Encourage students to ask clarifying questions about Baldwin and the article as you visit each group.)
  5. Upon completion of the comprehension questions, fill in the space labeled “Post-Reading Thoughts.”
  6. As a class, review the answers.


Community Inquiry

  1. As a class, discuss the differences and similarities between your pre- and post-reading observations. Did your perception of Baldwin change or stay the same? Why or why not?
  2. Then, read aloud the four passages listed on the handout(Note: Pick students to read aloud randomly. Consider using numbered heads.) As each passage is read aloud, underline important words or phrases. Discuss each excerpt.
  3. Record your final thoughts and interpretation about James Baldwin, 


Write to the Source

Using the completed James Baldwin Final Interpretations handout as your resource, write one page about what you learned about Baldwin, and how your perception of him evolved throughout the activity. What did you learn not only about Baldwin, but also about how ideas and perceptions can change over time?


Do Something

1. Create a safe zone for LGBT youth by starting a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) at your school. Find a teacher or administrator willing to advise your organization. If such a group already exists, join the group and volunteer. Once you have started or joined the organization, create an anti-bias campaign at your school that will educate your peers about the importance and benefits of all students embracing diversity. How can the GSA be used to improve your school’s culture and address issues such as bullying and bias against individuals who identify with minority groups? 

2. Form a James Baldwin Literary Club at your school. Read and discuss Baldwin’s essays, books and other writings, as well as the works of other overlooked writers in American history.        


This activity addresses the following standards using the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts.

CCSS: R.1, R.2, R.3, R.4, R.10, W.1, W.2, W.3, W.4, W.9, SL.1, SL.2, SL.3, SL.4, L.1, L.2, L.5

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