America and Beyond
Publication Year: 2011
Published by: University of Michigan Press
Introduction: America and Beyond
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James Baldwin was one of the boldest and most important writers in English of the twentieth century. His radical humanism was eclectic, undogmatic, and interrogative, aiming always to illuminate the psychic elements in the discourses of power. This was a way of thought that—in our view— is of immediate relevance to the international climate of fear and uncertainty in which we now live...
Part 1. What It Means to Be an American
1. Stranger at Home. James Baldwin on What It Means to Be an American
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My title alludes of course to two of Baldwin’s most famous essays, “Stranger in the Village” and “The Discovery of What It Means to Be an American.” In the former, the last essay in Notes of A Native Son and one of his most eloquent meditations on identity, Baldwin reflects on a sojourn in a Swiss village where by virtue of phenotype and culture, he is a stranger. Against that white landscape, to the accompaniment...
2. Baldwin and “the American Confusion”
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In December 1962 the New York Times asked some of the year’s best-selling authors to write a piece describing “what they believe there is about their book or the climate of the times that has made [their book] so popular.” In reply, Vance Packard, for example, explained that his book The Pyramid Climbers had been a best-seller, because, he believed, “there is a growing uneasiness among Americans about the terms of their existence...
3. “Over and Over and Over Again”. James Baldwin, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the Afterlife of an American Story
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When it comes to James Baldwin and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, everybody knows “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” Published in 1949, when Baldwin was only twenty-four, the essay is an impassioned denunciation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel and the literary and political traditions it represents. In it, Baldwin accuses both Stowe and Richard Wright of oversimplifying the complexity of black experience...
4. “Now Describing You”. James Baldwin and Cold War Liberalism
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In 1950, W. E. B. Du Bois’s literary journal Phylon devoted a special issue to the situation of the “Negro Writer.” Overwhelmingly, contributors noted how black writers appeared to be approaching artistic maturity and finally shedding what Alain Locke described as the “adolescence” and “lingering immaturity” of the Negro Renaissance...
5. Baldwin, Prophecy, and Politics
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Although James Baldwin’s essays depict the relationship of white supremacy to the formation of American society and the shaping of national identity, prevailing forms of liberal and Marxist political thought, as well as most versions of so-called democratic theory, do not recognize him as a political thinker or even as contributing to the understanding of politics...
6. Rendezvous with Life. Reading Early and Late Baldwin
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James Baldwin was a bad poet, or so it is generally held within the settled and static critical and biographical traditions that bunch around Baldwin’s in‹nitely interesting ‹gure. He was a bad poet; a remarkable, if not always reliable, novelist; a talented orator; a forthright partisan of the Black American civil rights struggle; a breathtakingly interesting American exile; and a profoundly talented essayist...
Part 2. Stranger in the Village
7. “History’s Ass Pocket”. The Sources of Baldwinian Diaspora
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In 1972, James Baldwin described a moment during his ‹rst trip to the American South in the late ‹fties, and the exhumed memory produced one of his most jarring and sophisticated metaphors of power: I have written elsewhere about those early days in the South, but from a distance more or less impersonal. I have never, for example, written about my unbelieving shock when I realized that...
8. Separate and Unequal in Paris. Notes of a Native Son and the Law
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It is December 27, 1949. James Baldwin, just released from a French prison, stands up on a chair. He is sweating as he holds the sheet in his hand, and he twists it, with bitterness and desperation, into a rope. He has left his home, his church, and his country in order to discover himself. He has published a short story, a dozen reviews, and a pair of essays. He is twenty-five years old...
9. Exile and the Private Life. James Baldwin, George Lamming, and the First World Congress of Negro Writers and Artists
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In the 1970 No Name in the Street, James Baldwin recalled his attendance at the First Negro Writers and Artists Congress, which took place at the Sorbonne, in Paris, from September 19 to 22, 1956. He recalled walking along the Boulevard St. Germain with Richard Wright and other speakers from Africa. “Facing us, on every newspaper kiosk on that...
10. From Istanbul to St. Paul-de-Vence. Around James Baldwin’s The Welcome Table
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In an interview with Ali Poyrazoğlu published in Turkey in 1969, James Baldwin stated, “It is very difficult to talk about American theatre. There is no such thing as an American theatrical tradition.”1Well aware of what had been available to theatergoers and play readers in his home country, Baldwin expressed this view having just directed a play...
11. What Is Africa to Baldwin? Cultural Illegitimacy and the Step-fatherland
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In an intriguing interview with Harold Isaacs, presented at the Third Annual Conference of African Culture in 1960, James Baldwin recalls how his first thoughts of Africa were inextricably linked to his father. “I don’t know when Africa came in ‹rst,” Baldwin told Isaacs, adding, “It must have been from my father...
12. James Baldwin and Chinua Achebe. Transgressing Official Vocabularies
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Perhaps I can begin with an Ibo proverb embedded in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. It reads: A man who calls his kinsmen to a feast does not do so to save them from starving. They all have food in their own homes. When we gather together in the Moonlit Village ground it is not because of the moon. Every man can see it in his own compound. We come together because it is good for kinsmen to do so1...
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I had never thought to count the ways that I miss James Baldwin, but they must powerfully add up, insofar as his absence to me feels comprehensive— all over everywhere, all the time, and shadowing national and global events as the genial insight that I will not now have. What would Baldwin say, for example, about the Obama presidency
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Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2011