For those of you lucky enough to be enrolled this coming semester in Professor Koritha Mitchell’s English 4564.04 course, Major Authors: James Baldwin, check out Teju Cole’s Page Turner piece in The New Yorker.
Studies in a Major 20th-Century Author: James Baldwin
Having lived from 1924 to 1987, James Baldwin witnessed some of the most tumultuous decades of the twentieth century, and he engaged them with a courage and conviction that makes the truth of his written and spoken words unmistakable to this day. Because he urged the United States to live up to its creed, he was relentless in his criticism of racism, sexism, and classism, and without “coming out” in ways that we easily recognize today, he challenged the nation’s heterosexism and homophobia by highlighting the hypocritical definitions of morality on which they depend. In short, he was an extraordinary man who achieved prominence as an intellectual without all of the (unspoken) qualifications that open doors of opportunity: he wasn’t white, wealthy, or heterosexual.
James Baldwin was born in Harlem, New York to parents who struggled to make ends meet and often turned to religion to cope. Though less reliant on religion, he became a “boy preacher” at age 14. He left the pulpit at age 17, but his thorough knowledge of the Bible shaped his work throughout his life. By 1946 when he was 22, he began publishing essays that commanded considerable attention. Though he was beginning to find success as a writer, American racism led Baldwin to seek relief by leaving the United States to live in Paris in 1948. The next year, he published his first novel Go Tell it On the Mountain, which further bolstered his reputation and helped win him a larger audience as he continued to produce. After nearly a decade in France, Baldwin saw pictures of Dorothy Counts trying to integrate a school in North Carolina and being spit upon as she did so; this prompted him to return to the United States in 1957, and he became a national figure in the Civil Rights movement. Through it all, he continued to write, and his body of work includes essays, novels, short stories, plays, and poetry. As importantly, Baldwin was a public intellectual with a strong presence on television and radio and in the periodical press. Also, in 1978 and 1979, he spent some time in Ohio as a writer-in-residence and as a distinguished visiting professor at Bowling Green State University.
This class will use this extraordinary man’s life and literature as a way of understanding the time period in which he lived and wrote. We will work as an intellectual community, with everyone engaging new and sometimes different information and resources and sharing their findings with the rest of the group. As a collective, we will read some of Baldwin’s most famous works, understanding that he was so prolific that we simply cannot cover his oeuvre in a semester. We will engage his non-fiction prose, with readings from the essay collections Notes of a Native Son (1955), Nobody Knows My Name (1961), and The Fire Next Time (1963); we will read his earliest novels, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), Giovanni’s Room (1956), and Another Country (1962); and we will engage his work as a playwright via Blues for Mister Charlie (1964), which has disturbing resonances with our current historical moment, given the widely publicized trials of white men who killed black teenagers while many Americans, including those in the courtroom, pretended that race had nothing to do with the cases.
Especially through students’ research beyond the readings on the syllabus, we will also address Baldwin’s interactions with leading figures of his day, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Elijah Muhammad, Marlon Brando, Harry Belafonte, and Richard Avedon and examine how his work engages literature by other authors, such as Shakespeare, Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Faulkner, Richard Wright, and Norman Mailer. In all that we do, we will keep Baldwin-an exceptional black man-at the center. That is, we will operate with the understanding that his importance does not emerge simply in relationship to others.
Requirements: careful, consistent reading; thoughtful class participation; a scholarly annotation assignment; at least one presentation; a major research project.