August: James Baldwin

This month we'll be celebrating James Baldwin in honor of his birthday on August 2nd. We'll read his texts, and other resources focused on his work, as a lens for talking about current issues in our communities, including race, class, gentrification, and sexual orientation.


Introduction

Revered as one of the most influential writers of his generation, Baldwin addressed major social and political issues of the day in his works, which include numerous novels, essays, short stories, and poetry. His writing also reveals his personal struggle as an artist who strove to find a place in the Black intellectual community, within which Baldwin's homosexual orientation was viewed as a detrimental trait in the larger effort to establish a vigorous, successful Black community in America. The conflict between his sexuality and his racial background and spiritualism forms a major thematic thread in Baldwin's works. Despite this personal and intellectual schism, Baldwin achieved almost legendary status among thinkers of his time, and his novels and essays were universally praised for the nuanced and complex manner in which he addressed issues of race, equality, and democracy in his work.

James Baldwin: background

Guest speaker:  Eddie S. Glaude 


Discussion Questions: 

Action items: 

  • Tell a friend or family member what you learned from this month's discussion

  • Reflect on what "story" of the United States you might tell to someone who asked you. 

  • Support black and LGBTQ+ authors 

Start here: 


Read: 


Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin (fiction) 

While his family struggles with guilt, bitterness, and spiritual issues, John Grimes experiences a religious conversion in the Temple of the Fire Baptised.


The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin (non-fiction, essays)

Contains two essays: "My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation" and "Down at the Cross — Letter from a Region of My Mind". The first essay, written in the form of a letter to Baldwin's 14-year-old nephew, discusses the central role of race in American history. The second essay, which takes up the majority of the book, deals with the relations between race and religion, focusing in particular on Baldwin's experiences with the Christian church as a youth, as well as the Islamic ideas of others in Harlem.


Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and its Urgent Lessons for Our Own by Eddie S. Glaude (non-fiction)

Mixing biography--drawn partially from newly uncovered interviews--with history, memoir, and trenchant analysis of our current moment, Begin Again is Glaude's endeavor, following Baldwin, to bear witness to the difficult truth of race in America today. 


The History that James Baldwin Wanted Us to See, by Eddie S. Glaude (essay)

For Baldwin, the past had always been bent in service of a lie. Could a true story be told?


James Baldwin: A Revolutionary for Our Time by Bill V. Mullen (non-fiction, essay)

As a lifelong anti-imperialist, black queer advocate, and feminist, James Baldwin (1924-1987) changed the face of Western politics and culture. In this blog, his biographer Bill V. Mullen explores Baldwin’s life and work. 


Watch: 


If Beale Street Could Talk (streaming on Hulu, for rent on Prime)

Based on the novel by James Baldwin, "If Beale Street Could Talk" is a soulful drama about a young couple fighting for justice in the name of love and the promise of the American dream.


I am not your Negro (streaming on Netflix, Hulu, and Prime)

Based on James Baldwin’s unfinished book, this visual essay explores racism through the stories of Medgar Evers, Malcom X, and Martin Luther King Jr. 


Race, Political Struggle, Art, and the Human Condition, an Interview with James Baldwin

James Baldwin speaks at UC Berkeley in 1974. The video is organized into chapters that include topics such as being American in a foregin country, young American writers, and building a non-racist society in the United States. 


Listen: 


‘Radicals in Conversation: James Baldwin's Radical Politics

Our final episode of the year features Bill V. Mullen, author of James Baldwin: Living in Fire (Pluto, 2019) in conversation with Megan Maxine Williams, a Ph.D. candidate in American Studies at Purdue University.

Bill and Megan explore the evolution of Baldwin’s radical politics – expressed both on the page, and in his activism as a public intellectual – and consider his renewed relevance in the context of Black Lives Matter and police violence.


James Baldwin on Race in America (Part One and Two), Episode 162 of the Partially Examined Life Podcast

We focus on Baldwin's middle way between MLK's love and Malcolm X's rage and his critique of the American dream. How do you oppose the inhumanity of others without demonizing them, and thereby becoming inhuman yourself?



Further resources:


Read (by James Baldwin): 


Giovanni's Room (fiction)

In a 1950s Paris swarming with expatriates and characterized by dangerous liaisons and hidden violence, an American finds himself unable to repress his impulses, despite his determination to live the conventional life he envisions for himself. After meeting and proposing to a young woman, he falls into a lengthy affair with an Italian bartender and is confounded and tortured by his sexual identity as he oscillates between the two.


Another Country (fiction)

Set in Greenwich Village, Harlem, and France, among other locales, Another Country is a novel of passions--sexual, racial, political, artistic--that is stunning for its emotional intensity and haunting sensuality, depicting men and women, blacks and whites, stripped of their masks of gender and race by love and hatred at the most elemental and sublime. In a small set of friends, Baldwin imbues the best and worst intentions of liberal America in the early 1970s. 


If Beale Street Could Talk (fiction)

Told through the eyes of Tish, a nineteen-year-old girl, in love with Fonny, a young sculptor who is the father of her child, Baldwin's story mixes the sweet and the sad. Tish and Fonny have pledged to get married, but Fonny is falsely accused of a terrible crime and imprisoned. 


Sonny’s Blues (fiction, short story)

The story contains the recollections of a black algebra teacher in 1950s Harlem as he reacts to his brother Sonny's drug addiction, arrest, and recovery.


Just Above My Head (fiction)

The stark grief of a brother mourning a brother opens this novel with a stunning, unforgettable experience.  Here, in a monumental saga of love and rage, Baldwin goes back to Harlem, to the church of his groundbreaking novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, to the homosexual passion of Giovanni's Room, and to the political fire that enflames his nonfiction work.  Here, too, the story of gospel singer Arthur Hall and his family becomes both a journey into another country of the soul and senses--and a living contemporary history of black struggle in this land.

Notes of a Native Son (non-fiction, essay collection)

Since its original publication in 1955, this first nonfiction collection of essays by James Baldwin remains an American classic. His impassioned essays on life in Harlem, the protest novel, movies, and African Americans abroad are as powerful today as when they were first written.


Nobody Knows My Name (non-fiction, essay collection)

Told with Baldwin's characteristically unflinching honesty, this collection of illuminating, deeply felt essays examines topics ranging from race relations in the United States to the role of the writer in society, and offers personal accounts of Richard Wright, Norman Mailer and other writers.


Rap on Race (non-fiction, conversation with Margaret Mead)

In 1970, America's most celebrated Black author and the world's most acclaimed anthropologist met for a seven-and-a-half hour conversation about race and society. The transcript of their discussion is a revealing and unique book filled with candor, passion, rage, and brilliance.


No Name in the Street (non-fiction)

This stunningly personal document and extraordinary history of the turbulent sixties and early seventies displays James Baldwin's fury and despair more deeply than any of his other works.  In vivid detail he remembers the Harlem childhood that shaped his early consciousness, the later events that scored his heart with pain—the murders of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, his sojourns in Europe and in Hollywood, and his return to the American South to confront a violent America face-to-face.


A Dialogue (non-fiction, conversation with Nikki Giovanni)

A conversation between two writers. Watch the video of this conversation from SOUL!


Devil Finds Work (non-fiction, essay)

Baldwin challenges the underlying assumptions in such films as In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and The Exorcist, offering us a vision of America's self-delusions and deceptions.  Here are our loves and hates, biases and cruelties, fears and ignorance reflected by the films that have entertained us and shaped our consciousness.  And here, too, is the stunning prose of a writer whose passion never diminished his struggle for equality, justice, and social change.


The Evidence of Things Not Seen (non-fiction)

Baldwin writes about the 1979–1981 Atlanta Child  Murders, and remarks not only on the relationship between the African-American community and the police, but specifically, the relationship between said community and African-American police-officers. Some of Atlanta's black officers were Baldwin's guides while reporting in the city, which allowed for Baldwin to observe the officers reactions to the community's view of the black police force

The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (non-fiction)

In The Cross of Redemption we have Baldwin discoursing on, among other subjects, the possibility of an African-American president and what it might mean; the hypocrisy of American religious fundamentalism; the black church in America; the trials and tribulations of black nationalism; anti-Semitism; the blues and boxing; Russian literary masters; and the role of the writer in our society.


On Being White...and Other Lies (non-fiction, essay)

Originally published in Essence, Baldwin explores whiteness. 


Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems (poetry)

Known for his relentless honesty and startlingly prophetic insights on issues of race, gender, class, and poverty, Baldwin is just as enlightening and bold in his poetry as in his famous novels and essays. The poems range from the extended dramatic narratives of “Staggerlee wonders” and “Gypsy” to the lyrical beauty of “Some days,” which has been set to music and interpreted by such acclaimed artists as Audra McDonald.


Read (about James Baldwin):


James Baldwin: Living in Fire, by Bill V. Mullen

In the first major biography of Baldwin in more than a decade, Bill V. Mullen celebrates the personal and political life of the great African-American writer who changed the face of Western politics and culture.


A Political Companion to James Baldwin, Susan J. Mcwilliams, editor

In seminal works such as Go Tell It on the Mountain, Notes of a Native Son, and The Fire Next Time, acclaimed author and social critic James Baldwin (1924--1987) expresses his profound belief that writers have the power to transform society, to engage the public, and to inspire and channel conversation to achieve lasting change. While Baldwin is best known for his writings on racial consciousness and injustice, he is also one of the country's most eloquent theorists of democratic life and the national psyche.


Read (James Baldwin criticism):


Abur-Rahman, Aliyyah I. “‘Simply a Menaced Boy’: Analogizing Color, Undoing Dominance in James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room.” African American Review 41, no. 3 (fall 2007): 477-86. Analysis of Giovanni's Room in the context of mid-twentieth-century African American literature.


Atkins, G. Douglas. “The Work of the Sympathetic Imagination: James Baldwin's ‘Notes of a Native Son.’” In Reading Essays: An Invitation, pp. 237-51. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2008. Comments on Baldwin's first collection of essays, describing it as “magnificent” and “highly influential.”


Bell, Matt. “Black Ground, Gay Power: Working through Another Country, Black Power, and Gay Liberation.” American Literature 79, no. 3 (September 2007): 577-603. Links Another Country to the revolutionary movements of Baldwin's time.


Bray, Rosemary L. “An Eloquent, Pitiless Prophet.” American Scholar 67, no. 2 (spring 1998): 162-65. Review of a two-volume set of Baldwin's writing, especially focusing on his skills as an essayist. Bray notes that his writing continues to reveal complex patterns of race, culture, gender, and sexuality, marking him as one of the most important writers of his generation.


Cobb, Michael L. “Pulpitic Publicity: James Baldwin and the Queer Uses of Religious Words.” CLQ 7, no. 2 (2001): 285-312. Analyzes Baldwin's use of religious language, which is described as creating “fields of resistance” regarding sexuality, relationships, and race through innovative use of normal words.


Field, Douglas. “Looking for Jimmy Baldwin: Sex, Privacy, and Black Nationalist Fervor.” Callaloo 27, no. 2 (2004): 457-80. Argues that although Baldwin established himself as the preeminent gay Black writer of his generation, his work is filled with uncertainty and contradictions about his sexuality


Hakutani, Yoshinobu. “No Name in the Street: James Baldwin's Exploration of American Urban Culture.” In Cross-Cultural Visions in African American Modernism: From Spatial Narrative to Jazz Haiku, pp. 60-71. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2006. Studies No Name in the Street as a departure from Baldwin's earlier prose essays, noting especially the directness with which Baldwin expresses his theories regarding personal identity and love.


Henderson, Carol E., ed. James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain: Historical and Critical Essays. New York: Peter Lang, 2006, 162 p. Collection of critical and analytical essays on Go Tell It on the Mountain.


Ikard, David. “Black Patriarchy and the Dilemma of Black Women's Complicity in James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain.” In Breaking the Silence: Toward a Black Male Feminist Criticism, pp. 49-79. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007. Argues that despite the criticism Baldwin has evoked from Black men for his sexual orientation and from Black women for his views on Black patriarchy, he has made significant contributions to inter-racial gender discussions in such works as Go Tell It on the Mountain.


Jones, Jacqueline C. “Finding a Way to Listen: The Emergence of the Hero as an Artist in James Baldwin's ‘Sonny's Blues.’” CLA Journal 62, no. 4 (June 1999): 462-82. Focuses on Baldwin's repeated use of the artist figure in his works, noting that the writer viewed this recurring figure and theme as an important part of his own evolution as a writer.


King, Lovalerie, and Lynn Orilla Scot, eds. James Baldwin and Toni Morrison: Comparative Critical and Theoretical Essays. New York: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2006, 300 p. Collection of essays comparing Baldwin and Morrison's major works and themes.


Lee, Susanna. “The Jazz Harmonies of Connection and Disconnection in ‘Sonny's Blues.’” Genre 37, no. 2 (summer 2004): 285-99. Explores the relationship between music and narrative in Baldwin's “Sonny's Blues.”


McBride, Dwight A. “Straight Black Studies: On African American Studies, James Baldwin, and Black Queer Studies.” In Black Queer Studies: A Critical Anthology, edited by E. Patrick Johnson and Mae G. Henderson, pp. 68-89. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2005. A reading of Baldwin's Giovanni's Room within the strongly heterosexual context of African American studies, noting that the text challenges traditional modes of analysis within Black literary discourse.


Norman, Brian. “The Art of Political Advocacy: James Baldwin, American Protest Essayist.” In The American Protest Essay and National Belonging: Addressing Division, pp. 87-115. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007. Recognizes Baldwin's seminal place in the tradition of American protest essays, especially his contribution to the American civil rights movement during the 1960s.


Ohi, Kevin. “‘I'm not the boy you want’: Sexuality, ‘Race,’ and Thwarted Revelation in Baldwin's Another Country.” African American Review 33, no. 2 (1999): 261-81. Critiques Another Country as a novel that explores themes of suffering and alienation, especially highlighting Baldwin's struggle to find and articulate his artistic vision while operating in a largely homophobic and racist culture.

Pierpont, Claudia Roth. Review of Another Country by James Baldwin. New Yorker 85, no. 1 (9 February 2009): 102. Relates background events that led to the writing of Another Country, placing its development and creation against the backdrop of Baldwin's own career as well as the social milieu around him.

Pinckney, Darryl. “James Baldwin: The Risks of Love.” New York Times Book Review 47, no. 86 (13 April 2000): 81-91. Overview of Baldwin's works, including brief outlines of his major novels and essay collections.

Reid, Robert. “The Powers of Darkness in ‘Sonny's Blues.’” CLA Journal 43, no. 4 (June 2000): 443-53. Critical and thematic analysis of Baldwin's “Sonny's Blues.”

Relyea, Sarah. Outsider Citizens: The Remaking of Postwar Identity in Wright, Beauvoir, and Baldwin. New York: Routledge, 2006, 204 p. Collection of essays analyzing the work of Richard Wright, Simone de Beauvoir, and Baldwin as authors who used their writing to forge new identities.

Robinson, Angelo R. “The Other Proclamation in James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain.” CLA Journal 48, no. 3 (March 2005): 336-51. Theorizes that Baldwin used the story of his protagonist in this novel to examine the conflict between homosexuality and spiritualism.

Scott, Lynn Orilla. James Baldwin's Later Fiction: Witness to the Journey. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2002, 235 p. Anthology reviewing Baldwin's later works, including Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone, If Beale Street Could Talk, and Just Above My Head.


Watch:


James Baldwin debates William F. Buckley, 1965

Historic debate between James Baldwin v. William F. Buckley Jr. at Cambridge University on the question: "Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?"


Baldwin on the Dick Cavett Show, 1969

James Baldwin has an open discussion of racial prejudice, civil rights activism and policing. The show continues in a different clip that includes Professor Paul Weiss of Yale


Notes of a Native Son: The World According the James Baldwin

Animated. Lesson by Christina Greer for TED-Ed. 


James Baldwin Interviewed by Kenneth Clark, 1963

Dr. Kenneth Clark interviews author James Baldwin shortly after Baldwin’s now famous 5/24/1963 meeting with United States Attorney General Robert Kennedy regarding the state of Civil Rights in the United States.


Take This Hammer

KQED's mobile film unit follows author and activist James Baldwin in the spring of 1963, as he's driven around San Francisco to meet with members of the local African-American community.


Listen: 


February Book Club: Giovanni’s Room. The Librarian is in Podcast. 

This week is our inaugural book club episode! As they mentioned in the last episode, Frank and Rhonda picked Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin from the NYPL's 125 Books We Love List to read and discuss. We hope you had the chance to read along, too. So without further ado— click "play" and be transported to 1950s Paris…


Malcolm X Debate with James Baldwin, 1963

In 1963, James Baldwin was on a speaking tour. He had witnessed and participated in civil rights protests across the country and had much to discuss with Malcolm X during a radio broadcast on September 5th. 

 

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