James Baldwin’s teaching methods

Note: this style of writing is called “block writing.” A string of thoughts, analyzing the structure in which authors build their arguments.

Authors are teachers, James Baldwin is no exception. The first person narratives he uses to get his point across help the reader relate directly to his own experiences that have to do with racial discrimination and how he views those with prejudice, including many other proposals and concepts. He organizes his works starting with his autobiographical notes, so that the reader can get to know him better. He is sarcastic, “In those days my mother was given to the exasperating and mysterious habit of having babies.” I like him already, he’s funny. It is important to like your teacher or you risk not learning anything. “I read just about everything I could get my hands on - except the Bible, probably because it was the only book I was encouraged to read.” That’s good, I relate to him too. He doesn’t seem to like many people, and he certainly wouldn’t like me because I consider myself a bohemian - I come from a family of artists - and an earnest man, but I do respect his want “to be an honest man and a good writer.” Those are always qualities I value. Baldwin teaches the reader in “What it Means to be an American” by reporting realizations he has made while living abroad. He starts his essay by attempting to define the word “America” and making the statement that “No one in the world seems to know exactly what it describes, not even we motley millions who call ourselves Americans” (137). I have been trying to convince people for the past four years that opera is part of American culture, and I have always faced resistance. What makes opera different than baseball or football? While the first is the all-time American pastime, and the latter is even more popular, they are but adaptations of cricket and rugby. We have adapted opera and made it our own as well. For instance, the Met’s first HD Live Broadcast was of the Magic Flute, composed by Mozart, truncated to 1.5 hours and sung in English by American singers. Our culture is thus a plethora of every other culture, granted we have added some unique and original things of our own to the mix. America is known as the land of the free, and the common belief is that anyone is invited. Thus, no one knows what it means to be American because it is much different than saying that you are French, for instance. An American may call himself French because of their lineage, but a Frenchman will rarely admit to being American, even after having lived here for the majority of their life. Most are too stuck-up for that, too proud of being French. I speak from personal experience; for my parents and their friends. But here I am, trying to define “America” myself. How foolish. But this is what Baldwin does to me. He says something provocative and I think about it and try to reason with him, or agree in some way and attempt to find how it relates to me so I can make sense of what he is saying. We said in class that Baldwin presents the reader with challenges but no answers, this is a perfect example of that. A good teacher inspires his or her students. His accounts of how living in Europe helped him free himself from “the necessity of apologizing for himself” (139) are swiftly followed by an elaboration and thought reason for his discovery. He then states that we must “consider a rather serious paradox.” In relation to America and Europe, “it is easier to cut across social and occupational lines there than it is here.” And “where everyone has status, it is also perfectly possible that no one has.” America has a materialistic and very loud culture, it can even seem fake at times. Many of us attempt to seem better than we actually are because we want people to think highly of us. You will rarely see, for instance, a Wall Street investor having a conversation with a garbage man in New York City. It might seem like an ignorant comment, but a man who is well spoken is generally more respected. Baldwin is uses words and references that make him seem knowledgeable in all he says, specifically on this section regarding the majority: “You may have beneath your hand all the apparatus of power, political, military, state, and still be unable to use these things…problem faced by de Gaulle in Algeria and…Eisenhower when…he was forced to send paratroopers into Little Rock” (215). Baldwin reinforces his already strong point by using historic references to de Gaulle and Eisenhower. He sounds like a wise man, simply telling the reader how it is. He is declarative in his statement, and uses phrasing like “beneath your hand,” which does not appear in everyday modern language, which makes the reader respect his use of expression. The citation of the historical figures and the occurrences which he uses to prove his point prove that he has done the research, in addition to the fact that many of his readers do not know the references he makes themselves, making him already on a higher level intellectually than his audience. He does it again a few pages later, “inevitably what happened, putting it far too simply, was that the old forms gave way before the European tidal wave, gave way before the rush of Italians, Greeks, Spaniards, Irishmen, Poles, Persians… Everybody was here suddenly in the melting pot, as we like to say, but without any intention of being melted” (217). His choice of using words like ‘inevitably’ and ‘putting it far too simply’ shows that he knows more than what he is conveying in this passage. And the list of nationalities in the quote goes on, cataloguing ten more nationalities, as if Baldwin doesn’t want to leave anyone out, but also make a point of how many different ethnic minorities are involved. He uses the term ‘melting pot’ to appeal to a common use of language, but says that this common use of the term that everyone is using for immigrants in America is wrong, because these listed immigrants have come ‘without any intention of being melted.’ Baldwin challenges common/popular thought in much of what he says, which is what makes him an individual, a character, and a pleasure to read. He still appeals to the masses, but corrects generalizations and stereotypes. Baldwin writes an interesting passage in regards to the theme of these past couple lines; his knowing more than others: “the only useful definition of the word ‘majority’ does not refer to numbers, and it does not refer to power. It refers to influence” (216). He has assigned a new definition to the word, which beforehand meant the greater number, now means the greater influence. To do such a thing would mean that he sees himself superior to the authors of the dictionary. It would seem this way if you were not to read his whole argument, definitely, but as I said before, I do not think arrogance is his intention in the slightest. It is more of an air of knowing better than most that comes through his writing.


Baldwin, James. Collected Essays. Edited by Toni Morrison. New York: Library of America, 1998.

Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son. Boston: Beacon Press, 2012.

Baldwin, James. The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985. New York, N.Y.: St. Martin's Press, 1985.

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