There is no such thing as a representative African American writer. So instructed James Baldwin, anyway, the 20th-century African American writer whom 21st-century readers have elevated as the most representative of all. In the cutting but impeccable essays that secured his first transatlantic audience, Baldwin acted the ungrateful student and raked his literary tutor Richard Wright over more than one pile of coals. Above all, however, he complained that his teacher and recommender had succumbed to the linked category errors of social realism and racial spokesmanship. “Leaving aside the considerable question of what relationship precisely the artist bears to the revolutionary,” Baldwin pronounced in “Many Thousands Gone,” “the reality of man as a social being is not his only reality and that artist is strangled who is forced to deal with human beings solely in social terms; and who has, moreover, as Wright had, the necessity thrust on him of being the representative of some thirteen million people.” Representativeness and its strangulation of artistry had been inflicted on Wright, but Wright had stooped to supply his persecutors, volunteering merely social accounts of black humanity in a string of protest fictions including his folk history 12 Million Black Voices (give or take a million, Wright leaped to voice the representative part). Respect was not owed to Wright’s acceptance of social/racial responsibility, Baldwin trusted, since this responsibility was illusory—“writers are not congressmen”—and “impossible, by its nature, of fulfillment.” Baldwin’s youthful judgment that social realism and racial spokesmanship doomed his mentor and threatened the larger life of African American writing never disappeared from his conscience and imagination—even, perhaps especially, when he became the most eloquent prophet-witness of the civil rights movement as it assumed its final identity as Black Power. Among other things, it is Baldwin’s lasting suspicion that racial representativeness is wrongheaded and unattainable that makes him surprisingly difficult to teach today, the height of his veneration while living or dead. Never better read or better loved—you can now buy votive candles bearing Baldwin’s image at your local indie bookstore—he has also never been a harder story to pass on.
In the spring semester of 2018, I led a version of an undergraduate course called “James Baldwin Now.” “This class will examine why James Baldwin, buried in 1987, often looks like today’s most vital and most cherished new African American author,” read my catalog description. Baldwin’s good name and the promise of relevance drew what qualifies as a crowd, if only for a humanities seminar at Washington University in St. Louis. There were 24 students in all, freshmen to seniors, responsibly self-identifying their Irish and African, Jewish and South Asian ancestries. Many enrollees balanced double majors with artistic responsibilities that would have staggered me when their age. A member of the university’s traveling slam poetry team sat in the second row, casually throwing out informed asides on Pentecostal worship, while fully half the class appeared in the student-written “Black Anthology,” the university’s annual African American homecoming show. Yet the single most influential student was the least typical, not an upper-middle overachiever trained somewhere better funded than Missouri, but an outspoken, charismatic, hyper-intelligent St. Louisan who had spent months on the front lines of the Ferguson protests in 2014. Even before her classmates learned to follow her lead through Baldwin’s winding sentences, this student had set the class agenda. She and other young protesters attached to Black Lives Matter had made Baldwin who he is today. Their tweets, posters, and reading lists had honed him into a key unlocking the civil rights movement’s repressed queer past. Their stylistic choices, literary and otherwise, had rebranded him as the master-logo of the woke but aesthetically uncompromising black artist. All of us who entered the class could expect to study a writer whose contemporary meaning the student and her peers had curated. And all of us, in various ways, wrestled with the guilt of confronting this writer in a classroom eight miles and a world away from the pavement where she and other protestors had drawn global attention to Michael Brown’s murder.
It is Baldwin’s lasting suspicion that racial representativeness is wrong-headed and unattainable that makes him surprisingly difficult to teach today, the height of his veneration while living or dead.
As I have argued in my edition of Baldwin’s FBI file, some of what is permanent in his expression welcomes the attention of readers who have come to him through Ferguson. Much like Black Lives Matter, he insisted too many times to count that white innocence was a willful crime enforced by runaway police. “Rare, indeed,” begins one typical Baldwin riff on the subject, “is the Harlem citizen, from the most circumspect church member to the most shiftless adolescent, who does not have a long tale to tell of police incompetence, injustice, or brutality.” As the example of the cop-victimized church member hints, Baldwin forecast Black Lives Matter’s conclusion that black respectability guarantees secure citizenship only in after-school specials. Conspicuously churched or straight off the street, black American life was physically precarious, he testified, disproportionately exposed to injury and murder. The “Negro’s past,” Baldwin avowed in The Fire Next Time, is a thing of hard-earned, precious beauty—and also “of rope, fire, torture, castration, infanticide, rape,” of the constant, humiliating fear, “deep as the marrow of the bone,” of death. Likewise in tune with Black Lives Matter, Baldwin painted the red record of white terrorism as an obsession with breaking the black form, its erotic power in particular. “A Black man has a prick,” so “they hack it off,” he cynically reasoned in dialogue with Audre Lorde. Sanctioning the more thoroughly secular materialism of Ta-Nehisi Coates, his most effective Ferguson-era champion, Baldwin broke faith with his habitually biblical rhythms to project an electrically embodied post-Christian era, one in which the teary kiss and protecting arm of the lover outstrip any sacred blessing at the close of his first, closely autobiographical novel Go Tell It on the Mountain. The once-shocking fact that Go Tell It’s sheltering lover is a black man who heals the sinless body of another black man illuminates the core of Baldwin’s importance to Black Lives Matter. For this movement piloted by queer leaders beginning with Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi, the ambition to end state violence against black bodies is nearly synonymous with the mission to ensure that queer militancy will never again be lost to African American history.
All the same, for all of Baldwin’s foretellings of Black Lives Matter, some of what is irreducible—and instructive—in his work resists his post-Ferguson renovation. Apart from snippets of his dazzling, smoke-filled TV addresses and interviews, now handily archived on YouTube, his ornate verbal signature is not easily rendered into sticker-sized political guidance. (He came to notice dragging Richard Wright, of course, for proceeding as if such a thing should or could be.) Baldwin currently ranks as both the most-tweeted and most un-tweetable of African American authors, his long and gracefully overstuffed sentences, immersed in Henry James as well as the King James translation, repelling partial quotation, let alone honest paraphrase. A fair bit of what appears in Baldwin’s lush sentences, meanwhile, fails to meet 21st-century standards of intersectional progressivism. Baldwin’s first three novels, the ones most often assigned in classes like mine—Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), Giovanni’s Room (1956), and Another Country (1962)—are remarkably different in cast, premise, and setting, even in racial complexion (another challenge to teaching). But they are similarly narrated by male voices speaking largely through the knothole of male interests. (If Beale Street Could Talk, not published until 1974, breaks the pattern. Not coincidentally, it is this novel, reflecting Baldwin’s delayed reckoning with black feminism, that Barry Jenkins chose to adapt into the first post-Ferguson fiction film boasting Baldwin’s signature.) Before and after Beale Street, Baldwin’s brave and pioneering meditations on queer life were most always gay or bisexual male alone, and sometimes alarmed by male effeminacy. What to say about this account of a gender-fluid folle entering Giovanni’s Room, a certified queer classic?: “Now someone whom I had never seen before came out of the shadows toward me. It looked like a mummy or a zombie—this was the first, overwhelming impression—of something walking after it had been put to death. And it walked, really, like someone who might be sleepwalking or like those figures in slow motion one sometimes sees on the screen. It carried a glass, it walked on its toes, the flat hips moved with a dead, horrifying lasciviousness.”
Baldwin currently ranks as both the most-tweeted and most un-tweetable of African American authors, his long and gracefully overstuffed sentences, immersed in Henry James as well as the King James translation, repelling partial quotation, let alone honest paraphrase. A fair bit of what appears in Baldwin’s lush sentences, meanwhile, fails to meet 21st-century standards of intersectional progressivism.
When we discussed this passage last spring, I thought it would be usefully provocative to dust off the hat of the Freud-reading formalist I once was. I mentioned that the lascivious someone’s likeness to an execution victim foreshadowed Giovanni’s fate under the guillotine. I noted that Giovanni’s true executioner—the novel’s too-American narrator, David— was the one doing the describing, terrified by his own likeness to the queer grotesque he spotted in the horror movie It. Some characters were symbols; all speakers were not their authors, precisely; but many enemies were aspects of our selves, I offered. Some of this lesson flew, somewhat. But frustration ruled the day, and I asked about its sources. Baldwin had surrendered to his internalized homophobia, thought the Ferguson activist—and I thought, under my breath, that she was not entirely wrong about that. The slam poet thought differently. Such reactions to the passage struck her as a warning to all artists, now as then, that they would someday be weighed by measures they could not foresee. “How will my stuff be judged? It makes me want to head home and rewrite and protect myself,” she quietly confessed. These two positions hung in the air, occupying equal space, and the discussion never devolved into the politically correct auto-da-fé that American conservatives now fantasize is the total environment of college English classes. Still, the day’s talk clarified that one lesson teachers of Baldwin must now teach is the inevitable politicization of our appreciation, and our no-less-inevitable disappointment after close encounters with historically distant authors politicized in our own image. Thomas Chatterton Williams, the Paris-based author of the hip-hop survival memoir Losing My Cool, recently observed that the “characteristics of the Baldwin brand that so ‘estranged’ him from the concerns of his generation and of black America writ large” are exactly “what make him such an exemplar of the queer-inflected mood of the Black Lives Matter era now.” What Williams did not say is that there may be nothing more poignantly and gallingly estranging than a dearly departed exemplar who on second glance almost—but not quite—flatters the mood of the present.
James Baldwin was educated by the Harlem Renaissance. Not just in the abstract and honorific sense that his writing, up and running with the mid-1940s, inherited the rebirth’s invention of black modernism, but con- cretely and intimately. Born in the Harlem Hospital near the height of the renaissance in 1924, Baldwin’s first love was the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library, transformed into the Division of Negro Litera- ture at the behest of renaissance intellectuals in 1925. “I went to the 135th Street library at least three or four times a week” as a child, Baldwin later remembered, “and I read everything there. I mean, every single book in that library. In some blind and instinctive way, I knew that what was happening in those books was also happening all around me.” By the time he was 12, Baldwin’s French teacher was the overqualified Countee Cullen, the author of “Heritage,” one of the renaissance’s flagship poems (“What is Africa to me: / Copper sun or scarlet sea”). For a golden season following his 1928 marriage to Nina Yolande Du Bois, W.E.B.’s jazz-loving daughter, Cullen had toured Europe as the most expectantly celebrated New Negro in the world. Just a few years later, he was happily divorced, slipping further out of the closet, and conjugating French verbs for pay at Frederick Douglass Junior High School on West 140th Street. There, Cullen helped Baldwin accept his literary talent, and sparked his plan to cultivate it in liberated Paris. Even more beneficial, Baldwin recalled, was what Cullen and similar survivors of the Negro Vogue taught about racial possibility. Harlem Renaissance veterans at the head of Harlem classrooms wanted “black students to know that we could do, become, anything. We were not, in any way whatever, to be limited by the Republic’s estimation of black people. They had refused to be defined that way, and they had, after all, paid some dues.”
The early teacher Baldwin most often wrote about had paid some dues of a different kind. She was a young white woman named Orilla Miller, regularly called Bill, whose Illinois farm family had lost everything in the Great Depression. Bill Miller had good reason to adopt the radical populism of her organizer father. She was forced to quit Antioch College after unpaid bills and righted herself only with help from the WPA, taking a half-time job with the educational branch of the New York Theatre Project. Miller was introduced to Baldwin during a Project visit to Harlem’s P.S. 24. This was “a dreadful, ancient schoolhouse,” as she depicted it, “dark, dreary, and scary at times,” but one equipped with what would now be called a functioning gifted and talented program. She adopted Baldwin under its auspices, employing him as an assistant director in the WPA rehearsal room and gamely enduring what Baldwin labeled his “first theatrical tantrums.” Miller persuaded Baldwin to let her meet his parents, and asked them if she could take their son to an enriching professional show. Detecting no pity, they eventually agreed, and the future playwright of The Amen Corner and Blues for Mister Charlie was escorted free of charge to ambitious dramas including Orson Welles’s landmark black-cast production of Macbeth.
Bill Miller makes her initial impression on the Book of Baldwin in “The Seventh Day,” the first, Harlem-set section of Go Tell It on the Mountain. She can be glimpsed behind the fleeting minor character of the saintly white teacher who delivers cod liver oil to the protagonist’s front door, a remedy “especially prepared with heavy syrup so that it did not taste so bad.” The protagonist and his mother suppose that this gift of sweet medicine—a touchstone metaphor for serious literature since Sir Philip Sidney’s 16th-century “medicine of cherries”—was “a Christian act.” The protagonist’s preacher father, a replica of Baldwin’s true-life stepdad, furi- ously disagrees. The elder Baldwin “said that all white people were wicked, and that God was going to bring them low. He said that white people were never to be trusted, and that they told nothing but lies, and that not one of them had ever loved a nigger.” By the time of the less fictional rewriting of this scene in the perfect essay “Notes of a Native Son,” published two years later, Bill Miller is bringing books instead of metaphorically literary cod liver oil to the Baldwins’ front door, and accompanying the autobiographical James to what she “tactlessly referred to as ‘real’ plays.” The boyish Baldwin, this time out, knows enough of his parents’ weaknesses to employ Miller’s race and vocation as levers to budge a rigid family system. “Theater-going was forbidden in my house,” he explains, “but, with the really cruel intuitiveness of a child, I suspected that the color of this woman’s skin would carry the day for me. … Also, since [she] was a schoolteacher, I imagine that my mother countered the idea of sin with the idea of ‘education,’ which word, even with my father, carried a kind of bitter weight.”
Racial and literary teachings were not always complementary in Baldwin’s Harlem education. Yet despite stern paternal pressure, they never collided straight on, either. In Cullen’s example, the literary evoked the racial to transcend the latter as a matter of black pride. In Miller’s city-as-school—Baldwin’s creation as much as his white teacher’s—racial differences were cleverly deployed to expand literary horizons beyond segregated territory. In Cullen and Miller’s joint curriculum, black literacy did not respect borders, whether of uptown Manhattan or of the English language. To be limited to (officially) black books or barred from (officially) white words—to dismiss, as a result, the possibility of a black Macbeth—was to capitulate to the Republic’s low estimation of black people. And Baldwin, more quickly than either of his favorite teachers, refused to be defined that way.
In Cullen and Miller’s joint curriculum, black literacy did not respect borders, whether of uptown Manhattan or of the English language. To be limited to (officially) black books or barred from (officially) white words—to dismiss, as a result, the possibility of a black Macbeth—was to capitulate to the Republic’s low estimation of black people. And Baldwin, more quickly than either of his favorite teachers, refused to be defined that way.
Baldwin’s formal education was relatively short: he went away to Greenwich Village and then to Cullen’s Paris instead of to college. Even so, its outlines entered my mind last spring when teaching his 1953 essay “Stranger in the Village,” reprinted as the climax of his first nonfiction collection. “From all available evidence,” Baldwin announces in his opening sentence, “no black man had ever set foot in this tiny Swiss village before I came.” As usual in his best essays, Baldwin proceeds to blend unforgettable memoir with sweeping, seemingly selfless prophecy. In this strange case, however, he mixes both with a rare sort of reverse-image ethnography. Inverting the standard-issue roles in Western anthropology, he tells his tale in the guise of a lyrical black scientist looking feelingly and systematically at a previously undiscovered white tribe. Close inspection proves that this tribe is as pure as driven snow but not as isolated as meets the eye. To Baldwin’s way of seeing, even if the pale mountain folk had been “incomparably more remote and incredibly more primitive,” they were still of “the West, the West onto which I have been so strangely grafted.”Their cultural inheritance, flowing through veins of color, confirmed their larger civilizational identity. “The most illiterate among them is related, in a way that I am not,” Baldwin contends, “to Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Aeschylus, Da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Racine; the cathedral at Chartres says something to them which it cannot say to me, as indeed would New York’s Empire State Building, should anyone here ever see it.”
Truth be told, the Empire State Building, which the 6-year-old Baldwin witnessed being built like a giant erector set, had said a good deal to him. So had the medieval cathedral at Chartres, its most stirring modern interpreter a fellow American writer, Henry Adams, and its French location Baldwin’s chosen adult home. However oddly grafted onto Europe his expatriation had left him, Baldwin had actually read Dante, Shakespeare, Aeschylus, and Racine—some of it, at least, partly in translation, but stacks more than any illiterate Swiss farmer. There has been debate, I informed my students, about the degree of irony in Baldwin’s line on the skyscraper and the cathedral, the extent to which his equation of race, culture, and civilization is meant to dismantle itself. Did not his essay’s lavish insight and beauty demonstrate that Dante and the rest belong most to those who take pains to read them? If so, were not these writers Baldwin’s rightful relatives, the old-school, white-supremacist definition of the West be damned? Had not the title of Baldwin’s essay, “Stranger in the Village,” predicted not only its misplaced black narrator, marooned in the Alpine drifts, but also the foreignness of the makers of the Western canon when lost in the Western outback, buried by an uncomprehending whiteness?
Nobody bought all this. Or nobody bought it who was also willing to speak up, which was worse. The Ferguson activist, the bravest person in the room, argued that it was obvious that Baldwin’s meaning was straight forward, and correct. Dante and company had written lovely but self-enclosing white words. The opposite was also correct: Baldwin had written brilliantly about his exclusion from Dante in a way that only black readers could wholly understand. I did not believe that this was true, but I tried to keep myself from saying so bluntly. I made my case without raising the counter-evidence of Countee Cullen’s French lessons, or Bill Miller’s tickets to Shakespeare, though it tugged at my brain. I did not mention that some of my own Millers were black teachers who brought me to archives and prayer meetings, and that I aspired to be more of a Cullen than a Miller at that. By contrast, my evident likeness to Miller—my whiteness—had spoken loudly to every student since the first instant of the first class. It made me a poor messenger of the no-longer-new anti-identitarian news. Increasingly, in spite of my healthy self-esteem and my best guess at Baldwin’s intentions, I am afraid that it also makes me a strange and less-than-ideal guide to the author of “Stranger in the Village.” Here is another irony of Baldwin’s 21st-century comeback, then, one of the most successful literary resurrections since T.S. Eliot saved John Donne from the sermonic slush pile. His revival has taken place amid a re-hardening of racial essentialism, its causes easy to appreciate but terrible to accept, that warps facets of his pedagogy at its most contrary, distinctive, and profound.
Baldwin’s second career as a prophetic explainer of the Civil Rights Movement occasionally found him teaching the teachers who were beginning to teach his books. In October 1963, fewer than two months after the organizers of the March on Washington banned him from the podium, Baldwin addressed a crowd less wary of his undisguised opinions. This crowd was composed of black and white New York City teachers in a primarily black school—Countee Cullen and Bill Miller’s professional heirs, so to speak—and Baldwin kindly let them have it. Sharpening his words was the June murder of Medgar Evers in his own driveway in Jackson and the September killing of four little black girls in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, part of the string of Sixties assassinations whose bottomless effect on Baldwin shapes Raoul Peck’s 2016 documentary I Am Not Your Negro. Racist butchery weighing on his analysis, Baldwin recognized that the nonviolent movement’s triumph at the Lincoln Memorial did not defuse the hazard of its moment.
His revival has taken place amid a re-hardening of racial essentialism, its causes easy to appreciate but terrible to accept, that warps facets of his pedagogy at its most contrary, distinctive, and profound.
“Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time,” he proposed to the assembled teachers. “We are in a revolutionary situation,” he continued, raising the stakes, “no matter how unpopular that word has become in this country.” What should teachers do in response to this combustible situation, and in respect to that scorned word? A great, unflinching deal. They should let black students know “that those streets, those houses, those dangers, those agonies by which they are surrounded, are criminal.” That “these things are the results of a criminal conspiracy to destroy” them. That if the individual student “intends to get to be a man, he must at once decide that he is stronger than this conspiracy and that he must never make peace with it.” That “there are currently very few standards in this country which are worth a man’s respect.” That “it is up to him to begin to change these standards for the sake of the life and the health of the country.” That the movies, television, cheap literature, and the rest of “the popular culture” are bloated with “fantasies created by very ill people.” That “the press he reads is not as free as it says it is.” That “just as American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it, so is the world”—and that this wider terrain, too, “belongs to him.” That “he doesn’t have to be bound by the expediencies of any given Administration, any given policy, any given time—that he has the right and the necessity to examine everything,” not excluding the great American bugaboo of communism. That, when push came to shove—it was coming any minute—America would either find a way “to use the potential and tremendous energy” of its young, or “be destroyed by that energy.”
Most any teacher who took most of Baldwin’s advice would be fired. Quickly. Tenured radical or far from it, employed then, now, or in the foreseeable future, she would be tried by newspaper, convicted by internet, removed for bureaucratic cause. This is a fact we should regret, I believe, but a fact worth recalling when identifying what has lasted from Baldwin’s day to ours in the terrible beauty of American history. Baldwin’s career-threatening recommendations for teaching in revolutionary times do not double back to what he viewed as Richard Wright’s mistaken path: they condemn social schemes against individual lives without imagining those lives as essentially social. To make their lives meaningfully human, in fact, Baldwin’s model students must decide that they are more powerful than these schemes and “must never make peace” with them. Baldwin’s model teachers, meanwhile, must supply their students with a liberated will, a hunger for personal accountability, a rich appreciation for the ironies of national history, and a critical cosmopolitan temper, qualities that reflect his firsthand engagement with French existentialism as well as with the self-taught, college-going second wave of the Southern civil rights movement. Marching orders were not included on Baldwin’s rebel syllabus, yet teaching in its spirit would still require revolutionary risks.
These risks, too, make Baldwin a difficult writer to pass on, especially given our rejuvenated taste for his most radical speech. Did I take Baldwin’s tips for teachers when teaching Baldwin? I trust that I described some of what was genuinely criminal in American history, no other option ethically possible when teaching the cultural consequences of American racism. Revising Baldwin’s program, I also taught that there remained a number of American standards worthy of respect, several of them captured in his world-class essays—even though these standards were currently ignored or despoiled in the American capital. I suggested that no press was truly free, but that some presses—those preferred by Baldwin, for instance—were freer than others, and that some more-or-less pulpy literature, Baldwin’s sexy bohemian soap opera Another Country included, sprang from fantasies worth studying. I definitely taught that “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it,” and “so is the world”: Baldwin’s globetrotting test of his times (he accurately dubbed himself a “trans-atlantic commuter”) demanded it. Did I use his work to convey the apocalyptic, very Sixties idea that America would either harness “the potential and tremendous energy” of the young or be wrecked by it? I did not. An anti-utopian Seventies kid teaching decades later, I was of a different, less melodramatic conviction—not to mention one of those teachers afraid to be virally shamed and fired. But at moments, especially when the Ferguson activist spoke from insight refined by action, I felt this idea’s renewed weight, and sensed that the young could not demolish and inherit the earth soon enough.
Off the top of my head, I can think of just one extraordinary teacher who put all of Baldwin’s tips into practice without compunction or career suicide: Baldwin himself. Though it is generally forgotten today, when the thought of the sage holding office hours is too eccentric to entertain, the most enjoyable phase of his later life was spent as an adjunct professor. Between 1978 and 1986, seeking steadier income and a way back to the States after the wave of assassinations had passed, Baldwin took teaching jobs, typically a semester at a time, at three U.S. public institutions: Berkeley, U-Mass Amherst, and Bowling Green in Ohio. Berkeley, the warmest, fanciest, and most intellectually elite of the trio, treated him like a returning hero, welcoming his arrival with a jazz reception starring Angela Davis and Huey Newton. But Baldwin felt most comfortable in Amherst. Unpredictably, the ivy-free small-town campus a full 90 miles from Boston then qualified as one of the crossroads of black world literature, for stretches also employing the Nigerian Chinua Achebe, the Jamaican Michael Thelwell, and the Pittsburgher John Edgar Wideman. Baldwin almost fell permanently into the U-Mass faculty ghetto, contemplating an unconventional marriage to a white Ph.D. student in Afro-American Studies, Cynthia Packard, whose ring sat by his bed when he died in the south of France in 1987. Baldwin’s best biographer, David Leeming, describes Packard as Baldwin’s personal organizer and de facto TA while at Amherst. Bill Miller, it turns out, was not the only beloved woman in his life who was a teacher-pupil.
In October 1963, fewer than two months after the organizers of the March on Washington banned him from the podium, Baldwin addressed a crowd less wary of his undisguised opinions. This crowd was composed of black and white NYC teachers in a primarily black school—Countee Cullen and Bill Miller’s professional heirs, so to speak—and Baldwin kindly let them have it.
It was at Bowling Green, however, Baldwin’s first professorial gig, that his unorthodox pedagogical habits were formed and perfected. A self-employed writer and hard-drinking night owl since his twenties, he “was not accustomed to daily routines,” Leeming narrates, “and it was difficult for him to keep to an academic schedule when he was also leaving frequently to fulfill other commitments” in New York, Europe, and Africa. He stayed up late, at times until dawn, daring “groups of students”—and faculty and their spouses and their children—to value “honor over safety.” Near the start of the fall semester of 1981, he was “kidnapped” for several weeks by students from Wayne State in Detroit “who wanted him to do for that institution what he was doing for Bowling Green.” Baldwin allowed himself to be kidnapped back to Ohio, where his daylight classes continued to fill and feed legends. He assigned his own work—not every teaching writer’s preference—alongside Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus, assorted modernist classics by William Faulkner, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the novel that had made the deepest impression on him despite his famous attack on its hidden family resemblance to Wright’s Native Son. For all his Scotch-fed late nights and sincere nonconformism, he helped to build what is now called the “Program Era” in American literary history, the post-World War II migration of authors and authorship from New York and a handful of other major cities to the academic grind of dozens of college campuses sprinkled across the flyover zone.
In 1980, writing for Esquire, Baldwin recounted one of his first days leading class at Bowling Green. He told readers nothing of his lesson plan, instead quoting an astonishing preliminary question from a white student in a racially mixed classroom: “‘Why does the white man hate the nigger?’” Baldwin concedes that the inquiry caught him “off guard,” but not because he was stunned by the slur. “I simply had not the courage to open the subject” of racial hatred in the very first session, he explains. “I underestimated the children,” he admits, “and I am afraid that most of the middle-aged do. The subject, I confess, frightened me, and it would never have occurred to me throw it at them so nakedly.” The white child’s uncontrolled insistence on the N-word made Baldwin realize that the euphemistic “notion of interracial tension hides a multitude of delusions and is, in sum, a cowardly academic formulation.” During the discussion that followed the dropped bomb, his students verified “that they did not need me at all, except as a vaguely benign adult presence. They began talking to one another, and they were not talking about race. They were talking of their desire to know one another, their need to know one another; each was trying to enter into the experience of the other. The exchanges were sharp and remarkably candid, but never fogged by an unadmitted fear or hostility. They were trying to become whole. They were trying to put themselves and their country together.” They were acting, in short, like the “relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks” whose prospect he had dangled 17 years before in the ringing final sentences of The Fire Next Time, the thinking and feeling American remnant who might “end the racial nightmare and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.” Months before the final exam, the students had become the teacher, and Baldwin considered himself “permanently in their debt.”
To make their lives meaningfully human, in fact, Baldwin’s model students must decide that they are more powerful than these schemes and “must never make peace” with them. Baldwin’s model teachers, meanwhile, must supply their students with a liberated will, a hunger for personal accountability, a rich appreciation for the ironies of national history, and a critical cosmopolitan temper, qualities that reflect his firsthand engagement with French existentialism as well as with the self-taught, college-going second wave of the Southern civil rights movement. Marching orders were not included on Baldwin’s rebel syllabus, yet teaching in its spirit would still require revolutionary risks.
Airdropped into “James Baldwin Now,” the class I taught almost 40 years on from 1980, the white student’s question would have ended all student discussion, perhaps permanently. I would have interrupted and lec- tured him, as calmly as I could manage, about why this word should never be uttered by a non-black person. And I would have tried to go big, and on to safer ground, by explaining that while Baldwin’s writing and much of the rest of African American literature, for all sorts of solid historical reasons, was full of the N-word, we would not be saying this word aloud. It would have been a good thing for the class and for the world, doing all of this. It would have met with the approval of the Ferguson activist and the slam poet and practically everyone else still sitting in the room, and it would have revealed one narrow slice of improvement in recent American history. Yet this course of action would also have reminded me of some of what has been lost since the days of Baldwin’s own teaching, days that try the teaching of Baldwin today. Despite our talk of structural and state- policed racism, we—the classroom keepers of English most of all—tend to conflate the learning of linguistic prohibitions with the unlearning of racism at its most destructive. The tirelessly antiracist and linguistically exacting Professor Baldwin did not. We also tend to fear and expect that the in-class voicing of ignorance about interracial tensions, to echo the euphemism, will lead to shouts or silence. Professor Baldwin did not, accepting open statements of the spew as one feasible route to reintegrating America and American selves. An epically less inspired and credentialed instructor than Baldwin, I will take the educational world in which we now live, the one in which the N-word is banned and the white student’s question is assumed to be infected by the hate it asks about, anytime. But I would also prefer, borrowing some Baldwinian honesty, to teach in a slur-free present in which more exchanges in the light of his work are sharp and remarkably candid, are less fogged by unadmitted fears and hostilities, and are aimed to make us whole rather than separately righteous. These implications of Baldwin’s teaching at Bowling Green and elsewhere, characteristically not for the faint of heart, deserve their own 21st-century revival.