Writer Wednesday: James Baldwin

I quoted him for years, but I never knew who Baldwin was until last fall.

It came as a complete surprise to me that James Baldwin wrote fiction. I had it in my mind that he was an educator, an essayist and an activist. It just hadn’t occurred to me that did all that and wrote fiction.

I first became aware of Baldwin when I was working as an education reporter for the Stamford Times. As part of my duties I had to cover several graduations every spring, three of them in Stamford. The superintendent there was fond of quoting Baldwin’s paradox of education from the writer’s 1963 A Talk to Teachers. The super included the exact same quote from Baldwin at each of the graduations every single year. I must have heard it 15 times.

I got hip to the super’s graduation speech tricks by the second year. Rather than look up the paradox of education again and again and again, and rather than try to take down the whole, lengthy quote during the graduation speech, I simply printed out the quote and kept it in my desk at work:

The paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.  The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not.  To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity.  But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around.  What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society.  If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish.

I grew pretty familiar with the paradox of education as I tried to gracefully work it into three separate graduation stories every June. So last year, when a professor, Kim McLarin, mentioned Baldwin during the first workshop for my MFA program, I snapped to attention. James Baldwin? A-talk-to-teachers Baldwin? Paradox-of-education Baldwin?  We couldn’t be talking about the same Baldwin, could we?

Now, after having read Another Country and read more about Baldwin, I’m impressed by all the things Baldwin did. He was an activist for civil rights, he wrote fervently about racial and sexual issues and he was a prolific and eloquent author.

Below the break is the craft essay I wrote for Kim about plot in Another Country.

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Ann Beattie, and a word on a decade I don’t remember.

Ann Beattie’s writing evokes an idea of the ’70s for me.

Ann Beattie in 1980, recovering from the '70s.

I say that because I don’t remember much of the decade itself, but there’s an idea I get about the ’70s; a sort of feeling that makes me think of straight hair parted in the center, fondue pots, and kitchen appliances painted pea-green, orange and chocolate brown.

I don’t know why, but when I think of the ’70s, I also think of depression. Maybe  it’s the color schemes I’ve seen in pictures, or the disillusionment

following Watergate, or maybe I somehow think that ’70s represent a post-Summer of Love hangover. But I get a sense of depression from the ’70s in the same way I think of cheesy euphoria when I think of the ’80s. When I look at photos from the ’70s its always hard for me to believe that only 10 years earlier many of these same folks were wearing flannel suits and day dresses. It’s almost like everybody stopped trying.

Now, I know this is not fair or true,

but Beattie’s writing reinforces these ideas for me. I’ve read two of her books this semester, Distortions and Chilly Scenes of Winter. Her writing is bleak and spare. She doesn’t give us more than we need, and, in fact she doesn’t even tell us what people look like. Which is what my essay, below, is about.

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