Scuppernong Bookshelf

Welcome to the Year of James Baldwin

Scuppernong’s nod to another prominent figure in American letters

Here at Scuppernong Books we dedicate each year to a particular writer we are fond of. We deemed 2015 “The Year of Herman Melville” and last year belonged to the work of Flannery O’Connor. We couldn’t be happier to announce that 2017 is hereby declared “The Year of James Baldwin.” To be sure, there’s no particular anniversary of  Baldwin’s works we’re celebrating; we simply feel that his novels, plays, poetry and essays are worth acknowledging. And reading. Watch for dozens of talks, book clubs, readings, film screenings and lectures throughout the year at Scuppernong. Let’s start it off with an appreciation of the Baldwin oeuvre, along with some associated writers.

Go Tell It On The Mountain (Vintage International, $15) is, without question, a classic of 20th-century American literature, but it’s a book most of us probably read too early — usually in high school — to truly appreciate. Blatantly autobiographical, the novel tells the story of John Grimes, a black teenager growing up in the Harlem of the 1930s. All of the themes and methods that Baldwin would sharpen over his career are present here: the brutal clarity, the precise prose rooted in the rhythms of spirituals and the Pentecostal church, plus the unsparing vision of himself and the world around him. We get the flavor and the disquietude of the time and the full-borne struggle of a teenager wrestling with his sense of self while battling the restraints of his family, his culture and his church. Go Tell It On The Mountain culminates with one of the most searing and honest descriptions of a spiritual epiphany we’ve ever read.

First published in 1962, The Fire Next Time (Vintage International, $13.95) can be read today with only the slightest shift in context or concession for its time. It is no less cogent and masterful than it was over fifty years ago, and no less pertinent to the situation we find ourselves in today as Americans. Divided into two longs essays, “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation” and “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind,” the book is a brilliant act of planting a flag, of staking a personal territory that will be explored for years to come. Baldwin’s flag is ablaze: with anger, with passion, with empathy and with a struggling sense of mercy for all of us. One of the things he wants to do here is to situate what was then The Race Problem squarely in the laps of white people; and to deny the idea that African Americans are somehow responsible for the racism that oppresses them. But, he also wants to offer his nephew, and all of us, some form of hope. For Baldwin, however, that hope can only be claimed after a cold, clear-eyed assessment of the situation.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a thing or two to say about the persistence of institutional racism. His much-lauded 2015 book, Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau, $25), openly echoes the structure of The Fire Next Time and retains the bold anger and attention to the real problem: the racist attitudes and policies that have resurfaced in certain segments of American society. Coates’ depiction of the tentative place black bodies have in our culture — the constant unpredictable nature of violence aimed at the black body — is powerful and convincing. This book is a thoughtful call to action and an attempt to secure a safe space for his son’s future.

In Who Can Afford to Improvise: James Baldwin and Black Music, the Lyric and the Listeners (Fordham University Press, $29.95) Ed Pavlic explores not only the effects of spirituals, the blues and jazz on Baldwin’s development as a person and a writer, but also how his style began to infuse the rhythms, the repetitions, the spirit, of these evolving genres. Though occasionally overly academic, Pavlic provides a fascinating context for placing Baldwin within his own history and time, and a period of cultural explosion in the United States.

In 2014 the University of Michigan released James Baldwin and the Queer Imagination, by Matt Brim ($25.95), which reminds us that Baldwin is the central figure in 20th-century black gay literature. And while Brim acknowledges Baldwin’s important place, he also provides a critique of Baldwin’s use of, and for, a gay community. Lambda Literary Review writes that the “fierce entitlement to self-definition often manifested in Baldwin’s fiction and in his personal life” could present “a disavowal of gay identity and community. In a 1984 interview Baldwin admitted, ‘The word “gay” has always rubbed me the wrong way.’” As you can see, there will be plenty to talk about as our Year of Baldwin progresses.  OH

This month’s Scuppernong Bookshelf was written by Brian Lampkin and Steve Mitchell.


February 7: Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, by Erica Armstrong Dunbar. A compelling read recounting a little-known chapter in American history. (Atria/37 Ink. $26)

February 14: Stand Your Ground: A History of America’s Love Affair with Lethal Self-Defense, by Caroline Light. A backward glance at self-defense laws in America. (Beacon Press. $25.95)

February 21: Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler. A lovely reissue of what the Denver Post describes as “a powerful story of hope and faith in the midst of urban violence and decay. . . Excellent science fiction and a parable of modern society.” (Seven Stories. $24.)

February 28: I Am Not Your Negro: A Companion Edition to the Documentary Film Directed by Raoul Peck, by James Baldwin. The public and private Baldwin emerge in passages from his books, essays and personal notes. (Vintage International. $15)

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