The New York Times has an article today titled “James Baldwin, Born 90 Years Ago, Is Fading in Classrooms”
In a year that marks the 90th anniversary of his birth, educators offer different reasons for Baldwin’s faded presence there, from the concern that he is too controversial and complex to the perception that he has been eclipsed by other African-American voices. Collectively the explanations illustrate how attitudes about race have changed, along with the way the high school literary experience has evolved according to currents in the field.
The article focuses on James Baldwin with regards to the education of black high schoolers (the two photographs in the article are from an all-black classroom at the Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem). He is simultaneously too controversial and becoming irrelevant with age.
I was once a high schooler, albeit a white one at a private Catholic school. We weren’t steeped in black writers, but for scool we read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Sula, poems by Nikki Giovanni and Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou, essays by W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington, short stores by Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison. On my own I read Native Son, Black Boy, and The Invisible Man. There are doubtlessly more I can’t remember, but I’m certain James Baldwin never made an appearance. By the time I graduated from college I had a vague idea of who he was, despite reading a large number of writers of color during my studies, but it would be nigh impossible for James Baldwin to fade compared to my experience, in which he factored not a whit.
But I was of the opinion that he is making a resurgence and is more relevant than ever! I see him referenced all over the place, such as the aptly named Son of Baldwin, whose audience certainly contains college freshman, if not high schoolers.
Or Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article, Is James Baldwin America’s Greatest Essayist? Not for high schoolers, necessarily, but I think these are the people capturing culturally ascendant forces, not high school curriculums.
So go read Go Tell It to The Mountain. It is ridiculous, by the way, that this book is not in the public domain, but that’s a separate blog post.