We’re now on our last text, James Baldwin’s “Letter to My Nephew,” first published in 1962.
I know we began with a 1960s text and are ending with one; that was not the initial plan, but I think that both King’s letter and Baldwin’s letter speak to issues that are very present in our society today– as Garnet wisely pointed out in her LAF-award-winning piece, “Vibe Check: America.”
AFTER we finish this last reading (in about a week), my goal is for as many of us as possible to get together on Zoom for a wrap-up discussion and final review.
Instead of me doing a video here, I’m linking several important resources below. As you will see, Baldwin speaks best for himself.
Please read and annotate the text (also linked on the syllabus). Also, the actor and comedian Chris Rock did a reading of the text at Riverside Church, to which I recommend listening.
Background: Baldwin (1924-1987) was a novelist, essayist, playwright, and civil rights activist. He grew up in Harlem, for the most part, and then moved to Paris and became an expat. He returned to the United States during the Civil Rights Era, when he felt personal responsibility to fight for African American rights.
His life was explored in a stunning 2017 documentary, I Am Not Your Negro. If you have the chance to watch it and respond here with any thoughts, I strongly, strongly recommend it. We were supposed to watch this together as a class. It is on Netflix and Amazon Prime and Kanopy (which you have free access to as a CUNY student). Warning: there are photographs of serious violence (lynching).
Finally, I am also attaching a presentation I put together on Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose pivotal work from 2015, “Between the World and Me,” we were supposed to end the semester with. Coates is relevant here because he INHERITS Baldwin’s legacy. In “Between the World and Me” (which is both a shorter work published in The Atlantic magazine and a longer book), he writes a letter to his son Samori. He was greatly influenced by Baldwin in putting together this text. So in case anyone has the time and/or interest I invite you to read “Between.” You could post about it here and/or include it in your final project reflection. Here is my PPT presentation, for additional context and background: coates
Baldwin Discussion Questions (Answer 2 in a post; try to answer at least one question about the text itself)
1. Here is a brief bio video on Baldwin. What are some important ideas that come up here? (You can answer below.)
2. Baldwin was brilliant, and nowhere is his intellectual fire more clear than in his speech. Here is an important TV interview with Baldwin. What is this debate about? What is the professor’s position, and how does Baldwin respond? Whom do you find most compelling/convincing? Why?
3. Baldwin writes his text in the epistolary form. What do you think is his intention in doing this?
4. Choose one important quote that stood out to you. Copy and paste and explain what Baldwin is saying, and why the words resonated with you.
5. Zero in on one major theme in Baldwin’s letter. Elaborate on it, with supporting examples from his text.
6. How does this letter compare/contrast with King’s “Letter to Birmingham Jail?”
7. If you have the chance to read Coates’ text, in what ways do Baldwin’s and Coates’s visions overlap, and how do they depart from one another?
8. If you have the chance to watch the “I Am Not Your Negro” documentary, what scenes did you find most powerful? Why?
9. Who are the “countrymen?” Why does Baldwin use this word?
10. “… it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.” What does Baldwin mean here?
11. Can Baldwin’s words be applied to the pandemic in any way?
After we get a batch of posts we’ll do a roundup discussion and review.