James Baldwin (1924-1987)
Trudier Harris and John Reilly
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Problems surround Baldwin's voicing the subjectivity of characters,
the great sympathy he awards to the outlook of the marginalized. Students
normally meet the underclass as victims perhaps objectified by statistics
and case studies. For that matter, students who are not African-American
have difficulty with the black orientation arising from Baldwin's middle-class
characters: the artists and other, more conventionally successful people.
The strategies flow from the principle that people do not experience
their lives as victims, even if Baldwin's popular social autobiographical
essay Notes of a Native Son --the portion where he recounts contracting
the "dread, chronic disease" of anger and fury when denied service
in a diner--might be useful in raising the issue of why Baldwin says every
African-American has a Bigger Thomas in his head. The anger may become
creative, as might the pain. A companion discussion explores the importance
of blues aesthetic to Baldwin: the artful treatment of common experience
by a singular singer whose call evokes a responsive confirmation from those
who listen to it. In addition, an exploration of the aesthetic of popular
black music would also enhance the students' understanding.
Within a literary context, the strategies should establish that fictional
narrative is the only way we know the interior experience of other people.
The imagination creating the narrative presents an elusive subjectivity.
If a writer is self-defined as African-American, that writer will aim to
inscribe the collective subjectivity under the aspect of a particular character.
Of course, the point is valid for women writers and other groups also,
as long as the writers have chosen deliberately to identify themselves
as part of the collective body.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Themes of personal importance include the significance of community
identification, the communion achieved in "Sonny's Blues," for
example; the conflicted feelings following success when that requires departure
from the home community; the power of love to bridge difference. The chief
historical issue centers on the experience of urbanization following migration
from an agricultural society. The philosophical issue concerns Baldwin's
use of religious imagery and outlook, his interest in redemption and the
freeing of spirit. Interestingly, this philosophical/religious issue is
often conveyed in the secular terms of blues, but transcendence remains
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Baldwin's frequent use of the first-person narration and the personal
essay naturally associates his writing with autobiography. His fiction
should be discussed in relation to the traditions of African-American autobiography
which, since the fugitive slave narratives, has presented a theme of liberation
from external bondage and a freeing of subjectivity to express itself in
writing. As for period, his writing should be looked at as a successor
to polemical protest; thus, it is temporally founded in the 1950s and 1960s.
In class I ask students to search out signs that the narrative was written
for one audience or the other: What knowledge is expected of the reader?
What past experiences are shared by assumption? Incidentally, this makes
an interesting way to overcome the resistance to the material. Without
being much aware that they are experiencing African-American culture, most
Americans like the style and sound of blues and jazz, share some of the
ways of dress associated with those arts and their audiences, and know
the speech patterns.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
One can make a comparison with Herman
Melville's Benito Cereno and Richard
Wright's Native Son. The basis is the degree of identification
with African-Americans accomplished in each. How closely does the writer
approach the consciousness of the black slave and street kids? Measure
and discuss the gap between the shock felt by Delano and the communion
of the brothers in Baldwin's story.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
Keeping in mind that James Baldwin's first experiences with "the
word" occurred in evangelical churches, see if that influences his
use of the "literary word."
What does Baldwin's short story tell you about the so-called ghetto
that you could not learn as well from an article in a sociology journal?
College students are responsive to questions of the ethics of success.
They may raise it with this story of "Sonny's Blues" by wondering
why the narrator should feel guilty and even by speculating about what
will happen to the characters next.
" 'Sonny's Blues': James Baldwin's Image of Black Community."
Negro American Literature Forum 4, no. 2 (1970): 56-60. Rpt. in
James Baldwin: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Keneth
Kinnamon, 139-46. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974. Also reprinted
in James Baldwin: A Critical Evaluation, edited by Theman B. O'Daniel,
163-69. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1977.