Reading Baldwin…

IMG_0956I used to run my hands along the books on the wooden bookshelves that were in the hall upstairs in my home.  It contained a myriad of first edition African-American novels from Frederick Douglas to Malcolm X.  Growing up I was particularly intrigued by the title Giovanni’s Room.  I wondered what the story could be about.  I remember reading the back cover but still not being so sure.  I always heard my mother and especially my uncle persuasively explaining to me the importance of James Baldwin’s works, emphasizing  Another Country (my favorite so far)Going to Meet the Man, and Go Tell it on the Mountain.  I grew up having these titles in mind but Giovanni’s Room, for some reason, was always in the forefront, probably because it was the first book of his that I held in my hands.

Sadly it has taken me forty years to read one of Baldwin’s novels.  I read lots of African-American authors at college for my major but Baldwin surprisingly never came up.  Four years ago, I read and thoroughly enjoyed If Beale Street could Talk. The year after I read Giovanni’s Room. I’m so glad I finally got to the book that perked my interest at such a young age because of the title alone.  I followed up by reading Another Country and The Fire Next Time.  Both are incredible literary works that everybody should read before they die. I still have more to discover by Baldwin.

So I guess you’re wondering why I’m writing about my reading discovery of James Baldwin. Well I thought I’d let you all in on a reading project that one of my Booktube buddies, Denise D. Cooper ArtBooks Life (Awesome creative Booktuber go check her out!) will be doing next year.  It’s called The Blackout for Books 2018.  She’ll be reading books by African-American authors for twelve months.  The rules are the following:

  1.  Only read African-American writers
  2. Read 1 independent writer each month
  3. Read 2 African-American Women Writers each month

It’s as easy as that.  I commend her for this and I’ll be joining her for January, February, and March of 2018.  I can’t wait.  It would be great if you all could join in too for any amount of time you’d like.  So, now you know a bit more about why I started this post talking about James Baldwin.  I’ll punctually be writing posts about some of my favorite African-American writers and about those that I haven’t read yet but are looking forward to read in preparation for this reading challenge.  This will give you some ideas if you aren’t sure what you’d like to read.  If you decide to participate, don’t forget to link your comments with #the blackoutforbooks2018 everywhere.  Let me know below what you think about this reading challenge and if you’re interested in joining in. Happy reading y’all!

 

 

#ReadSoulLit Photo Challenge – Day 27

Day 27 – Favorite Line/Paragraph: 

As you know Another Country was one of my favorite books that I read last year.  It was such a revelation to me – from the writing style to the complex characters and to all the societal themes that are still relevant today.IMG_1479  There were so many great lines from this book I had difficulty choosing.  I went with the scene on page 279 where Ida is trying tell Cass how it really is for black people.  Of course Cass thinks things are always exaggerated.  “Kept you here, and stunted you and starved you, and made you watch your mother and father and sister and lover and brother  and son and daughter die or go mad or go under, before your very eyes?  And not in a hurry, like from one day to the next, but, every day, every day, for years, for generations?  Shit.  They keep you here because you’re black, while they go around jerking themselves off with all that jazz about  the land of the free and the home of the brave.  And they want you to jerk yourself off with that same music, too, only, keep your distance.  Some days, honey, I wish I could turn myself  into one big fist and grind this miserable country to powder.  Some days, I don’t believe it has a right to exist.  Now, you’ve never felt like that, and Vivaldo’s never felt like that…..if he hadn’t been born black.” (Another Country, p. 279 Penguin Modern Classics Edition)  If you want to know more about what I thought click here.

What’s your favorite line/paragraph?

#ReadSoulLit Photo Challenge – Day 22

Day 22 – Set Where You Live:

I had to choose two novels for today’s theme – one that I read and loved and one that I can’t wait to read.  Well if you’ve followed me on here for a while you know that I read and loved Giovanni’s Room which I picked up last year.  I don’t know how I managed to get my BA in English Literature without having to read the illustrious James Baldwin.  There is something seriously wrong with that.  Reading Giovanni’s Room last year IMG_1466opened the flood gates to Baldwin’s brilliant mix of adept writing style and pertinent social commentary.  What’s so amazing is how modern and relevant his work has remained.  This is as good a place as any to begin reading Baldwin.  It’s a short novel of only 159 pages and chock full of layers of meaning on all levels.  If you decide to read the Penguin Modern Classics edition there is a very informative introduction written by Caryl Phillips that I suggest you check out after reading the book.

The second book I’m suggesting is  Black Girl in Paris by Shay Youngblood.  She is a well-known contemporary African-American writer of novels, short stories, and plays.  She’s been published in numerous magazines and spent some time abroad in Peace Corps and in Paris as an au pair.  I hope to really make an effort to read this one this year because I’d say it could almost be a modern classic when I hear people talk about it.

“Any writer who makes a writer the protagonist of a novel is just asking for trouble. If the protagonist in question is a young African-American woman in Paris, following in the footsteps of such well-known black expatriates as Langston Hughes, Josephine Baker, and James Baldwin, it’s double jeopardy. And yet in Black Girl in Paris, Shay Youngblood manages to avoid clichés even as she steers a course straight through them.”(Black Girl in Paris, Goodreads description)

 

#ReadSoulLit Photo Challenge – Day 2

Day 2 – A Novel about Family:

Family is so important, but yet is so complex.  It’s what supports us through difficulty and through happy eventsIMG_1319 but can tear us to shreds and drive us batty through others.  There are many interesting books out there where family is the focus and it seems the more dysfunctional the better the story.  In my opinion, one of the novels that stood out in an African-American novel about family is If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin.

Tish and Fonny are a young African-American couple in love.  It’s Harlem in the 1970s and Sonny has been arrested and accused of a crime he hasn’t committed.  Here’s where family comes in.  Tish’s family is supportive and sacrificing because they believe in Tish and Fonny’s love, and equally in Fonny’s innocence, where Fonny’s family can’t wait for the ordeal to be over with, so that they can get on with their shallow, useless, and unsuccessful lives.  They aren’t willing to do anything for Tish and unfortunately not for their son.  If Beale Street Could Talk does an excellent job of depicting the fall out of family and life in the seventies for a black man unjustly accused.

 

Another Country

It’s the late fifties in New York and Another Country begins following the ineffaceable Rufus Scott.  He’s a jazz musician whose luck seems to have run out.  From there the story of Another Country unfolds in three parts to uncover artists on their journey to survive life among racial unrest, misguided friendships, vacillating sexuality, societal pressures, and all while discovering a myriad of unlikable, flawed characters.

Another Country is a slow burn of a story that will suck you in and keep you hooked.  It’s not a story of plot. It is a novel which is purely character development.  Each character is introduced in juxtaposition with another character to stress their faults.  The IMG_0956characters are placed in a setting that can only make their development thought-provoking.  We as readers are like flies on the wall observing this unavoidable train wreck between “friends”.  The tension is continuous.  The language is clever, direct, and depicts a lot of the criticisms Baldwin had on race, sexuality, and life in the United States at that time.

Rufus’s sister Ida is Baldwin’s mouth piece.  Every phrase and critic she makes throughout the novel espouses Baldwin’s beliefs on race relations at that time in the United States.  “What you people don’t know ” she said, “is that life is a bitch, baby.  It’s the biggest hype going.  You don’t have any experience in paying  your dues and it’s going to be rough on you, baby, when the deal goes down.  They’re lots of back dues to be collected, and I know damn well you haven’t got a penny saved.” (Another Country, p. 343)  This is what Ida says to Cass towards the end of the novel in a taxi on their way to a club on Seventh Avenue, to see a lowdown man called Steve Ellis.  Steve Ellis looks down on blacks yet he’s quite happy to use black women to fulfil his desires.  Ida’s rage is spewed out on these few pages. She’s confronting Cass who is the antithesis of her.  Cass is white from a privileged family and tries to appear to be sympathetic to blacks when in fact she’s afraid of them.  She lives in the world and doesn’t see what surrounds her – racial injustice.  She is consumed in her own petty life.  Most of the characters in this group are the same way.  Eric is the only character that is honest, who sees the difficulties, and is honest about his role, even when he’s betraying a friend.

Richard, Cass’s husband, is a self absorbent racist, who believes he’s an intellectual and a good writer.  His character is cold, calculating, and unfeeling.  It’s impossible that he could ever really be a successful writer, and he refuses to admit it to himself.  Vivaldo is the character that I liked the most, in spite of his terrible faults.  He’s ambivalent at times about his sexuality, but his love for Ida seems to be real yet unattainable.  Unfortunately, they are on opposite sides.  Ida can never love a white man without taunting him and making him feel some sort of guilt that their relationship is wrong.  She shares a part of that guilt as well.  On the other hand, Vivaldo has a slight fetish for black women so when he says he loves Ida, his jealousy rages and he always seems to treat Ida as property or as if she’s a loose woman – very unsettling.  The thing is he doesn’t even realise it.  Moreover, that’s not all he doesn’t realise.  He seems to make light of the difficulties that blacks have in society and refuses to see the differences.

So as you can see the novel has so many layers with so many themes and the characters are flawed just enough to learn a lot about the time period, about life in New York for artists in the late fifties, and about different backgrounds.  I’d say this is by far my favorite Baldwin novel.  I’m sure to read this one again in a few years.  There are so many new things to discover that I’m sure I may have missed. So far, I’ve read If Beale Street Could Talk, Giovanni’s Room, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems, and finally Another Country.  I’m so happy to have had the pleasure to pick up his fantastic work and I urge you all to do so too.  Baldwin was one of the great American writers that isn’t spoken enough about in schools these days and we as readers can learn so much from reading his work.  As my reading continues on the road to discover more of Baldwin’s work, I’m hesitating between picking up Go Tell it on the Mountain or The Fire Next Time.  So have you read any Baldwin? If so what did you think?  What have you read?  What would you like to pick up next?  Which one should I pick up?  If you have read Another Country you can check out the video below where I discuss everything about it with one of my favorite Booktubers, Danielle from OneSmallPaw in a live show.  It’s not spoiler free so only watch if you’ve read the book.  I also recommend checking out Danielle’s James Baldwin series.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2PF7tVRyfHY

 

 

If Beale Street Could Talk

38463This book really took me by surprise.  The last James Baldwin book I read was Go Tell it on the Mountain and that was over 20 years ago.  I just remember enjoying parts of it and other parts were a bit slow.  If Beale Street Could Talk is the story of Fonny and Clementine alias Tish.  They are deeply in love and are planning to move into a loft flat in Greenwich Village together.  It’s the 1970s and relations between blacks and whites are tense.  They finally find a loft apartment where they can live together and Fonny can do his passion sculpting.  When one day the police come and take Fonny away because he’s being accused of rape.  From there, the story follows the trials and tribulations of Fonny trying to stay positive that he will get out of jail and Fonny and Tish’s families trying to earn enough money to pay the lawyer’s fees and most of all trying to support each other during this difficult time.

What struck me about If Beale Street Could Talk, Baldwin’s thirteenth novel, was that it was direct, realistic, and the impressive in-your-face style of writing.  Baldwin was telling it like it was, as always.  If you’re not ready to listen then abstain.  The language is very 1970s but I found it somehow refreshing.  The story is fiction but it rings as a true one.  Baldwin even adds sexually explicit scenes to accentuate the reality of the story even more.  The families seem to represent two types of families in the black community.  There was Tisha’s family that remains unified and supporting each other no matter what.  They will brave fire and walk to the ends of the Earth for each other.  On the other hand, Fonny’s family is superficial, judgmental, and unreliable.  His mother claims to be a christian although she has the most unchristian  attitude and believes that she is better than everybody else.  His sisters are frivolous and negligent on their quests to find husbands and picking from the most ineligible types.  They don’t seem to care very much about their brother and that goes even before he gets thrown into jail.  Sonny’s father Frank loves him very much but as the story progresses he proves to be unable to keep up the strength needed to help Fonny get out of jail.

Baldwin put a lot of emphasis on character development and less on the story, but that wasn’t a problem at all since the characters are described and put into situations so that we can understand them better.  Even so, the novel reads with ease and the dated expressions conjure up some humour.  My favourite character is Ernestine, Tish’s sister, because of her strong personality and her frankness.  She is a really self-sufficient, strong character who really knows what to do and say.

I really enjoyed reading If Beale Street Could Talk because this was one of the many important classic works of African-American literature.  James Baldwin was a master.  He always managed to tell the most realistic stories about African-Americans and their difficulty to survive and to progress.  If you haven’t had the pleasure of picking up any of his work, I highly recommend If Beale Street Could Talk.  It contains themes of racism, love, and solidarity among the disinherited that are fighting for their rights the best they can with the little they’ve got.  These themes are very universal but are all treated in intricate woven threads around the unfair imprisonment of Fonny.  It is a bittersweet tale and the quote on the back of the Vintage International edition is spot on, “A moving, painful story, so vividly human and so obviously based on reality that it strikes us as timeless.” – Joyce Carol Oates.

Title: If Beale Street Could Talk

Genre:  African-American/Classic/Literature

Published:  1974

Edition:  Vintage International

Pages:  197

Language:  English

Favorite quote: “Neither love nor terror makes one blind: indifference makes one blind.” (If Beale Street Could Talk, p. 99)

My rating:  * * * * 

+5,165

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ctv85-4x8Jg]