NECC Observer

The student news website of Northern Essex Community College, Haverhill and Lawrence, Mass.

 Just getting into James Baldwin? Here’s your guide

I remember exactly where I was when I first discovered who James Baldwin was. It was my sophomore year of high school and I had just begun taking Early College classes at NECC.

It was the spring semester, probably sometime in late February or early March of 2020,  right before everything closed down.

In my English Composition class, we were discussing the racial disparity in American society, and my professor played a video of James Baldwin’s famous “Pin-Drop Speech.”

In the video, everyone hung onto Baldwin’s words. It was silent. In the classroom, it was silent too. It was amazing to me how Baldwin’s words managed to reach us, so many years later, and could still make an impact. I began to look into Baldwin’s works, and then I proceeded to read as much of it as I could.

In truthfulness, I was actually exposed to Baldwin much earlier than this. My family has a whole section dedicated to him on our bookcase. I also remember being at a farmer’s market on some small Canadian island, looking through books with my father. He was overjoyed to find a copy of Baldwin’s novel  “Another Country.”

But it wasn’t until I watched that video at school that I discovered who Baldwin actually was. That was when he became more to me then just a name on the spine of a book.

Baldwin has a vast collection of works. All are certainly worth checking out. But it may be tricky to know exactly where to start. James Baldwin’s books and essays all have specific focuses, which makes things a bit easier.

If you are able to narrow down exactly what you want the book to be about, then you will be able to find a place, and you can start your journey into Baldwin’s collection.

If you are looking for a short read, Baldwin provides you with a multitude of essays and short stories. A good starting place is with the essay “Notes of A Native Son.”

It was the first thing I ever read by Baldwin. In this essay, Baldwin introduces the black American experience. For some, this essay is affirming, and for others, it is eye opening. While the idea of actively seeking out an essay and reading may not sound appealing to everyone, Baldwin’s essays are both exciting and informative reads. “Notes of A Native Son” is certainly a good place to start.

The first Baldwin novel I read was “Another Country”. This novel seems to blend together his earlier novels, “Go Tell It On The Mountain” and “Giovanni’s Room.”

“Go Tell It On The Mountain” was semi-autobiographical, and dealt with not only the black experience, but also religious themes, the meaning that the church held for African-American people, and the effect the church had on Baldwin himself.

“Giovanni’s Room” was also groundbreaking, as it featured a gay main charcter, and dealt with what it was like for people in the LGBTQ+ community during a time when homosexuality was looked down upon and persecuted.

These novels are perfect starting places for those just getting into Baldwin, but for those who would like something that combines both themes, “Another Country” is perfect. “Another Country” includes a host of characters, all of different genders, races, and sexualities. It is a beautiful piece of social commentary, and it stays true to Baldwin’s overarching message of identity and acceptance.

Baldwin was both black and gay, and his novels do not stray away from his personal identity at all. He was always open about who he was, and his works certainly reflect this. Baldwin tackled the racial strife and injustice that afflicted America, and he wrote entire novels about gay people when homosexuality was still a taboo subject. Baldwin was one of the most prominent, influential writers of his era, and he has left behind an amazing legacy.

Note: This essay is part of an Honors Project Violette Smith completed as part of the fall 2020 Journalism I course. Smith took an  indepth look into Baldwin’s work and legacy.           

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