James Baldwin Reading Project

James Baldwin Summer Reading Project

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....Read More »

James Baldwin - Earliest Collected Essays on Race, Sexuality and Bad Books

In six early book reviews, Baldwin pans what he sees as second-rate novels.  I read these pieces mostly with an eye to seeing trends in Baldwin’s views on the questions those novels dealt with more than as reviews per se (especially since I haven’t read the novels).  I’ll pull out a quotation or...Read More »

James Baldwin - Go Tell It on the Mountain

Go Tell It on the Mountain is easy to underestimate, especially if you place it into the too-easy critical category of “semiautobiographical first novel.”  The first time I read it, a few years ago, I made just that mistake.  I spent the whole time tracking the “John” character for what it...Read More »

Notes of a Native Son - Part 1

Notes of a Native Son (1955) collects some previously published essays and includes some originally penned for the collection.  I have read the eponymous essay (“Notes of a Native Son”) with my classes for the last several years, and it’s always a powerful reading experience.  It’s Baldwin at his most...Read More »

Notes of a Native Son - Part 2

…it goes without saying that injustice is a commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength. This fight begins,...Read More »

Notes of a Native Son - Part 3 (of 3)

The last part of Notes of a Native Son is made up of several travel essays Baldwin wrote in Europe – “Encounter on the Seine: Black Meets Brown,” an essay about how African Americans see Africans (and vice-versa) in Paris; “A Question of Identity,” mostly about white Americans coming to understand...Read More »

James Baldwin - Giovanni's Room

I was really surprised when I figured out that David, the protagonist of Baldwin’s second novel, Giovanni’s Room, was white.  The novel never says so directly, but he is described a handful of times as “blonde.”  In fact, as far as I could tell, all of the principal characters are white,...Read More »

James Baldwin - Nobody Knows My Name (and some other essays from the early 60's)

The greatest takeaway for me from Nobody Knows Your Name is “Fifth Avanue, Uptown: A Letter from Harlem.”  In this essay Baldwin explores the phenomenology of police violence – again, if you don’t care what I have to say, at least read these words of Baldwin’s for yourself [next...Read More »

James Baldwin - Another Country

Another Country is James Baldwin’s third novel, and is is quite a bit longer than Baldwin’s first two, maybe even longer than both of them combined.  It’s interesting to me that it basically covers a lot of the same ground that his essays of the time do, but does so in the language of...Read More »

James Baldwin - The Fire Next Time

The words of “My Dungeon Shook” ring in my ears almost every single day.  Somehow the centerpiece of that ringing is a simple imperative sentence about 3/4 of the way through the final, two-page paragraph:

You, don’t be afraid.

That paragraph, itself, lays out almost every needed inch of the conceptual and emotional terrain...Read More »

James Baldwin - Going to Meet the Man and Some Mid-60's Essays

“The American situation is very peculiar and it may be without precedent in the world. No curtain under heaven is heavier than that curtain of guilt and lies behind which white Americans hide” (James Baldwin, “White Man’s Guilt”)

One of my earliest James Baldwin reading experiences was “Sonny’s Blues,” a short story that forms the...Read More »

Ain't Nothin' New - Or - James Baldwin - Blues for Mister Charlie

[I put the James Baldwin reading project on hold for a while, but it’s back.]

In one of my classes, we just finished an almost quarter-long exploration of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly.  One of the coolest things about studying this album with my students is that, for whatever reason, kids...Read More »

James Baldwin - Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone

Though Baldwin wrote about his own life a lot, Baldwin’s 1968 novel Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone seems like the closest he came to writing a full-length autobiography.  It’s written in the first person and as his biographer David Leeming notes, a lot of the micro- and macro-level...Read More »

No Name in the Street

It is not true that people become liars without knowing it.  A liar always knows he is lying, and that is why liars travel in packs: in order to be reassured that the judgment day will never come for them (James Baldwin, No Name In the Street, 1972).

This is the best...Read More »

If Beale Street Could Talk

When a student told me last year that If Beale Street Could Talk – James Baldwin’s 1974 novel which I had not read at the time – was being made into a movie, I was sort of nonplussed.  There were other better choices, I thought (even though I hadn’t read this...Read More »

The Devil Finds Work

The Devil Finds Work is the last book-length piece of nonfiction (Baldwin calls it an “essay”) that Baldwin wrote, and though it’s similar to some earlier pieces in its focus on Baldwin’s autobiography, and obviously addresses similar themes, it picks a new point of departure: the movies.  The sweep of this...Read More »

Just Above My Head

This is Baldwin’s final novel, and also his longest, by far.  It is a multi-generational saga, the most crucial stage of which unfolds during the 1950’s and 60’s.  Its narrator Hall Montana reports at the outset he has just lost his brother Arthur, and it sends him into a depression. ...Read More »

The Amen Corner

I missed reading this the first time through.  I was trying to stick to chronological order but since this play wasn’t included in the Library of America volumes (neither is Blues for Mr. Charlie) I’m coming back to it now.  I don’t have that much to say...Read More »

James Baldwin - The Evidence of Things Not Seen

This is – I believe anyway – the last book James Baldwin wrote and published before his death.  There are lots of other incomplete manuscripts and unpublished materials, but this is a full essay.  It’s about a series of murders of black children in Atlanta in the early 1980’s. ...Read More »