The thrill was in the prose, in Baldwin’s capacity to wed the intimate and the universal and to make of his life an offering to generations of readers, including those whose experiences were far removed from his own. But the destabilization mattered more. Baldwin’s language upended the order of my understanding, as a political theorist-in-training, and as a white American.
Baldwin’s love and hope for true democracy is most clear in his consistent attention to black music throughout his work. Especially in “Sonny’s Blues,” Baldwin underscores the importance of music in embodying and relating racialized trauma.
As the years go on, as courses evolve and new crops of students sit in front of me, I have come to realize that when I speak about teaching Baldwin, I am in a sense talking about all my teaching.
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.
Although Baldwin did not relish the opportunity to sit across a table from James Jackson Kilpatrick, he felt duty-bound to do so. His example can teach us something valuable about the nature of our duty to confront racism in our own time.
The Common Reader remembers the iconic African-American novelist Toni Morrison in this 1995 interview: “Black writing has to carry that burden of other people’s desires, not artistic desires but social desires; it’s always perceived as working out somebody’s else’s agenda. No other literature has that weight.”
Humans have long seen nature as a monster. We have tried our banded-together best to destroy it but cannot stop thinking about creatures that never stood a chance against us. The idea of a seven-foot hominid wandering around Texarkana, or the Pacific Northwest, or the Himalayas, is an aftertaste of our fear and hope that such things are still possible.
“The standing apology for women who become writers without any special qualification is that society shuts them out from other spheres of occupation. Society is a very culpable entity, and has to answer for the manufacture of many unwholesome commodities, from bad pickles to bad poetry.”
This is not about how it feels to be homeless. It is merely about someone who, knowing little of such matters and without money in his pockets, went onto the streets of St. Louis and found shelter and food, and it is about what and whom he saw in the process.
This story, like many stories, centers on a brief and chance encounter. Meeting Sam and then reading about his demise made me wonder how communities like mine could better support and care for young people who may be struggling, who may sometimes make the devastating choice to end their life.