Tutors Talk Books: Erika Martinez on James Baldwin

September 5, 2019 | By Rebecca Waldron

This summer, tutor Erika Martinez read and reflected on James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son

What prompted you to read Notes of a Native Son?

I was driving with my best friend a while ago and we were talking about what we’re looking for in authors and in books. Part of it, we thought, was certain powers of perception, but also the ability to convey a feeling or experience. Some authors are more powerful than others in that regard. I had been reading Virginia Woolf at the time, so that’s who was mostly on my mind.

You were thinking about the way she conveys her powers of perception in her prose?

Yeah, that there’s something about human experience that she sees in a way hardly anyone else sees—and then she’s able to articulate it in a way that I recognize. So that was part of this conversation. James Baldwin came to [my friend’s] mind. I had read Notes of a Native Son before, but it was too remote in my mind for me to think about, or to think about in this particular regard. So when summer came, I thought I would read it again.

I was struck by the first three essays in particular. In a way, the first three essays could fall under the category of literary criticism. I think that’s ultimately too stark, but the first essay, for example, is in large part a criticism of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the second one is in large part a criticism of Native Son. So literary criticism kind of fits.

What struck you about his criticism of those books?

Part of it is his way of thinking about the characters. And this is where the problem arises for him: It’s as though they themselves are not literary-minded about their lives. This is why the literary criticism title feels flat to me. [It] makes it seem like there’s this thing that we can go look at, or touch, or evaluate, which is literature, and then move away from it—that I can move back into my non-literary life, the “I’m not a piece of literature” life. But that way of thinking about literature can’t be fully right given the way Baldwin is thinking about the problems that these characters show. I think he’s saying there’s something of a literary failure, because surely their authors give them that.

Give the characters a lack of literary awareness of the own lives?

Yes, surely it originates with the authors. And part of that failure is something like a failure of literary imagination. It’s to think of the characters as viewed socially—and I don’t mean just human interaction—but socially in a very broad sense. There’s a way of thinking about people as having social advantages or disadvantages, but I think Baldwin is suggesting that when we think that way about others or ourselves, we’ve really obliterated this imaginative or literary power. Also, that it’s a kind of violence that the characters do to themselves, or the authors do to the characters, by not allowing them a power of self-reflection or a power to tell their own story—that somehow, if we’re not trying to hear a character’s or even a person’s story, we’re strangling them.

Part of what appealed to me, especially about these first three essays but also the later ones, is that somehow Baldwin maintains a literary line throughout. What I saw in those essays is his ability to make more things literary, so it’s not that literature is some category that’s in opposition to other things, or that literature is a thing that I as a person who is not in literature can fully grab and lay claim to, but that there’s something literary about living a human life.

I think part of what I liked, too, about these essays is that Baldwin shows how frightening it can be to really press on the kind of story we can even bear to tell about ourselves, or what kind of story we could bear to hear another person tell about his or her own self.

Do you ultimately agree with your friend about Baldwin’s powers of perception after reading Notes of a Native Son?

Yeah, especially in some of the later essays, which are more personal. There’s this way he is able to articulate or give us episodes in which hatred or violent anger is driving action. Maybe it isn’t fully acted on, but it’s present and it’s real and to pretend it’s not there would be violent in its own way. When those sorts of things show themselves in the essays, I feel like yes, here is someone who really is perceiving or being carefully sensitive to his own hatred and anger and is also able to convey it. It’s not my exact experience—it can’t be—but the way he conveys it somehow allows me to look over at this different experience that’s being articulated and feel like there is a possibility of meeting in some deeper way. I think that’s really hard because to insist on the importance of particular experience is, in a certain sense, to say we won’t ever really fully understand each other. But you can still somehow articulate your experience in such a way that it’s real and vivid and compelling.

It sounds like you’re suggesting you did see something of a kinship when you read Baldwin, that you saw something of that same quality in his writing that you appreciate in Woolf. How do you think about that shared quality?

Part of me is thinking that if I put James Baldwin and his works that I’ve read and try to have them meet Virginia Woolf and her works that I’ve read, it might kind of crumble or be weird or not fine-grained enough to think about clearly. But if I go back to thinking ‘How in the world did they come up together in a conversation when I’m working through with my friend what we really want?’ there are two things that come up: One is this feeling that even on a day when nothing extraordinary seems to have happened, if we try to let ourselves be humans without being afraid of the things we’re going see, when we do that, there’s something that can be radically difficult or frightening about just a single day of life. They both see that, for very different reasons I imagine. I think that makes life more precarious for both of them. At least, that sense of precariousness is conveyed in some of the things they write.

Then there is also this question of telling a story and asking yourself, as I’m writing right now, creating whatever I’m creating, am I angry? And if I am, I’m ruining it. I’m not just ruining what I’ve written. I think they both see that it’s not just that I’m perhaps mangling a piece of writing—who cares, it’s just a piece of writing—but there’s actually something much deeper and human that we mangle when we write in anger. Baldwin talks about writing also from a position of pride. But that’s not really better for him. It’s the battle mate of writing in anger. So this becomes not just a literary question or problem for them, but also an existential question.

It makes me think about the atmosphere of Twitter. I’m not on Twitter, but I hear that the atmosphere is steeped in anger and outrage. You could look at the kinds of dialogues that we’re having, on Twitter say, and think that there’s something that looks unproductive about the ways these conversations are unfolding. But listening to you talk about this, it makes me think that maybe it’s more than just unproductive. There’s something perhaps deeply damaging about the way we’re going about trying to communicate about these really important issues in society.

I’m also not on Twitter, but I often think about the short form of the writing on Twitter. One of the Baldwin essays is in large part a critical look at Harlem newspapers. And this is something that I don’t see Virginia Woolf really writing about as much as really radically doing. But part of Baldwin’s observation is just that these papers have the form that, if I can put it this way, very large white newspapers have. It’s a bunch of small black newspapers, but the form is unchanged from the traditional newspaper. So part of the problem he sees, or part of the harm, is that some other form should be emerging but, instead, a pre-existing form has just been taken. I think Baldwin thinks these papers are in a way being taken over by a form that isn’t the right form. So I think this question of what form communication can take or writing can take and how it ought to change is important to both of them. Forms aren’t simply to be copied or, worse, reduced. A new form might need to emerge. And if we can’t do it or at least imagine that a new form needs to be there, it’s sort of narrowing or limiting to people.