My woefully monochromatic high school and college education exposed me to nothing that James Baldwin had written – not even to his name. I can remember a friend in college once mentioning him and me pretending that I knew who he was.
But several years ago I started reading James Baldwin with my students. I read the first section of The Fire Next Time – anthologized as “My Dungeon Shook” (also often titled “A Letter to My Nephew”) in a collection the school had bought for the class I was teaching. For some reason I don’t quite remember, I decided to read it with them. In order to get my students to pay attention, I often read the start of any text aloud. This time, I was especially unprepared, so I was reading the text with them aloud, for the first time. I remember quite clearly being so moved that I almost couldn’tkeep my voice from breaking (I’m NOT the teacher that cries in front of the class – nothing against you if you are, I’m just not). The final paragraph, which ends with a quotation from somewhere in the New Testament – “my dungeon shook and my chains fell off” is a perfect example of how to deploy an allusion: you don’t necessarily know what’s being quoted at first, but you know it is something, and you know it’s something important, and it emblazens the thought upon your heart as you read it. And it’s a perfectly climactic moment expressing anguish and empowerment in the face of injustice.
There is a similarly searing honesty that runs through that entire essay – and much of everything else of Baldwin’s that I’ve read. Over the years, I’ve expanded the number of Baldwin texts in my class, and now regularly include “Sonny’s Blues,” “Notes of a Native Son,” “If Black English Isn’t a Language then Please Tell Me, What Is?” Each of those essays has a quality that makes me insist on reading large portions of them out loud: the final page of “Sonny’s Blues” especially so. I’ve also taken to showing an interview Baldwin did with Kenneth Clark in the 60’s (it’s one of three – Clark also interviewed Martin Luther King and Malcolm X for the same series).
It’s all powerful, incisive, challenging stuff. I’ve come over the years to understand that it works much differently with students of different racial identities – my white reaction initially got in the way; I’ve learned to try to background that. But what it seems to do with all people is to create a unique form of engagement. You can dismiss Malcolm X as “angry” (I don’t think you should, but many of my students do every year); you can ignore the specificity of King’s arguments by immediately replacing them with the cliches white culture has dictated to you about him – but Baldwin is less known to my students, and the subtle emotional power his words conjure up (one of my students this year said, “you can tell he’s mad, but it’s like a low-key mad, like wise-man mad”) – it’s very difficult to ignore. It creates engagement in dialogue abour race that I’ve just not seen from other authors.
In a very real sense, these essays, short stories and novels are secular sermons. I don’t mean by “secular” that they’re non-religious really, just that Baldwin’s focus in them is with the political and ethical life of our country, rather than that of any given faith. They are deeply religious too – both in their invocation of the rhetoric of the sermon, and also their interwoven biblical allusions, references and quotations.
But I don’t want to be that teacher who has only read these few things and pretend some sort of expertise about the rest of the author’s work. I have read some other things I haven’t assigned in class – Go Tell It the Mountain, and some other essays, but I’m hoping to expand my own teaching by reading much more this summer.
So last year I bought the three Library of America James Baldwin volumes; I’m going to make my way through them chronologoically – there is one volume of essays, and two of novels and short stories. The “Essays” volume has published essay volumes and then a collection of miscellaneous essays at the back.
I’ll try to write about them in groupings that make sense, either by focusing on whole novels, essay volumes, or clusters of chronologically related non-fiction: I’ll start with six pieces originally published in periodicals in the 40’s and 50’s – “Smaller Than Life,” “History as Nightmare,” “The Image of the Negro,” “Lockridge: ‘The American Myth,'” “Preservation of Ignorance” and “The Negro at Home and Abroad.” They are mostly extremely negative reviews of books I have not read (and, trusting Baldwin’s judgment, I now don’t want to read them). Nonetheless they also become occasions for Baldwin to explore some of his own concerns – mostly about race, sexuality, America, and their problematic intersection. More on that next time.