On Reading James Baldwin
At the end of the academic year, as a final reading for Classics of Social and Political Thought, I gave my students James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time. There were a number of reasons for this: one of the climactic scenes takes place in Hyde Park, at a house they could easily walk to; it updates the conversation on race through the mid-60s, and gives them something newer than W.E.B. DuBois to think about; it allows them an option on racial questions that avoids lionizing Malcolm X or martyring Martin Luther King, both of which flatten the contradictions that make them interesting and admirable. Baldwin ends by conjuring up visions of black America on the south side of Chicago, and everywhere. His repeated line is "what happens to all that beauty?"--all those lives that are lost or forgotten.
I also assign it because I read it shortly after the end of my freshman year of college, and it had a profound effect on me. Baldwin came to me from Cornel West, who directed me to DuBois, and Malcolm X, and many of the other highlights of black American culture. I assigned it because I wanted it to have the effect on someone else that it had on me: a life-shaking realization of what the world was like for people who were not me. One might be inclined to view this as an example of thinking literature can change people: it certainly changed me. But, I have come to realize, it changed me because I was prepared to be changed.
Some relevant facts about me not otherwise known to the internet:
*From approximately 7th grade to approximately 10th grade, I was bullied. I've had a very slight sibilant S since childhood, which sounds not unlike a lisp, on occasion. I was tall and skinny and not particularly interested in sports or cars; I liked to read. This made me a target, and the epithets of choice implied homosexuality. These threats were mostly that--threats--except for a few brief incidents. But the threat of violence is psychologically damaging in its own way. Sure, the kids in the pickup truck who stopped as I was walking down the street to yell "fag!" at me were probably not going to get out of said truck and make good on their threats, but probabilistic knowledge is cold comfort. I had some small consolation in the fact that the basis of their threats was untrue and, lo and behold, the threats dried up not soon after I started dating my first girlfriend, but there's something about knowing you might be subject to violence for no reason under your control that's hard to shake.
*From 10th grade or so until my sophomore year of college, I had long hair. I have been stopped and frisked by the police for the crime of sitting on a friend's car (and been singled out from the people I was with for that honor), and been frustrated by the indifference that attached to attempting to report someone's official misbehavior--city and state police shuttled me back and forth so many times, each denying responsibility, that I eventually gave up. I've had the experience of store owners send employees around to follow me and make sure I don't shoplift or otherwise cause trouble (and make sure I saw them so I knew it was intentional). When I took introductory philosophy as a freshman, the instructor asked if any of us had this particular experience--the only other one to raise her hand was the one person of color.
My experience was not the universe of experiences: I was only subject to force, never viewed as a threat. It was limited: only a few minutes or hours or random days through a small number of years. It also no longer applies: I look like the sort of person who gets called 'sir' when I wear a suit, and I do. (I additionally had the defiant-teen's ultimate defense, that the various charges stated or implied against me weren't true)
But I think about that radical element that's always been present in my political views, the way in which it was obvious to me that Baldwin was right, that the experience Malcolm X described actually happened, that Ralph Ellison had correctly apprehended both the white and black experience of racial interaction, and it becomes apparent that I responded to all that work because I was primed to recognize the truth in it. The victory it gives is minor: I'm not sure I'm a better person for having read it, though it does make one more aware of the ways in which one falls short, not an insignificant addition. You pick Baldwin because he recognizes all of it, including the continual struggle to be slightly better. It's hard to think of a more fitting task to direct people towards when they're young.