Dear James Baldwin,

A good writer transports readers into a different world. Well, thanks to your moving novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, during the summer of 1965 without leaving my couch I spent a memorable few days in Harlem. I’d never dared to venture to Harlem even though I was raised just a few miles away in Passaic, New Jersey. In fact, I’d never read a novel by a black author before. I didn’t know there were any black novelists. Go Tell It hadn’t been on the syllabus of any of the lit courses I took as an English major at Vassar. Your soul searing coming of age novel had been in print for thirteen years, and I’d never even heard of it or you!

But then, after I’d been teaching English in a New Haven public high schoolfor three years, my department chair asked me to apply to a summer program for teachers called Minority Group Literature and Psychology. Your book was on its syllabus. So I finally met John Grimes and his tormented “Negro” family, all struggling to transcend their troubled history in the legally segregated South and to keep their faith on the cold gray streets of the unofficially segregated north.

Amazingly, I identified with John. I too had a patriarchal father prone to outbursts of rage and a meek mother, and I too felt misunderstood by them both. And although I’d never been as poor as John, I recognized the poverty he and his family face as not unlike the poverty my parents remembered from their own ghettoized tenement childhoods. But even then, I understood that John’s family is trapped in his ghetto while my parents had been able to get educations and escape.

Go Tell It on the Mountain not only took me to a part of New York I’d never visited. It picked me right up off my sofa and plopped me smack dab into a pew in the first row of a fundamentalist church there! All around me people sang, swayed, fell down, got up, and even spoke in tongues. They are believers who look to God and Jesus for strength and for sanity and who turn to each other to bear witness to their searches and struggles. The Jews and Christians I knew were not demonstrative.  In fact, I’d never known people whose faith in the deity and fear of the devil preoccupied them and whose membership in a church or synagogue was so important to them. If I had met people like this, they’d kept their beliefs and rituals to themselves, sensing correctly that I wouldn’t understand.

Your novel required me to face my racism and not a moment too soon. I shouldn’t have been surprised to find Go Tell It so lyrical, the work of a poet of despair and desperation with a gift for creating characters who speak as real people do. But if you think of my mind as a bookshelf, back then there was no room on it for black authors. Embarrassing as it is to admit, I was truly surprised that a black person could write such a moving and important book.

If Go Tell It on the Mountain was my passport to Harlem and to the worlds contained there, Giovanni’s Room was a visa to yet another place I’d never been. Oh, I’d been to Paris where this novel is set and which you describe so well, but already in my mid-twenties, I’d never been in the head of a man (or woman) struggling with what today we call sexual identity. I had to revise my blinkered view of same sex relationships.

Reading your memorable books expanded my narrow perspective on the world I live in and write about.

Thank you.

Sincerely,

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11 Comments

Filed under American classic, Coming of age story

11 responses to “Dear James Baldwin,

  1. Susan Jensen

    I’m ashamed to say I haven’t read either one, but the worlds these writers revealed seeped into the general consciousness and permeated mine. Thank you to both.

  2. Jane- I admire you for providing insight into the universality of Baldwin’s writing while at the same time freely sharing your own personal narrative on how his books opened your mind. Bravo!

  3. robert christensen

    Jane:
    An eloquent and moving post, and a beautiful reminder that great writers truly do take us to new landscapes, both external and internal. I can’t think of a time when it seems more important for us to make room on the bookshelves of our collective consciousness for the things you wrote about.

  4. Marion

    I will certainly read this. Thanks for the alert. And have you ever read Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land? Also not to be forgotten –

  5. Marion

    Finished Go Tell it on the Mountain the day before Yom Kippor – Day of Atonement. Young John goes through a transformation but is it really a transformation – are we to think that he is really changed by the experience? And what are we to think of Florence’s challenges to Gabriel – how can you be saved if you don’t acknowledge your sins and your shortcomings to the people in your life – the message of the Rabbi today was that atonement means reconcilation with other people -not simply expression of remorse – no being saved without relationship building – is Baldwin taking us to the same place? Thanks for putting us onto this book –

    • Marion, I didn’t think that what changed John was being saved but rather suriviving his father’s bliinkered cruelty and hypocrisy and seeing his aunt stand up to Gabriel, providing the boy a model of sorts for his own future behavior. To me John’s being saved was more like being overwhelmed by community (peer?) and parental pressure almost to a state of unconsciousness. He was, after all, a kid. I think Baldwin himself would have agreed with your rabbi. Of course, there is the problem of the root causes of Gabriel’s stunted emotional development going back all the way to slavery. I think Baldwin wants us to see the complex and enduring legacy of slavery through this family. At the risk of oversimplifying, those who are brutalized often become brutal themselves. Really glad you liked the book.

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