Knows My Name
pages; ISBN 0-679-74473-8
pages; ISBN 0-679-74472-X
by James Baldwin
Nobody Knows My
Name (1961-the year of the Freedom Riders) and The Fire Next Time
(1963-the year of the March on Washington) were first published when
the civil rights movement was in full sway across the United States. James
Baldwin had already been acclaimed as the successor to Richard Wright
and as a leading spokesman for black Americans. His first novel, Go
Tell It on the Mountain (1953), was greeted as an important portrait
of black life in the United States; Notes of a Native Son (1955),
his first collection of essays, introduced a clear, penetrating voice
in the national debate. Giovanni's Room (1956), focusing on a young
man torn between homosexual love and love for a woman, added controversy
to praise. In 1962-as James Meredith became the first black student at
the University of Mississippi-Another Country, a powerful novel of racial
and sexual identity and relationships, added to Baldwin's renown. A year
later The Fire Next Time consolidated his position as one of the
country's most important writers.
Preparing to read
The Fire Next Time: Structure and Themes
Nobody Knows My Name: Structure and Themes
The Fire Next Time and Nobody Knows My Name: Points
For Discussion or Assignment
For further reading
By the time of
his death in 1987, Baldwin had created an impressive body of fiction,
nonfiction, drama, and verse; but it may be argued that he was most
in command of his gifts and his audience in his nonfiction of the early
to mid-1960s. He remains important as a spokesman against discrimination
of every kind and as a moving portrayer of interracial relationships
in both the private and public spheres. Perhaps the most enduring "message,"
expounded from his first book on, was the redemptive power of love-understood
with both a prophetic, Biblical fierceness and a penetrating secular,
everyday clarity of vision forged, Baldwin might argue, as art's necessary
response to American racism's unrelenting presence. In both fiction
and nonfiction he contended unstintingly that blacks and whites must
work to understand and accept one another with love. He also insisted
that everyone must understand his or her past and present reality, and
that one must commit oneself to act upon that understanding. Nor did
he soft-pedal the risk: "To act is to be committed, and to be committed
is to be in danger."
his essays-from Notes of a Native Sun onward-James Baldwin directly
addressed social, cultural, and personal issues of importance to him
as a black man in America and as a writer, and of critical importance
to all Americans. Here, as in all his work, he was involved in a search-as
an individual, an artist, and a Negro (Baldwin's term)-for a meaningful,
rewarding way of living in a world that constantly throws up barriers
to love, understanding, and personal growth and fulfillment. He chronicled
this search, this ongoing struggle, through a rich style that draws
on a stunning range of idioms, from spirituals to Jamesian stream of
consciousness, from evangelical hyperbole to Hemingwayesque understatement
and the rhetoric of jazz. In both structure and tone, the elegance of
a Beethoven concerto is in counterpoint to the wail of a Bessie Smith
blues recording, as Baldwin presents his views on black-white relations,
the relationship between the artist and society, relationships between-and
among-the sexes, and the interplay between America's character and destiny.
The questions and topics
that follow (others, of course, may occur to you and your students) are
designed for in-class discussion and written or oral assignments, to guide
your students through Nobody Knows My Name and The Fire Next
Time, and to help them approach both books as finely structured, fully
realized works that address issues that continue to involve all Americans.
In both The Fire Next Time and Nobody Knows My Name Baldwin
confronts himself, other artists, his fellow countrymen, and his country.
"On this confrontation," he writes in the Introduction, "depends the measure
of our wisdom and compassion. This energy is all that one finds in the
rubble of vanished civilizations, and the only hope for ours."
of personal themes-the complex rewards and dangers of love, the need
for self-awareness and responsibility, the quest for personal achievement
and fulfillment, the creation of one's own identity, the complexities
of human relationships, all within a given social context-will engage
students in terms of their own lives and aspirations.
- What is the significance
of the book's title, the titles of its two sections, and the epigraphs
that precede the book itself and the second letter?
- What are the
details of the spiritual geography of Baldwin's adolescence as presented
in the first part of "Down at the Cross"? How are they related to
his advice to his nephew in "My Dungeon Shook"?
- What was the
young James Baldwin running from and what was he seeking in his turn
to religion as a fourteen-year-old boy in Harlem?
- What are the
reasons for and circumstances of the seventeen-year-old Baldwin's
renunciation of his religious calling and of Christianity itself?
- How does Baldwin
personalize history and the issue of black oppression in the United
States? Does this personalizing result in too narrow a focus or does
it intensify his account's impact and our response?
- What is Baldwin's
purpose in prefacing the long "public" essay-letter on the Nation
of Islam with his shorter, personal letter to his nephew?
- What is Baldwin's
attitude toward the Nation of Islam and Elijah Muhammad? How does
that attitude relate to his previously expressed observations on race
relations and racial discrimination?
- What are the
links among sexual awakening, crime, religion, racial discrimination,
and self-realization in The Fire Next Time? What are their personal
and public implications?
- What techniques
and devices of expository prose does Baldwin employ to develop the
structure and flow of The Fire Next Time? How successful is his use
of these techniques and devices in terms of coherence and persuasiveness?
- What is the significance
of the book's title, the title of each of its two parts, and the title
of each essay?
- What determines
the two-part structure of the book? Do the essays in each part have
significant elements-concerns, themes, arguments, etc.-in common?
Is there a definite progression or pattern of development from the
first essay in each part to the last? From the Introduction to "The
Black Boy Looks at the White Boy"?
- In his Introduction,
Baldwin writes that "Nothing is more desirable than to be released
from an affliction, but nothing is more frightening than to be divested
of a crutch" (p. xii). What are the "affliction" and the "crutch"?
In what ways throughout the essays does he identify and illustrate
them? Are they, in any instances, the same? Do they appear in The
Fire Next Time?
- Baldwin makes
extensive use of irony and paradox throughout these essays. Identify
specific instances of each and explain what those instances-and Baldwin's
reliance upon irony and paradox, in general-reveal about his views
and concerns and his way of expressing them. How do irony and paradox
contribute to the richness and complexity of Baldwin's style?
- What kinds of
exile does Baldwin write about in the essays, both explicitly and
implicitly? What does Baldwin's treatment of the fact and concept
of exile reveal about his attitude toward the artist's life, the lives
of black Americans, and America in general?
- How does the
dominant theme, argument, or concern of each essay relate to the overall
thrust and burden of the book? How successful is Baldwin in clearly
defining, presenting, or persuading us of the primary "message" of
- What were the
circumstances in which black Southern parents sent their children
to all-white schools in the early 1960s and their reasons for doing
so? Are these circumstances and reasons still in operation?
- On what authority
does Baldwin base his categorization of young blacks in Harlem in
"Fifth Avenue, Uptown: A Letter from Harlem"? Does his description
have any relevance or applicability in urban America today?
- In "Faulkner
and Desegregation," Baldwin poses specific challenges to his readers.
What are those challenges? Do they remain appropriate challenges?
How are they related to Baldwin's dominant concerns?
- In "In Search
of a Majority," what elements-political, social, moral, cultural,
and intellectual-contribute to Baldwin's concept of "the majority"?
How does his definition compare with Thoreau's "majority of one" ("Civil
Disobedience"), with Andrew Jackson's (attributed) remark that "One
man with courage makes a majority," and with reformer-abolitionist
Wendell Phillips's statement that "One on God's side is a majority"?
Does Baldwin's concept of the majority fall within a continuing American
- In "The Male
Prison," what is the lesson of Gide's "sorrow"? What are its implications?
- What does Baldwin
mean in "Notes for a Hypothetical Novel" when he refers to Americans
as "a handful of incoherent people in an incoherent country"? How
does this relate to other statements in Nobody Knows My Name
(and in The Fire Next Time) about the American character and
American society, history, and culture?
- In his Introduction
to Nobody Knows My Name, Baldwin writes: "It turned out that
the question of who I was was not solved because I had removed myself
from the social forces which menaced me-anyway these forces had become
interior..." (p. xii). How does Baldwin identify and characterize
these social forces in each book? In what ways had they become interior
and with what implication for Baldwin's own development, the progression
of each book, and his readers?
- On the evidence
of the two books, what system of values does Baldwin find to replace
the Christianity renounced when he was seventeen? Does he present
a coherent moral or ethical vision that is applicable within both
the personal and social spheres? Does he remain consistent with such
statements as ". . . the inequalities suffered by the many are in
no way justified by the rise of a few"(Nobody Knows My Name,
- Where does Baldwin
present the propositions (and why does he choose to formulate them
the way he does) that: 1) ". . . the American Negro . . .is an American,
too, and he will survive or perish with the country" (Nobody Knows
My Name, p. 78); and, 2) that blacks and whites in America are
inevitably and inextricably bound together, and will prosper or fail-individually
and as a nation-together? "Whether I like it or not, or whether you
like it or not, we are bound together forever" (Nobody Knows My
Name, p. 136). Is his presentation of these arguments persuasive?
- What specific
elements, devices, and techniques of structure and style-or example,
comparison and contrast, imagery, example and illustration, metaphor,
argument, description, categorization-does Baldwin use most extensively?
Are any predominant? How do they contribute to the strength, clarity,
richness, and persuasiveness of his writing?
- Compare the autobiographical
elements and concerns present in the two books. Do they provide us
with an understanding of how Baldwin arrived at the attitudes, values,
and concerns of his maturity?
- Baldwin consistently
links the subject or main theme(s) of an essay to-or roots it in-his
own life, career, feelings, or observations. How effective is it in
terms of the reader's reception of his message?
- In Nobody
Knows My Name, "Princes and Powers," Baldwin writes that ". .
. [George] Lamming was suggesting . . . that part of the great wealth
of the Negro experience lay precisely in its double-edgedness . .
. that all Negroes were held in a state of supreme tension between
the difficult, dangerous relationship in which they stood to the white
world and the relationship, not a whit less painful or dangerous,
in which they stood to each other. . . . [and] that in the acceptance
of this duality lay their strength, that in this, precisely, lay their
means of defining and controlling the world in which they lived" (pp.
42-43). To what extent does this reflect Baldwin's own experience,
as reported in these books, and what he has to say about black-white
relationships, on every level?
- In Nobody
Knows My Name, "Princes and Powers," Baldwin writes: "As a black
Westerner, it was difficult to know what one's attitude should be
toward three realities which were inextricably woven together in the
Western fabric. These were religion, tradition, and imperialism .
. ." (p. 45). Does he approach each of the three from the same perspective?
- One of Baldwin's
main arguments is encapsulated as follows: "The reason that it is
important-of the utmost importance-for white people, here, to see
the Negroes as people like themselves is that white people will not,
otherwise, be able to see themselves as they are. . . . And this long
history of moral evasion has had an unhealthy effect on the total
life of the country . . ." (Nobody Knows My Name, p. 75, p.
77). What other instances, in both books, of this argument can you
- In Nobody
Knows My Name, "The Northern Protestant," Baldwin writes of Ingmar
Bergman that "the landscape of Bergman's mind was simply the landscape
in which he had grown up" (p. 166). What does he mean by this? Based
on what he reveals about his own family background, childhood, and
adolescence in the two books, is the landscape of Baldwin's mind the
landscape in which he grew up?
- "I am far from
certain that I am able to read my own record at all, I would certainly
hesitate to say that I am able to read it right" (p. 200). Coming
where it does, near the end of Nobody Knows My Name, what impact
does this statement have on our acceptance of everything that precedes
it in this book and of everything in The Fire Next Time?
- In what contexts
does Baldwin discuss violence? What do those contexts, together with
specific passages, reveal about his attitude toward violence as a
historical occurrence and as a literary effect?
- In the final
sentence of Nobody Knows My Name, Baldwin writes of Norman
Mailer that he ". . . has a real vision of ourselves as we are, and
it cannot be too often repeated in this country now, that, where there
is no vision, the people perish" (p. 241). How does this statement
reflect back on what Baldwin is attempting in both books, on his stated
and implied purpose for writing, and on the "vision" of America-of
the lives of black and white Americans-he presents in the two books?
- In his Introduction
to Nobody Knows My Name, Baldwin writes that ". . . the question
which confronted me . . . was: Am I afraid of returning to America?
Or am I afraid of journeying any further with myself?" (p. xiii).
What are the levels of meaning and the full implications of the phrase
"returning to America" for Baldwin? Based on both books, in what ways
and with what consequences did Baldwin return to America? In what
ways did he journey "further with myself" and further into himself?
With what consequences? Do the two journeys converge?
- Baldwin writes
that "Émy own experience proves to me that the connection between
American whites and blacks is far deeper and more passionate than
any of us like to think." (Nobody Knows My Name, p. xiii).
What evidence does he provide in both books in support or illustration
of this statement? What is the nature of the passion that characterizes
the deep, complex relationship between American blacks and whites?
- In each instance
in which a book, section, or essay title has a literary or other source,
what is that source and what is the relationship between the source
and the book, section, or essay? Does each of these titles provide
a focus for the contents of the text?
- Can you summarize
Baldwin's views on the role and status of the artist in the United
- Some of the idioms
employed by Baldwin are black American spirituals and hymns, stream
of consciousness, understatement, jazz and the blues, personal reverie,
and political rhetoric. Discuss Baldwin's artistic decision to combine
these elements and describe their cumulative effect.
- How does music
in its various styles-jazz, spiritual, blues, classical, etc.-contribute
to Baldwin's writing and to his view of life? Can we compare Baldwin's
writing in these two books with those of any musical genres?
- How are the patterns
of images listed below introduced and developed? Is each associated
with specific issues, arguments, settings, or concerns? What function
does each have in relationship to Baldwin's personal and artistic
concerns and beliefs and to his views of issues and developments critical
to life in America? Wilderness/Jungle and Garden; Fire and Water;
Chaos and Order; Religious Ritual and Practices; Motion and Stasis/Stagnation;
Slavery/Imprisonment and Freedom; Dominance and Subservience; Tyranny
and Equality/Democracy; Acting (masks, performing, etc.); Black and
White, Dark and Light, Night and Day; Violence/Struggle and Peace/Comfort;
Scarcity and Abundance; Disease/Degeneration/Death and Well-being/Growth/Regeneration;
Exile and Home; Sexuality and Lifelessness; Money and Poverty; Innocence
- Why does Baldwin
ascribe such importance to independence of mind?
- In Nobody
Knows My Name, "Alas Poor Richard," Baldwin speaks of "telling
the tale" (p. 189). What does he mean by that phrase?
- Apply what Baldwin
writes about Ingmar Bergman and his movies-in Nobody Knows My Name,
"The Northern Protestant"-and about what he reveals of his own religious
heritage and experience to one of the Bergman films cited by Baldwin.
To what extent are Bergman's themes, as identified by Baldwin and
as revealed in the Swedish director's films, those of Baldwin as well?
- Apply Baldwin's
comments on Richard Wright's writing and views to either to Black
Boy or to Native Son. Does Baldwin present an accurate portrait of
Wright's achievements and shortcomings?
- Baldwin makes
repeated reference to America's-particularly white America's-avoidance
(through fear or ignorance) of self-examination, its "failure to look
reality in the face." What, in Baldwin's view, are the implications
of this failure? Do you agree with him?
- "Yet, it is only
when a man is able," Baldwin writes, "without bitterness or self-pity,
to surrender a dream he has long cherished or a privilege he has long
possessed that he is set free-he has set himself free-for higher dreams,
for greater privileges" (Nobody Knows My Name, p. 117). Why
does Baldwin choose this formulation? How does it apply to America
- How true, in
your experience, is Baldwin's statement in Nobody Knows My Name
, (p. 131) that, in America, status is a substitute for identity?
James Baldwin: Go
Tell It on the Mountain, Notes of a Native Son, Giovanni's
Room, Going to Meet the Man, Tell Me How Long the Train's
Been Gone, If Beale Street Could Talk; David Bradley: The
Chaneysville Incident; Claude Brown: Manchild in the Promised Land;
Eldridge Cleaver: Soul on Ice; Stanley Crouch: The All-American
Skin Game, or, The Decoy of Race; Frederick Douglass: The Life
and Times of Frederick Douglass; W. E. B. Du Bois: Dusk of Dawn
(Autobiography), The Souls of Black Folk; John Ehle: The
Journey of August King; Ralph Ellison: Invisible Man, Going
to the Territory, Shadow and Act; William Faulkner: Absalom,
Absalom!, Intruder in the Dust, Light in August; Martin
Luther King, Jr.: "Letter from the Birmingham Jail;" Jonathan
Kozol: Death at an Early Age, Rachel and Her Children, Amazing
Grace; Norman Mailer: "The White Negro;" Malcolm X: The
Autobiography of Malcolm X; Toni Morrison: The Bluest Eye ,
Sula, Tar Baby, Song of Solomon, Beloved,
Jazz; Theodore Rosengarten: All God's Dangers: The Life
of Nate Shaw; Henry Roth: Call It Sleep; Henry David Thoreau:
Walden, "On Civil Disobedience;" Booker T. Washington: Up
from Slavery; Cornel West: Race Matters; Walt Whitman:
Leaves of Grass (1855 Edition); John Edgar Wideman: The Lynchers,
Sent for You Yesterday, All Stories Are True; Tom Wolfe:
Radical Chic; Richard Wright: Black Boy, Eight Men,
- Discuss Baldwin's
view of race relations and its meaning for the present.
- James Baldwin
stands as one of the master practitioners of the personal essay in
guide was written by Hal Hager. Hal Hager taught literature at several
colleges for ten years and has been active in editing, marketing, reviewing,
and writing about books and writers for more than twenty years.
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