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Reader Response: Pat Mora and James Welch Reader Response: Keith Gilyard and Mourning Dove Inquiry: Rudolfo Anaya and James Baldwin Inquiry: Tomás Rivera and Esmeralda Santiago Cultural Studies: Ishmael Reed and Graciela Limón Cultural Studies: N. Scott Momaday and Russell Leong Critical Pedagogy: Octavia E. Butler and Abiodun Oyewole Critical Pedagogy: Abiodun Oyewole and Lawson Fusao Inada
Theory Overview Teaching Strategies Authors and Literary Works Resources
Session 3 Inquiry: Rudolfo Anaya and Esmeralda Santiago - Authors and Literary Works

Author: Rudolfo Anaya
Work: Bless Me, Ultima
Author: James Baldwin
Work: The Fire Next Time, "Sonny's Blues," and "The Rockpile"

 

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Title of work: The Fire Next Time, "Sonny's Blues," and "The Rockpile" by James Baldwin


 Synopsis: The Fire Next Time

 Synopsis: "Sonny's Blues"

 Synopsis: "The Rockpile"
 Audio Clip
 Q & A
 Information about key references
 Suggestions for applying other theories

Title of work
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

Synopsis
The Fire Next Time appeared in 1963 at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement and galvanized the nation. The New York Times Book Review called it, "sermon, ultimatum, confession, deposition, testament, and chronicle ... all presented in searing, brilliant prose." Made up of two essays written in the form of personal letters, it demands that Americans, white and black, Christian, Jew, and Muslim, end the tyranny of racism and intolerance. The first essay, "My Dungeon Shook," is Baldwin's letter to his nephew on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation; the second, "Down at the Cross," is written to all Americans and ranges in subject from Baldwin's upbringing in Harlem to black nationalism to the author's analysis of the connection between Christianity and racism. A fierce and angry document, The Fire Next Time draws on Old Testament imagery, and opens with the line from an old spiritual: "God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!"

Calling oppression by one people against another a "recipe for murder," Baldwin warns, "The Negroes of this country may never be able to rise to power, but they are very well placed indeed to precipitate chaos and ring down the curtain on the American dream." Yet for all its passionate intensity, The Fire Next Time is ultimately a hopeful work. Baldwin stresses that Blacks and Whites "deeply need each other" in order for America to realize its identity as a nation. The work, a best-seller immediately after it was published, is now considered such a central and seminal text in American literature that it has been called a "starting point" for all discussions about race.

In reviewing the book, the writer Langston Hughes commented: "Baldwin uses words as the sea uses waves, to flow and beat, advance and retreat, rise and take a bow in disappearing ... The thought becomes poetry and the poetry illuminates the thought."

Title of work
"Sonny's Blues" by James Baldwin

Synopsis
Told from the point of view of the title character's unnamed brother, this short story explores the bonds of brotherhood and the human need for expression. As the story opens, Sonny's brother, a respectable schoolteacher, has just learned that Sonny has been arrested for heroin use. When he gets out of prison, the two brothers are reunited. But the narrator has trouble understanding that both Sonny's addiction to drugs and his life as a blues musician have been attempts to express the rage and pain within him - until he hears Sonny play for the first time. He says about his brother's music: "I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, with what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did."

In an interview, Baldwin spoke about the impetus for "Sonny's Blues." "I grew up with music, you know, much more than with any other language," he said. "In a way, the music I grew up with saved my life."

Title of work
"The Rockpile" by James Baldwin

Synopsis
"The Rockpile" is a short story that begins with two brothers, John and Roy, who are sitting on the fire escape of their apartment in Harlem and staring at the rock pile, a natural rock outcropping that has become a play area for the neighborhood children. Though their parents have forbidden them to play there, the younger brother, Roy, cannot resist. At the rock pile, Roy is hit by a tin can and starts to bleed. As the brothers make their way home, the reader learns that John is the only one of four siblings who is not his father's biological child: "Only John was nameless and a stranger, living, unalterable testimony to his mother's days in sin." When the father comes home, he bitterly blames his wife and John for Roy's accident, still unable to come to terms with her infidelity or to display compassion toward John, the living symbol of that infidelity.

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Audio

Listen to Brenda Green. (Click here for Realplayer)

Read more about Brenda Green.
Transcript:
In Baldwin's work, you have the themes of alienation, of marginalization, coming of age, conflicts between father and son, mother, and mother and father or husband and wife. You have all of these conflicts, and the recurring theme is what it means to be on the outside. You also have the themes of migration, because he's ... if you look at his work, it starts in the 1950s, goes through the civil rights and continues up until the black arts movement, where some began to silence him. But he crosses a number of decades and represents a number of movements within the black literary tradition.

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Q & A with Brenda Green
Why is James Baldwin an appropriate author for high school students to study?
James Baldwin represents the essential outsider. He always felt marginalized, which is something that young people identify with as they are growing up. How do I fit in this society as those hormones are going crazy? How do I fit in this culture? With whom am I going to connect? Baldwin's experiences as a black man and homosexual provides a starting point for getting students to talk about difference and what it means to be different.

Talk about the importance of Baldwin's nonfiction.
Baldwin is a prolific writer. He's a very complex man. I think it's important for people to read him and to look at his fiction as well as his nonfiction. Some people would say that his strongest writing is represented in his essays. And when he's writing in his personal voice, that's even more powerful. When he does his memoirs, Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time, that's the writing that's making an impact, that's making a statement and that's why people turn to him, because of the power that comes from the emotions and the conflicts that he's dealt with.

Who were Baldwin's influences?
Baldwin crosses a number of decades and represents a number of movements within the black literary tradition. And you can see his influences, people like Richard Wright, who wrote Native Son, the whole Beat generation living in Greenwich Village.

Why did black writers ostracize Baldwin?
During the Black Arts movement, there were artists who were very nationalistic and very Afro-centric, and then you had those who were considered, like, more the integrationists. And those who were part of the more radical Afro-centric, nationalistic perspective were saying that people like James Ellison and James Baldwin were irrelevant. The fact that Baldwin was also a homosexual further distanced him from these movements. That was not something black men could be; you know, you had to be "the man." The man producing children. So he was silenced by a number of black artists.

So Baldwin was marginalized because of his sexual orientation. So although he wrote some strong, powerful essays, they weren't necessarily appreciated.

Baldwin also felt silenced by black writers and black artists and the Black Arts movement because he was not nationalistic. He did not espouse the Marxist view, and he was not Afro-centric. And part of the movement around the Black Arts was the whole concept of cultural nationalism, that not only did you have to produce art that was culturally relevant, you had to produce art that was political, that showed evidence of the African ancestry and that spoke to a national movement. And Baldwin was outside of that movement. He had the advantage of being able to look from the outside in, as a result of being in Europe and living abroad for a number of years. So he was caught between two worlds. I think that because of that, some of us, meaning those who were very caught up in the movement during that time, may not have read him as carefully as we should have.

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Information about key references
Bebop
In "Sonny's Blues," the protagonist, an aspiring jazz musician, draws a distinction between the musical style of Louis Armstrong and the "bebop" of Charlie Parker. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, the bebop style, pioneered by Parker (known as "Bird") and others, was characterized by quick tempos, harmonic complexity, and improvisation. Standing in contrast to the more conservative, old-guard jazz of Armstrong, bebop was considered a bold, revolutionary force in music, and had broad implications in social and political spheres as well.

Expatriate
Like many other artists and writers, James Baldwin left for France in an effort to escape the racism of American society. While Europe offered him some respite and an opportunity to write, he soon found racism to be just as pervasive there.

Religious Influences
From early adolescence through his late teens, James Baldwin belonged to the Pentecostal Church of Mother Horn. There, he found solace from racial harassment and sexual exploitation. The presence of the church, and particularly the spiritual experiences of the "black church" known to many African American Christians, can be felt in much of Baldwin's writing, especially The Fire Next Time.

Black Masculinity
James Baldwin's novels and essays were written at a time when the African American literary scene was dominated by men. Contemporary criticism suggests that in much of Baldwin's literature, there is an effort to debunk the stereotype, long-held in portions of mainstream white society, that black men were over-sexualized and animalistic.

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Suggestions for applying other theories to James Baldwin's work
A reader-response approach to James Baldwin's novels and essays allows students to explore their personal feelings about a variety of historic and contemporary events and issues. After reading one of his essays, teachers might have students write a fictitious letter to Baldwin in which they express their understanding of what they read. They can follow the letter with an imaginary interview in which they would describe the interview location and draft questions for Baldwin.

Teachers can give students an experience of the popular cultural context in which Baldwin lived by having them go to music stores to search for records produced during Baldwin's era. They can also research news - including politics, sporting events, and social issues -- by looking at old newspapers from that era. After their research, they can explore connections and draw inferences between Baldwin's writing and the popular culture texts.

James Baldwin was a fiery rhetorician who exuded great political force. Critical teaching could have students look at the specific political issues Baldwin tackled, and try to trace the development of his political activism. A follow-up would be to write reports or letters concerning the current status of those issues that concerned Baldwin -- or to examine new political issues that have evolved out of those older ones.

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