James Baldwin's childhood memories (at least those he wrote about) focused mainly on his difficult relationship with his strict, religious father. He grew up quickly - the oldest of nine children, he was a preacher at a small church in Harlem when he was only 14. "Those three years in the pulpit -- I didn't realize it then -- that that is what turned me into a writer, really, dealing with all that anguish and despair and that beauty."
It is that mix of despair and beauty that Baldwin uses to create powerful and deeply tragic stories. My favorite book of his (and my favorite book, period) is Another Country, a novel about the complexity of personal, human relationships embedded in socio-political relationships, without shrinking away from looking at society's ugly problems. He doesn't spare the reader harsh realities by focusing only on the personal, but he always remembers that the most important things to anyone are what is closest.
Besides his writing, Baldwin was a brave man. Long before it was even a little acceptable, he was out as a gay man, and vocal about human rights. He said, "I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain." In his work, Baldwin dealt with pain. In his activism, he was unyielding and compassionate.