The essay begins in 1943. It was written – by a man – in 1963. The writer is long dead. He was North American, and lived in Paris. What is his essay even doing on a curriculum striving towards decolonisation?
I worry about this before introducing James Baldwin to third years I met less than a month ago. Last year my reservations evaporated in the first paragraph of Notes of a Native Son. His first two sentences, so specific and so narratively dramatic in their presentation of the death-life seesaw, capture the eyeballs. The narrator, 19 years old in the second line, speaks directly to 20-year-old readers at this university who have already endured more turmoil than is fair.
We read aloud, taking turns paragraph by paragraph. I try to model the demeanour of Attentive Reader and keep my eyes on the page, marking places I hope to return to in discussion. But actually I want to know how the group is getting on. I risk a furtive glance: no yawns, no phone screens. We read on. But only to the end of Chapter 1; the rest they can do on their own. Then we start talking. I want to draw their attention to writerly matters (rhythm, alliteration, punctuation, repetition, all the things Baldwin does that contradict what I say) but I also want them to show me if this last-century essay has anything to say to us here, now.
Last year, in addition to the articulate commentary on race and social injustice these students are so good at and from which I glean so much insight, I got this back. Although the writer did not know she was answering a question I had not directly asked, I took her essay as a resounding yes: Baldwin can indeed show us why the second generation must speak to the first.
But then Fees Must Fall 2016 happened. The protest, which provoked dismaying and retrogressive responses from higher education institutions including ours, made the cause more pressing, the need for change more urgent. The close of the last academic year entrenched positions, heightened emotions, escalated anger and frustration. The call for transformation reverberates. Is now a reasonable time to bring the work of a long-dead First World male writer into my classroom?
This time, I resolved to ask them. After the collective reading, after the spacious discussion, into the final silence, I asked: Is there space on a decolonising curriculum for James Baldwin who wrote so long ago, on another continent in another hemisphere? Yes, they all said, yes. It is so sad nothing has changed. He speaks to us. Yes.
One of the swiftest responses came from a woman two seats away. She was angry, she said. She hated that Baldwin’s essay was still so pertinent. Yet she told us this quietly, her strained voice at odds with the scale of frustration she expressed, and I recognised the tightness of a person in a choke chain, at one end of a leash worn smooth from use.
Two days later she wrote this.
Baldwin 1. Decolonisation 0.