James Baldwin, Born 90 Years Ago, Is Fading in Classrooms April 24, 2014Posted by rogerhollander in Art, Literature and Culture, Education, Race, Racism, Revolution.
Tags: afro-american, black history, education, felicia r. lee, james baldwin, Race, racism, roger hollander
Roger’s note: As with MLK’s more radical anti-war, anti-American speeches vanish (whitewashed, pun intended) from official history, so do genuine revolutionary radicals like James Baldwin, Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little) and Amiri Baraka (born Leroi Jones in Newark, New Jersey, my birthplace). It is no coincidence, rather a conscious amnesia. In the same week celebrating the 90th anniversary of Baldwin’s birth, the US Supreme Court upholds racist anti affirmative action state law. This week also saw the passing away of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the prize fighter who spent 19 years in prison based on racist prosecutions and verdicts in Patterson, New Jersey (my beloved home state).
By FELICIA R. LEE
APRIL 24, 2014, New York Times
James Baldwin’s 1953 novel, “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” about a Harlem teenager’s search for meaning, quickly became a classic, along with his searing essays about race published a decade later in the book “The Fire Next Time.” But in recent years Baldwin’s presence has diminished in many high school classrooms.
In a year that marks the 90th anniversary of his birth, educators offer different reasons for Baldwin’s faded presence there, from the concern that he is too controversial and complex to the perception that he has been eclipsed by other African-American voices. Collectively the explanations illustrate how attitudes about race have changed, along with the way the high school literary experience has evolved according to currents in the field.
“Baldwin is still there, but he’s not there in the way he was,” said Jocelyn A. Chadwick, chairwoman of the secondary level of the National Council of Teachers of English, pointing out that while in the 1960s and ’70s students would study Baldwin’s essays, short stories and novels in their entirety, today they often encounter his work only in anthologies.
Isaac Asante participates in a discussion of “Sonny’s Blues” in Ms. Brantley’s class.
Now teachers, scholars and other Baldwin fans are seizing on the anniversary of his birth in Harlem to inspire what they hope will be a revival of a younger generation’s interest in the work of one of the country’s most gifted writers and major voices on race and morality.
The New York Live Arts festival “James Baldwin, This Time,” which began on Wednesday and continues through Sunday with performances and events across disciplines, is an extensive commemoration of the writer, who was black and gay and died in 1987. The festival kicks off a yearlong, citywide consideration of Baldwin at several places, including Harlem Stage, the Columbia University School of the Arts and the New School’s Vera List Center for Art and Politics.
Additionally, some of Baldwin’s books are being reissued this year, and there are new appraisals of his work as well as new work inspired by him. “Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems” (Beacon Press), with an introduction by the poet Nikky Finney, came out this month. Vintage reissued “Giovanni’s Room” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain” last year. Already the attention has prompted a broader conversation about Baldwin’s legacy.
“I think he’s not taught as much anymore on the high school level because he’s incendiary and, for some, inflammatory,” said Rich Blint, a Baldwin scholar and associate director in the Office of Community Outreach and Education at the Columbia University School of the Arts. Paradoxically, the belief that the county is somehow postracial, Mr. Blint said, has shut down some discussions about race. “Think about how impoverished our racial conversations are now,” he said.
Educators also cite poor reading habits, censorship and Baldwin’s absence from the list of works suggested for Common Core standards as reasons his works are not studied regularly. And since the late ’70s and early ’80s, as school districts have scrambled for more diverse subject matter in the classroom, Baldwin has had to share space with a new crop of black writers, especially women: Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou. Over the years, some parents and schools have also challenged what they saw as the sexual material, violence and profanity in Baldwin’s work. Sex — interracial and intraracial, gay and straight — is prominent in his fiction. His raw dissections of race also raised concerns.
Long before it was fashionable to argue that race was a social construct, Baldwin famously said, “Insofar as you think you’re white, you’re irrelevant,” during a 1979 speech in Berkeley, Calif., a sentiment he repeated in his writing and public appearances. Racism was not a stain on American exceptionalism, Baldwin argued, but a deliberate feature of a country that he said routinely terrorized black people. He moved to France in the late 1940s to evade racism, but he returned home often, and he helped to articulate the pains of the civil rights movement.
“He was one of the fiercest critics of the American race problem who ever put pen to paper,” said Khalil G. Muhammad, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. A historian, Mr. Muhammad has taught Baldwin to students as young as eighth grader to help them understand history and to articulate and communicate the conditions of their lives, he said. In his travels around the country, though, he does not find nearly enough young Baldwin readers, he said.
In the words of Walter Dean Myers, an award-winning children’s author, in an interview, “It begins with the fact that the students are not reading that well at all, the teachers shy away from complex issues, and the parents are not making demands.” While it can be difficult to generalize about a vast universe of schools, high school students who do read Baldwin are more apt to attend elite or high-performing schools, said Mr. Myers, who in 2012 and 2013 traveled to dozens of libraries, schools and community centers around the country as a national ambassador for young people and literature.
Nevertheless, in some quarters Baldwin remains a vivid part of adolescent lives. In a classroom decorated with Baldwin quotations at the Frederick Douglass Academy 1 in Harlem, students in freshman English one recent morning recited poems inspired by “Sonny’s Blues,” Baldwin’s short story about a jazz musician whose demons include heroin.
“In a dark place is where my soul lays/one parent dead and the other missing,” went two lines of “Stanley’s Blues,” by Stanley Anisca.
Shawnakay Shaw recited, “Living in the hood ain’t no joke/especially when you’re broke selling dope.”
To include young people in the new considerations of Baldwin, students from the James Baldwin School, a Manhattan high school, will join such prominent artists as Ms. Finney, Suzan-Lori Parks, Marcus Gardley, Vijay Iyer and others in reading and discussing Baldwin’s writing at a Live Arts noon program, “Jimmy at High Noon,” at the New York Live Arts Studio every day during the festival.
For some Baldwin fans, those events are a bright spot on a generally dull landscape. “On one hand, he’s on a U.S. postage stamp; on the other hand, he’s not in the Common Core,” said Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University. “A lot of public high school students will not have heard of him, and that’s a tragedy. The burden of protecting James Baldwin’s hugely important legacy is on teachers of English.”
Baldwin’s name and books are not listed in the appendix of the Common Core State Standards, a set of learning goals adopted by more than 40 states and the District of Columbia. (Richard Wright, for instance, is included.) Its proponents argue that the core’s “exemplar” list of books and writers is just a guidepost, not definitive and not reflective of a canon or a curriculum. Many canonical titles are not on the list, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain being one example.
Susan Pimentel, a leading writer on the standards for English language arts and literacy, said in an email message that it would be heartbreaking to think that a great story like “Sonny’s Blues” would be overlooked just because it was not on the list. However, she said, “It simply was not the aim of Appendix B to create a list of important authors to read and wade into the canonical arguments of the 1980s.”
At Frederick Douglass, there was no doubt that Baldwin would be in the canon and the classroom. Joseph D. Gates, the principal, said his school has the latitude to create the curriculum with the staff and to include work that will be relevant to students. The school has a reputation for sending all its seniors to college, including some to Ivy League schools.
“I think Baldwin presents a perspective that is uniquely Harlem,” Mr. Gates said. “Many of the struggles the students face are the same: self-identity, racism, drugs and alcohol, even though the times have changed.”