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Teaching the Controversy

James Baldwin and Richard Wright in the Ferguson Era

Archivio Cameraphoto Epoche/Getty Images; Jean-Regis Rouston/Roger Viollet/Getty Images

Last fall, without knowing just how topical the subject would turn out to be, I taught a course on Richard Wright and James Baldwin at Bennington College, where I’m a member of the literature faculty. When I’d first planned the class, I imagined it as a chance to revisit the work of two writers who loomed large in African American literature of the twentieth century but who had fallen, in recent years, out of favor and off of syllabi.

I knew Wright’s work only from the bowdlerized editions that everybody read when I was in school: Black Boy, his partly fictional memoir about growing up in the Jim Crow South, had been stripped of its second half, when Wright goes north to segregated Chicago, works menial jobs, and finds his first literary audience by joining the John Reed Club; his novel Native Son had been edited to minimize Bigger Thomas’s sexuality, especially his attraction to Mary Dalton, the Chicago heiress he smothers to death in her bed and then stuffs into a furnace. (Both sets of changes were imposed by the Book-of-the-Month Club—the price Wright paid for mainstream best-sellerdom.)

I should admit, right off, that I began the class as an avowed Baldwinite. I’d read the essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” his early takedown of Native Son, before I ever cracked the book myself, and I was sympathetic to Baldwin’s claim that Wright’s pamphleteering for the cause of urban blacks robbed his characters of their essential humanity. Baldwin believed that Bigger Thomas, a young black man whose life was defined by “his hatred and his fear,” wound up serving as “a continuation, a complement of that monstrous legend [Wright’s novel] was written to destroy.” Wright, it seemed to me, sought to change the United States by writing with a cudgel and a brick, while Baldwin’s tools were his prophetic intellect and an eloquence almost beyond words. I knew his novels had major flaws, particularly when he used his fiction to explore larger social issues on a broad canvas, as he did with Another Country. The characters in the novel are cultural stereotypes (Rufus the haunted jazz musician from Harlem, Vivaldo the village hipster, Cass the bohemian earth mother), and their affairs across the fault lines of race and gender read today less like the provocations of an American Jean Genet than softcore melodrama.

But there were individual essays when Baldwin was writing at his peak, like “Equal in Paris” or “Stranger in the Village,” or books like The Fire Next Time, that seemed only to grow through the years in authority, beauty, and relevance. The grace notes in Baldwin come where you least expect them, like the Scotch-and-milk in his short story “Sonny’s Blues” that passes from one brother to another in a downtown jazz club like “the very cup of trembling.”

In Wright’s work, from the early stories in Uncle Tom’s Children to later fiction like his existentialist novel The Outsider, violence is always the catalyst, both of the plot itself and the opening up of consciousness for his black protagonists. “I didn’t know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for ’em,” Bigger Thomas confesses to Mr. Max before his execution for murder at the end of Native Son. For Baldwin, the catalyst for change is always love—even if it’s imperfect and always on the verge of arriving. “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within,” he writes in The Fire Next Time, and love is the only force that has any hope of healing the original sin of slavery and the national divide. The idea behind my course, then, was to read Wright and Baldwin side-by-side for an entire term, with fresh eyes, and see what—if any—patterns emerged from it, which vision of what used to be called the Negro Problem in America (both writers scorned this term and turned it back on whites) would win out.

At the first class in September, we went around the room and talked about the books we’d read over the summer and what had brought us to a class on Wright and Baldwin. I still felt confident that Baldwin’s loving vision was the more powerful, that Wright’s cruder binary of black and white belonged to a different and older reality. The protests and candlelight vigils for Eric Garner and Michael Brown that had roiled late summer were still very much on the minds of the students, but that world felt far away from the rich Vermont green outside our classroom windows. Nineteen students had enrolled in the class. Nine were students of color, which, perhaps not surprisingly for a small, progressive school in Vermont, made Wright and Baldwin the most racially diverse group I’d taught on campus. About half of them had read Black Boy or Native Son in high school. A handful of others had read Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room—a queer classic—or had been assigned his more canonical essays. But otherwise it was undiscovered territory. That I was white and many of the students were not became part of the class’s inquiry from that first day onward; as a Baldwinite I hoped it would only help prove his notion of a shared destiny across the racial divide—more evidence, in practice, that our worlds are not so separate after all.

The problems with this idealistic view started brewing even before we read the first book on the course syllabus, Native Son. To kick off the class, I’d shown them a few clips I’d found on YouTube. In one, Baldwin debates the conservative William F. Buckley Jr. in 1965 at Cambridge University in England. The topic of the debate is “Has the American Dream Been Achieved at the Expense of the American Negro?” It is a typically compelling performance by Baldwin, his every thought spooling out in a series of dependent clauses, his power seemingly buoyed by the sea of white faces around him. In his opening statement, he speaks of the rude awakening that comes to every Negro child (again, this is 1965) when they discover that the world they’d thought they were a part of was only meant for whites:

It comes as a great shock, around the age of five or six or seven, to discover the flag to which you have pledged allegiance along with everybody else has not pledged allegiance to you.

But they were largely unimpressed by Baldwin’s statement—or maybe it was just that they weren’t as impressed as I thought they’d be. They didn’t like his accent (it came off as “pretentious”), didn’t know what he was doing there with William F. Buckley Jr., and they wondered why it took him so long to say anything. This worried me afterward, and I fretted about what it meant, but I think the disconnect had less to do with style points or Baldwin’s use of the word “Negro” than it did with the utter alienness of expecting a meaningful transaction between yourself and the flag you pledged allegiance to in school. Civic life, as Baldwin had known it growing up in Harlem, is no longer operative. Whenever he refers to “the Republic” as a collective responsibility, he might as well be talking about ancient Rome.

Richard Wright went over much better from the start. I had my reservations about Native Son: Wright’s dialogue is often wooden (“Listen, Bigger, that’s what we want to stop. That’s what we Communists are fighting”); the constant speechifying by Mr. Max and others makes Book Three an incredibly hard slog. But reading the restored version of the novel helped me appreciate Wright’s mastery at depicting the pressure of lives in peril, not to mention the audacity of making the reader sympathize with Bigger Thomas, a young black predator, as he struggles to fit a white woman’s corpse into the furnace. The violence of the scene is hypnotic: 

He spread a neat layer of newspapers beneath the head, so that the blood would not drip on the floor. He got the hatchet, held the head at a slanting angle with his left hand and, after pausing in an attitude of prayer, sent the blade of the hatchet into the bone of the throat with all the strength of his body. The head rolled off. 

There is a terrible thrill in rooting for Bigger Thomas to behead Mary and stuff her into the fire. Wright succeeds somehow in eliminating all moral categories in the reader’s life and bringing out our kinship with the hunted animal. The horror story of race in America for its black citizens is inflicted on his white audience. A similar thing happens in his short story “Big Boy Leaves Home,” set in the Jim Crow South, when the protagonist, Big Boy, spends a long night hiding from a lynch mob in a ditch. At one point, he peeks his head out to see the mob celebrating while they drag in his friend Bobo:

Big Boy saw men moving over the hill. Among them was a long dark spot. Tha mus be Bobo; tha mus be Bobo theys carryin . . . They’ll git im here. He oughta git up n run.

I was relieved when we made it to Go Tell It on the Mountain, Baldwin’s first—and probably best—novel, a biblical retelling of his childhood in Harlem and salvation in the black church. (That salvation was short-lived; Baldwin found the doctrine of love in the black church to be insufficiently applied, and reading Dostoevsky proved to be a fatal encounter for his religion.) I couldn’t wait to talk about the scene, early in the book, when the protagonist, John Grimes, gets enough pocket money for his birthday to see a movie and walks south, through Central Park, to the great white city. From a hilltop he gazes out at the towers and the traffic of a forbidden world he’d like to conquer; he takes off running down the hill to the gravel path and almost knocks down an old white man walking with a cane. 

They both stopped, astonished, and looked at one another. John struggled to catch his breath and apologize, but the old man smiled. John smiled back.
It was as though he and the old man had between them a great secret; and the
old man moved on. The snow glittered in patches all over the park.

“Oh, c’mon,” one of the students scoffed after we’d read the passage aloud.

“It’s a moment of mutual recognition,” I replied. “Two strangers in the park.”

She didn’t look convinced. “Why don’t they just hug?”

(Snickers from the other students.)

“You don’t find that moving?” I asked the same student.

She scoffed again. “It’s so unrealistic! He’d get shot! There’s your novel!”

This was the problem that some of my students had with Baldwin, and it never really went away: his insistence, not that the racial divide in the United States was unreal, or that it could be crossed without peril and great sacrifice, but that crossing it, for everyone, was a matter of grace. Once you made the journey to the other side, you would discover a more perfect version of yourself: “[W]e, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation,” Baldwin wrote in The Fire Next Time, “if we are really, that is, to achieve our identity, our maturity, as men and women.” He went on: 

To create one nation has proved to be a hideously difficult task: there is certainly no need now to create two, one black, and one white.

In late November, while we were reading The Fire Next Time and discussing Baldwin’s critique of the Nation of Islam, the world outside the classroom conspired to intervene and prove him wrong—and to show that Wright, for all his pessimism, had been the one who really knew America. Akai Gurley, 28: shot dead by a police officer in a stairwell at the Louis H. Pink Houses (November 20, 2014). Tamir Rice, 12: shot dead by a police officer at a park in Cleveland for carrying a toy gun (November 22, 2014). Every time our class met, it seemed, there was another black victim of a shooting in the news; students showed up half-an-hour late or not at all; they stopped trying to hide it when they checked their phones for texts; discussions about the protests began to dominate the classroom. After class was over, I would walk the aisles picking up the travel mugs and plug-in chargers the students had left behind. When grand juries in Ferguson and Staten Island declined to indict police officers in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, the decisions coming so close to each other that it seemed like they’d been choreographed, it felt like the whole country had turned back into the Jim Crow South of Wright’s early stories, and Baldwin was the fiction writer. In fact, in his essay “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” Wright had described an eerily familiar system of police-induced terror and two-tiered justice at work in northern cities—and the complicity of well-meaning whites:

So far removed are these practices from what the average American citizen encounters in his daily life that it takes a huge act of his imagination to believe that it is true; yet, this same average citizen, with his kindness, his American sportsmanship and goodwill, would probably act with the mob if a self-respecting Negro family moved into his apartment building to escape the Black Belt.

The United States of Trayvon Martin and “Stand Your Ground” is not so far removed from this nightmare vision of the republic.

The term ended, and I began reading through my students’ final papers for the class. I’d left this last assignment fairly open: They could write an academic paper analyzing one of Wright’s or Baldwin’s major works, or they could write a more creative essay that used the personal as a springboard into larger issues of social justice. It was about an even split. One student explored the implications of deciding to be a poet as a young black woman, citing Cornel West, T.S. Eliot, Natasha Trethewey, and Claudia Rankine as her guides; another explored the role of Jewish Americans in the civil rights movement and the complications of Jewish assimilation. There were a number of essays that took the form of an “open letter”: one to a student’s roommate about her obsession with the mirror; another addressed a student’s mother about the church they attend and its positions on social issues like same-sex marriage.

It was Baldwin, not Wright, who liked to use the open letter form in his essays: “A Letter to My Nephew” opens The Fire Next Time, and in 1970, in The New York Review of Books, Baldwin published “An Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angela Davis,” after her arrest for allegedly taking part in a conspiracy to free a prisoner in a Marin County courtroom by force. The open letter is a peculiar form, both private and public, using the intimacy of direct address to draw readers into an exchange of ideas that is not, at least on the surface, meant for us. And yet it is; the reader is the one who feels flattered to be at the receiving end of Baldwin’s letter, while the ostensible recipients—Baldwin’s nephew James, or Davis—are the ones who might feel cheated of intimacy. Private love is sacrificed for the instruction of strangers and an infinite, rather than singular, expression—pure Baldwin. Even the finals that weren’t explicitly open letters had a quality of thought and feeling that were unmistakably influenced by him. I was stunned by what happened on their finals, but not surprised. Wright had won my students over as readers in the wake of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. But when they sat down to write their hearts out, they were Baldwinites.