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The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School

Inquiry: Rudolfo Anaya and James Baldwin Session Author and Literary Works: James Baldwin

James Baldwin

Photo courtesy of the estate of James Baldwin

Author Bio

One of the best known African American writers of the 20th century, James Baldwin has been celebrated for both his fiction and nonfiction. A rallying voice for the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, Baldwin was a master polemicist against social injustice as well as an accomplished novelist, playwright, poet, short story writer, and children’s book author. Much of his writing explores the destruction people can wreak upon one another through hatred, and extols the saving power of love and brotherhood.

Born in Harlem in 1924, Baldwin was the son of a domestic worker and a father he never knew. When Baldwin was three, his mother married a factory worker who was also a minister. At 14, Baldwin became a minister at a small church in Harlem. “Those three years in the pulpit — I didn’t realize it then — that is what turned me into a writer, really, dealing with all that anguish and that despair and that beauty,” he later wrote. Critics have often pointed to the influence of the church in his writing, both in his recurrent themes of redemption, and in his cadences and style.

An avid reader who published his first story in a church newspaper when he was 12, Baldwin left home at 17 and moved to Greenwich Village. His first novel, the partly autobiographical Go Tell It on the Mountain, was published in 1953 to great critical acclaim. The essay collections that followed — Notes of a Native Son (1955), Nobody Knows My Name (1963), and The Fire Next Time (1963) — made him known to a larger, white audience.

In 1948 Baldwin moved to France. “I left America,” he wrote in 1959, “because I doubted my ability to survive the fury of the colour problem here … I wanted to prevent myself from becoming merely a Negro; or even merely a Negro writer.” In Paris, he was befriended by the writer Richard Wright, also an African American, and through him, Baldwin was introduced to the American expatriate arts community. He lived in the south of France for most of the rest of his life, although he returned regularly to the United States to lecture and teach. Though he was a “black writer” before the Civil Rights Movement and a “homosexual writer” before the Gay Rights Movement, Baldwin nonetheless saw himself as an American writer first and foremost. He died in 1987.

Synopsis: The Fire Next Time

The Fire Next Time appeared in 1963 at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement and galvanized the nation. The New York Times Book Reviewcalled it, “sermon, ultimatum, confession, deposition, testament, and chronicle … all presented in searing, brilliant prose.” Made up of two essays written in the form of personal letters, it demands that Americans, white and black, Christian, Jew, and Muslim, end the tyranny of racism and intolerance. The first essay, “My Dungeon Shook,” is Baldwin’s letter to his nephew on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation; the second, “Down at the Cross,” is written to all Americans and ranges in subject from Baldwin’s upbringing in Harlem to black nationalism to the author’s analysis of the connection between Christianity and racism. A fierce and angry document, The Fire Next Time draws on Old Testament imagery, and opens with the line from an old spiritual: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”

Calling oppression by one people against another a “recipe for murder,” Baldwin warns, “The Negroes of this country may never be able to rise to power, but they are very well placed indeed to precipitate chaos and ring down the curtain on the American dream.” Yet for all its passionate intensity, The Fire Next Time is ultimately a hopeful work. Baldwin stresses that Blacks and Whites “deeply need each other” in order for America to realize its identity as a nation. The work, a best-seller immediately after it was published, is now considered such a central and seminal text in American literature that it has been called a “starting point” for all discussions about race.

In reviewing the book, the writer Langston Hughes commented: “Baldwin uses words as the sea uses waves, to flow and beat, advance and retreat, rise and take a bow in disappearing … The thought becomes poetry and the poetry illuminates the thought.”

Synopsis: "Sonny's Blues"

Told from the point of view of the title character’s unnamed brother, this short story explores the bonds of brotherhood and the human need for expression. As the story opens, Sonny’s brother, a respectable schoolteacher, has just learned that Sonny has been arrested for heroin use. When he gets out of prison, the two brothers are reunited. But the narrator has trouble understanding that both Sonny’s addiction to drugs and his life as a blues musician have been attempts to express the rage and pain within him – until he hears Sonny play for the first time. He says about his brother’s music: “I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, with what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did.”

In an interview, Baldwin spoke about the impetus for “Sonny’s Blues.” “I grew up with music, you know, much more than with any other language,” he said. “In a way, the music I grew up with saved my life.”

Synopsis: "The Rockpile"

“The Rockpile” is a short story that begins with two brothers, John and Roy, who are sitting on the fire escape of their apartment in Harlem and staring at the rock pile, a natural rock outcropping that has become a play area for the neighborhood children. Though their parents have forbidden them to play there, the younger brother, Roy, cannot resist. At the rock pile, Roy is hit by a tin can and starts to bleed. As the brothers make their way home, the reader learns that John is the only one of four siblings who is not his father’s biological child: “Only John was nameless and a stranger, living, unalterable testimony to his mother’s days in sin.” When the father comes home, he bitterly blames his wife and John for Roy’s accident, still unable to come to terms with her infidelity or to display compassion toward John, the living symbol of that infidelity.

Audio Clip with Brenda Green

Read more about Brenda Green.

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.

Suggestions for Applying Other Theories to

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.

Author and Literary Works

Works by the Author

Baldwin, James. Another Country. New York: Dial Press, 1962.
Set in Greenwich Village, Harlem, and France, this emotionally intense novel explores the sexual, racial, political, and artistic tensions of its time.

—-. Blues for Mister Charlie. New York: Dial Press, 1964.
Loosely based on the murder of civil rights activist Emmett Till in 1955, Blues for Mister Charlie is a morality play that pits “whitetown” against “blacktown.”

—-. The Fire Next Time. New York: Dial Press, 1963.

—-. Giovanni’s Room. New York: Dial Press, 1956.
The young American narrarator of this novel struggles with his homosexuality and ruminates on his troubled love affair with an Italian man who has been sentenced to die for murder.

—-. Go Tell It On the Mountain. New York: Knopf, 1953.
“Mountain is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else,” James Baldwin once remarked. A partly autobiographical novel, it tells the tale of a sensitive teenage preacher who battles with his brutal stepfather.

—-. If Beale Street Could Talk. New York: Dial Press, 1974.
This poetic love story concerns a young artist who is unjustly accused of a crime. A book full of anger, it is ultimately about the saving power of love and the importance of family bonds.

—–. Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son. New York: Dial Press, 1961.
This collection of essays explores race relations in America and also includes Baldwin’s commentary on author Richard Wright’s work.

—-. Notes of a Native Son. Boston: Beacon Press, 1955.
Baldwin’s first book of essays covers topics such as life in Harlem and the protest novel.

—-. “The Rockpile” and “Sonny’s Blues,” from Going to Meet the Man. New York: Vintage, 1995.

Other Works:
Everybody’s Protest Novel (1949)
The Amen Corner (1955)
Going to Meet the Man (1965)
Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone (1968)
Just Above My Head (1979)
The Price of the Ticket (1985)

Works about the Author

Achebe, Chinua. “James Baldwin.” In James Baldwin: The Legacy, edited by Quincy Troupe. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989.
This critical appreciation explores Baldwin’s work and its influence.

Albert, Richard N. “The Jazz-Blues Motif in James Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s Blues.'” College Literature, 11:2 (Spring 1984): 178-185.
This critical essay considers the music that most influenced Baldwin.

Byerman, Keith E. “Words and Music: Narrative Ambiguity in ‘Sonny’s Blues.'” Studies in Short Fiction, 19:4 (Fall 1982): 367-72.
This analytic essay considers the role of music in Baldwin’s work.

Clark, Michael. “James Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s Blues’: Childhood Light and Art.” College Language Association Journal, 29:2 (December 1985): 197-205.
This critical analysis explores different aspects of Baldwin’s short story.

Kollhofer, Jakob (ed). James Baldwin: His Place in American Literary History and His Reception in Europe. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1991.
This book looks at Baldwin’s writing in relation to the communities where he lived and worked.

McClane, Kenneth A. “Sonny’s Blues.” In You’ve Got to Read This: Contemporary American Writers Introduce Stories That Held Them in Awe, edited by Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994.
The writer discusses how Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” saved his life.

Mosher, Marlene. “Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s Blue’s.'” Explicator, 40:4 (Summer 1982): 59.
Mosher performs a close reading of Baldwin’s fiction.

Murray, Donald C. “James Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s Blues’: Complicated and Simple.” Studies in Short Fiction, 14 (1977): 353-57.
Murray analyzes Baldwin’s famous short story.

Robertson, Patricia R. “Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s Blues’: The Scapegoat Metaphor.” University of Mississippi Studies in English 9 (1991): 189-98.
Robertson presents a thematic analysis of Baldwin’s fiction.

Waldrep, Shelton. “‘Being Bridges’: Cleaver/Baldwin/Lorde and African-American Sexism and Sexuality.” In Critical Essays: Gay and Lesbian Writers of Color, edited by Emmanuel S. Nelson: 167-180. New York: Haworth, 1993.
Waldrep explores the manner in which Baldwin’s sexuality is expressed in his work.

James Baldwin – American Masters
This site offers a wealth of information about Baldwin. Partner to the PBS documentary.

African American World
This page contains concise information about Baldwin’s life and work.

NPR Interview With James Baldwin
This links to a 1986 interview with James Baldwin.

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The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School


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