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James T. KeaneJune 27, 2023
James Baldwin (Wikimedia Commons)

In his new book Memories of a Gay Catholic Boyhood, the scholar John D’Emilio recounts his experiences at Regis High School, a well-known Jesuit prep school on New York’s Upper East Side. In the book (which was reviewed last week for America by Brian Linnane, S.J.), D’Emilio recounts a memory of a young scholastic teaching English, Harold “Hap Ridley” (who would later become president of Loyola College in Baltimore, now Loyola University Maryland), who recommended that D’Emilio do a book report on Another Country, by James Baldwin. “It was a best seller and just came out in paperback,” Ridley told D’Emilio. “I’d describe it as a novel for mature audiences, very contemporary in its concerns.”

A bit of an understatement, perhaps, but D’Emilio found himself fascinated by the book and by Baldwin himself, the gay Black American writer whose novels and essays made him a prominent public figure during the civil rights era. “Love and anger, sex and despair, yearnings and loneliness: his characters were riding roller coasters of feeling that drove them into relationships and then tore those relationships apart,” D’Emilio wrote. Recommending such a book, Linanne noted in his review, “would have been extraordinary at a Catholic high school in 1963.”

Toni Morrison on Baldwin: “You knew, didn’t you, how I needed your language and the mind that formed it? How I relied on your fierce courage to tame wildernesses for me?”

Sixty years later, the recommendation might still be extraordinary, but for a different reason: Baldwin has fallen out of favor in many high school and college classrooms, and is no longer included in New York’s “Common Core State Standards,” a set of learning goals adopted by more than 40 states that includes suggested reading lists for teachers. A 2014 New York Times article cited a number of reasons for the decline, including Baldwin’s complex writing style, his raw treatments of sexuality and race, a new generation of Black American writers like Toni Morrison who were popular authors with teachers, and an increasing squeamishness on the part of teachers unwilling to deal with parents complaining about controversial materials.

Former America editor Olga Segura wrote in the aftermath of the Times article that she had been lucky: A teacher introduced her to Baldwin’s work in the 1990s. “​​I first encountered Baldwin in my senior year of high school, when my Advanced Placement literature class read Go Tell It On The Mountain,” she wrote. “I found myself drawn to not only Baldwin’s prose, but also the journey he presented. As a teenager in New York City, I found parallels between [the protagonist] John’s life and my own; he was uncertain of his future, I was uncertain of mine too.”

Baldwin’s writing inspired her to study literature in college, where she read both his novel Giovanni’s Room and Notes of a Native Son, a collection of essays. “Reading Baldwin presented me with a culture and city in which I had grown up but never fully understood. He described New York City and African American culture in ways I had not encountered before. His writing offers not just diversity but also social critique,” she wrote.

"We are still deluding ourselves that wounds are something we should hide rather than basic realities we ought to delve into.”

James Baldwin was born in Harlem in 1924 and attended Dewitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. His writing first appeared in The Nation in 1947 (a review of Maxim Gorky’s Best Short Stories). In 1948, he moved to Paris, France, returning occasionally to the United States but finding Paris a welcome escape from the pressure cooker of being Black and gay in the United States. He published the semi-autobiographical Go Tell It on the Mountain in 1953, following it up with Notes of a Native Son in 1955 and Giovanni’s Room in 1956. He would publish two more novels (Another Country and Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone) in the 1960s, but another publication early in that decade is perhaps his most famous. “Down at the Cross” was a two-part essay in The New Yorker (later republished in Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, by which name it is more commonly known) that made Baldwin a national figure in the civil rights movement. In 1963, he appeared on the cover of Time.

In 1970, Baldwin returned to France, where he would live for most of the rest of his life, dying in 1987 of stomach cancer. He had become close friends with Toni Morrison over the years, and her eulogy for him was reprinted in The New York Times. She concluded: “You knew, didn’t you, how I needed your language and the mind that formed it? How I relied on your fierce courage to tame wildernesses for me?”

An unfinished manuscript Baldwin was working on at the time, Remember This House, because the basis for Raoul Peck’s 2016 documentary I Am Not Your Negro. Olga Segura interviewed Peck for America in 2017. “The idea of tackling Baldwin in film came around 10 years ago…I was seeing how little he meant to a new generation and how even some people were pushing him aside as either a has-been or as a minor author, which is scandalous,” Peck told her. “So I thought, it was time to bring him back and make sure that this legacy will stay.”

In 2020, frequent America contributor Stephen G. Adubato wrote that reading James Baldwin could be valuable for Americans seeking to heal racial divisions in our present day. “When I look at the United States in 2020, rent apart and reeling, I see just how prophetic Baldwin’s words were in the beginning of Nothing Personal,” he wrote. “Baldwin attributes this division to the widespread ‘blindness’ to our own humanity. We are still deluding ourselves that wounds are something we should hide rather than basic realities we ought to delve into.”

It seemed to Baldwin, Adubato wrote, “that the divides between black and white, rich and poor, saved and damned, beautiful and ugly were the result of Americans’ inability to look at themselves in the mirror, at who they really are. This internal blindness has, in effect, blinded us to the humanity of the other and to our experience of reality more broadly.”

If readers (and teachers) can begin to see the value of Baldwin anew, might we see a renewal of interest in him on the academic level? It might fix what is now a somewhat ironic situation identified by Henry Louis Gates Jr. in the Times about Baldwin: “On one hand, he’s on a U.S. postage stamp; on the other hand, he’s not in the Common Core.”

Olga Segura: “Reading Baldwin presented me with a culture and city in which I had grown up but never fully understood."

•••

Our poetry selection for this week is “Unfinished Masterpiece,” by Alfonso Sasieta. Readers can view all of America’s published poems here.

In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.

Other Catholic Book Club columns:

Vatican II’s secret priest-journalist: The story of Xavier Rynne

The spiritual depths of Toni Morrison

The mystery of Thomas Merton’s death—and the witness of America magazine’s poetry editor

Leonard Feeney, America’s only excommunicated literary editor (to date)

Theophilus Lewis brought the Harlem Renaissance to the pages of America

Happy reading!

James T. Keane

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