James Baldwin (1924-1987)

    Contributing Editors:
    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 the point.

    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.

    Original Audience

    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.