Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum
Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum
Title of work: The
Fire Next Time, "Sonny's Blues," and "The Rockpile" by James Baldwin
Title of work
In Baldwin's work, you have the themes of alienation, of marginalization, coming of age, conflicts between father and son, mother, and mother and father or husband and wife. You have all of these conflicts, and the recurring theme is what it means to be on the outside. You also have the themes of migration, because he's ... if you look at his work, it starts in the 1950s, goes through the civil rights and continues up until the black arts movement, where some began to silence him. But he crosses a number of decades and represents a number of movements within the black literary tradition.
Q & A with Brenda Green
Why is James Baldwin an appropriate author for high school students to study?
James Baldwin represents the essential outsider. He always felt marginalized, which is something that young people identify with as they are growing up. How do I fit in this society as those hormones are going crazy? How do I fit in this culture? With whom am I going to connect? Baldwin's experiences as a black man and homosexual provides a starting point for getting students to talk about difference and what it means to be different.
Talk about the importance of Baldwin's nonfiction.
Baldwin is a prolific writer. He's a very complex man. I think it's important for people to read him and to look at his fiction as well as his nonfiction. Some people would say that his strongest writing is represented in his essays. And when he's writing in his personal voice, that's even more powerful. When he does his memoirs, Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time, that's the writing that's making an impact, that's making a statement and that's why people turn to him, because of the power that comes from the emotions and the conflicts that he's dealt with.
Who were Baldwin's influences?
Baldwin crosses a number of decades and represents a number of movements within the black literary tradition. And you can see his influences, people like Richard Wright, who wrote Native Son, the whole Beat generation living in Greenwich Village.
Why did black writers ostracize Baldwin?
During the Black Arts movement, there were artists who were very nationalistic and very Afro-centric, and then you had those who were considered, like, more the integrationists. And those who were part of the more radical Afro-centric, nationalistic perspective were saying that people like James Ellison and James Baldwin were irrelevant. The fact that Baldwin was also a homosexual further distanced him from these movements. That was not something black men could be; you know, you had to be "the man." The man producing children. So he was silenced by a number of black artists.
So Baldwin was marginalized because of his sexual orientation. So although he wrote some strong, powerful essays, they weren't necessarily appreciated.
Baldwin also felt silenced by black writers and black artists and the Black Arts movement because he was not nationalistic. He did not espouse the Marxist view, and he was not Afro-centric. And part of the movement around the Black Arts was the whole concept of cultural nationalism, that not only did you have to produce art that was culturally relevant, you had to produce art that was political, that showed evidence of the African ancestry and that spoke to a national movement. And Baldwin was outside of that movement. He had the advantage of being able to look from the outside in, as a result of being in Europe and living abroad for a number of years. So he was caught between two worlds. I think that because of that, some of us, meaning those who were very caught up in the movement during that time, may not have read him as carefully as we should have.
Information about key references
In "Sonny's Blues," the protagonist, an aspiring jazz musician, draws a distinction between the musical style of Louis Armstrong and the "bebop" of Charlie Parker. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, the bebop style, pioneered by Parker (known as "Bird") and others, was characterized by quick tempos, harmonic complexity, and improvisation. Standing in contrast to the more conservative, old-guard jazz of Armstrong, bebop was considered a bold, revolutionary force in music, and had broad implications in social and political spheres as well.
Like many other artists and writers, James Baldwin left for France in an effort to escape the racism of American society. While Europe offered him some respite and an opportunity to write, he soon found racism to be just as pervasive there.
From early adolescence through his late teens, James Baldwin belonged to the Pentecostal Church of Mother Horn. There, he found solace from racial harassment and sexual exploitation. The presence of the church, and particularly the spiritual experiences of the "black church" known to many African American Christians, can be felt in much of Baldwin's writing, especially The Fire Next Time.
James Baldwin's novels and essays were written at a time when the African American literary scene was dominated by men. Contemporary criticism suggests that in much of Baldwin's literature, there is an effort to debunk the stereotype, long-held in portions of mainstream white society, that black men were over-sexualized and animalistic.
Suggestions for applying other theories to James Baldwin's work
A reader-response approach to James Baldwin's novels and essays allows students to explore their personal feelings about a variety of historic and contemporary events and issues. After reading one of his essays, teachers might have students write a fictitious letter to Baldwin in which they express their understanding of what they read. They can follow the letter with an imaginary interview in which they would describe the interview location and draft questions for Baldwin.
Teachers can give students an experience of the popular cultural context in which Baldwin lived by having them go to music stores to search for records produced during Baldwin's era. They can also research news - including politics, sporting events, and social issues -- by looking at old newspapers from that era. After their research, they can explore connections and draw inferences between Baldwin's writing and the popular culture texts.
James Baldwin was a fiery rhetorician who exuded great political force. Critical teaching could have students look at the specific political issues Baldwin tackled, and try to trace the development of his political activism. A follow-up would be to write reports or letters concerning the current status of those issues that concerned Baldwin -- or to examine new political issues that have evolved out of those older ones.