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 I’ll be reading Another Country, Baldwin’s 1962 novel]:
Similarly, the only way to police a ghetto is to be oppressive. None of commissioner Kennedy’s policemen, even with the best will in the world, have any way of understanding the lives led by the people they swagger about in two’s and three’s controlling. Their very presence is an insult, and it would be, even if they spent their entire day feeding gumdrops to children. They represent the force of the white world, and that world’s real intentions are, simply, for that world’s criminal profit and ease, to keep the black man corralled up here, in his place…
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, with the possible exception of the briefly mentioned “Joey,” David’s first same-sex partner, who is described as being “darker” than David. But if David is blonde, who knows? And obviously race is a social construct and a novel is fiction, but it still feels like placing the other characters into the category of “white” is the correct call.
This is often labelled Baldwin’s “homosexual novel,” which is a strange, outdated-feeling label but one that gets used a lot – it’a also the label given to EM Forster’s Maurice, which I read last year in a course about Forster and Woolf, and which covers some similar ground (though it’s 50 years earlier, and it’s set almost entirely in the English countryside). It tells the story of David, an American in Paris, and his brief relationship with Giovanni who, we learn in the opening pages, has been sentenced to death for a crime we don’t really learn about until the very end (I won’t spoil it for you).
It was interesting to me that the issue of race came up so fleetingly in this book, especially since it has come up on virtually every single page of everything else I’ve ever read that Baldwin wrote. That said, just because Baldwin isn’t talking about race doesn’t mean we can’t see him doing similar things in his exploration of masculinity and sexuality as we find it in Giovanni’s Room.
[Next I’ll read the next volume of essays – Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son (1961), along with some other essays from this period] Continue reading
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 themselves while they’re in Paris; “Equal in Paris,” the strange but true story of Baldwin’s arrest (equal parts Les Miserables and The Trial) of eight days Baldwin spent in jail for accepting a stolen gift – a bedsheet a new friend had taken in protest from a hotel he had dramatically checked out of; finally, the best in the section, “Stranger in the Village,” a piece about Baldwin’s stay in a Swiss village, but one that broadens to a much more universalized statement about being black in a white-supremacist world. These are more occasional pieces, but I can pull some things out of each to talk about.
After this I’ll be reading Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin’s second novel.
…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, however, in the heart…
Part II of Notes of a Native Son contains 3 essays: “The Harlem Ghetto,” a journalistic account of the politics, press and religious life of mid-50’s Harlem; “Journey to Atlanta,” an indictment of the Progressive Party (attention Bernie Sanders supporters!) overlaying a narrative about Baldwin’s brother touring the south; and finally, the soaring, lyrical memoir “Notes of a Native Son.” Here is discussion of one passage from each:
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 directly autobiographical – it’s in Part II of the book, so I’ll write about that next time.
But this time, I’ll stick to Part I of the book, which is mostly literary and film criticism. It includes 4 essays – “Autobiographical Note” (not actually part of Part I), “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” a criticism of both Uncle Tom’s Cabin and also Native Son; “Many Thousands Gone,” a further consideration of Native Son; and “Carmen Jones: The Dark is Light Enough,” a critical review of a 50’s-era Carmen-remake film with a mostly black cast. I’ll stick to finding one paragraph from each, quoting and discussing.
Quite honestly if you don’t care what I have to say, you can still skim for the Baldwin quotations, which are independently inspiring, maddening and thought-provoking.
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 might tell me about James Baldwin himself. Which is not to say that it doesn’t tell is us something about him, but there is a lot more going on that makes me wonder why this book isn’t more widely read and talked about as a book high school students could read. The protagonist is a probably-gay 14 year old black male living in Harlem in the 1930’s; he has a tense relationship with his parents and his siblings, he is complicated, his motivations are not transaprent to himself, and he is at the center of a complicated family group protrait, with two strong women and a dissolute but not irredemable stepfather playing key roles that the novel moves in and out of the present to consider. Continue reading
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 two from each essay and say a little bit about it. The books reviewed are mostly about race and racism, but “Preservation of Ignorance” is an early essay which addresses issues of homosexuality and heteronormativity.
These essays were all published before Go Tell It On the Mountain (1953) and Notes of a Native Son (1955) – I’ll blog about those books in future entries. For now here’s a paragaph or so about each of these six. Continue reading
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). Continue reading
“Parsimony may be the end of this book. Also shame at my own verbosity, which comes over me when I see the 20 it is–books shuffled together in my room. Who am I ashamed of? Myself reading them. Then Joyce is dead: Joyce about a fortnight younger than I am. I remember Miss Weaver, in wool gloves, bringing Ulysses in typescript to our teatable at Hogarth House… One day Katherine Mansfield came, and I had it out. She began to read, ridiculing: then suddenly said, But there’s something in this: a scene that should figure I suppose in the history of literature…” (A Writer’s Diary 349 [1/15/41])
Virginia Woolf wrote these words a couple of months before her death, and they’re still cagey and circumspect about Joyce, but Mansfield’s “there’s something in this” seems somehow to speak for Woolf as well. And other than Mrs. Dalloway, which has been placed repeatedly by many critics in the context of Ulysses, Between the Acts seems like the book most closely tracking Joyce’s own work, especially his final Finnegans Wake.
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The big question for me while reading The Years was about whether it’s a reversion to an earlier writing style – something more like a Victorian social novel, or if it’s a step forward in Woolf’s own evolution. The earlier novel of Woolf’s that most resembles this is Night and Day, which is definitely a traditional family/relationship/marriage novel. But though The Years seems a bit like that, it’s actually much more stylistically interesting (and puzzling). Continue reading
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