James Baldwin: Still not moderate.

25 03 2008

The US State Department has a program to fund libraries on American history and culture in cities all over the world. When I was a Fulbright in Romania, that’s where I got almost all the books I read during my five months there. If I have a criticism of the program, it’s that they’re history book choices are awfully heavy on biography. However, I can’t fault them politically at all, because that’s where I discovered James Baldwin.

Baldwin was always one of those authors who I thought I knew all about, but had never bothered to read. When I waded through the Library of America version of his non-fiction, what just stunned me was how well he could be angry and eloquent at the same time. Thanks Ari, for leading me to this YouTube illustration of these same qualities:

Inspired by the book, I assigned The Fire Next Time for my students in 1945-Present this semester. After all, it’s only about 100 pages long. I’m not sure if it’s their fault or my fault for not introducing the book well enough, but an awful lot of them thought Baldwin was somehow moderate because he was willing to criticize the Black Muslims. But compare him to Dr. King and see him criticize King’s tactics here and try to imagine how this looked to a white audience in teh early 1960s.

I can’t wait to show this to those students when Spring Break is over and start that execellent discussion up all over again.



One response

25 03 2008
James Stripes

I taught Go Tell It on the Mountain for several semesters in a conservative Christian college. Some of the misreadings–seeing the text as a call to conversion for example–were truly astounding. Several years ago C-Span did one of their writer’s programs on Baldwin. Among other things, they broadcast a video of an address Baldwin gave in 1979 at UC Berkeley. No one that watches that film is likely to come away viewing Baldwin as a moderate.

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