James Baldwin

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What are the themes James Baldwin explores?

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afarpajian eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Baldwin's themes are varied and complex, but regarding any author's work it's best to look for common threads among the different themes. Most readers would say that race in America is Baldwin's principal concern. This is partly true, but consider the following about the topics dealt with in his fiction:

The novel Go Tell it on the Mountain deals with a teenager's conflict with his strict, ultra-religious father (who is not actually his biological father) and explores the young man's pre-history, so to speak. The backstory of his mother and his biological father, and that of his step-father, is narrated, and Baldwin's theme is largely how the past has shaped the young man's own identity and destiny.

Giovanni's Room is a path-breaking novel about the gay subculture of the 1950s.

Another Country is the story of a diverse group of New Yorkers, both straight and gay, in the early 1960s and their interactions and conflicts with one another. Baldwin seems to be asking if these people are different from other Americans and constitute "another country"—or are they in fact emblematic of America as a country, or as a concept?

Race is a theme and an "issue" in all of the above-mentioned books. Though none of my descriptions mention the race of the characters, those descriptions are nevertheless accurate, tell what those novels are really about, and reveal what are, in fact, the central or essential themes of those novels. To return to our opening question, however: what is the link, or common thread, among Baldwin's concerns as an African American writer—his specific concerns about race—and the other themes described in my synopses above? How do all or most of the situations in his writings focus on both the status of the Other and the more focused "problem" of race? Or is there another factor in Baldwin's themes, involving a completely different aspect of the human condition?

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Another important theme in Baldwin's work is expatriation, or choosing to live in a country that is not one's native country. He dedicated the entire novel Giovanni's Room to this theme in which he created a white male protagonist, an American, who falls in love with an Italian bartender in Paris.

Baldwin's explorations of identity through the lens of an outsider is applicable in both his essays and novels about Harlem, which explore the ways in which black people are treated as outsiders in their own land, and in his essays and novels about Europe.

However, all of his essays about life in foreign lands always circle back to their relevance to black-white relations at home. In "Stranger in the Village," an essay in Baldwin's debut work, Notes of a Native Son, he details how he was the first black person white Swiss villagers had ever seen. The experience illustrated how this "European innocence," which he believed white people sought to recover, was impossible, for "the American continent has not only created a new black man, it has created a new white man, too." Thus, white people would no longer "have the luxury of looking on me as a stranger." Black people could not possibly be strangers having been on the American continent since its inception.

In his short essay "Encounter on the Seine: Black Meets Brown," part of the same collection, he examines the gulf that exists between American black people and Africans. Though the latter has the experience of having been "abruptly and recently uprooted," the former has "endured the utter alienation of himself from his people and his past."

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James Baldwin's work tends to focus on a specific set of themes. Many of his major essays and novels deal with themes of race, racism, and the effects of skin color on a social group (African Americans) as these effects shape the social, religious, and material experiences of the group. 

Race is not Baldwin's only thematic interest, however. The broadest statement of his interests can be articulated as dealing with the "trouble of identity". This thematic subject includes ideas of sexuality and race and artistic ambition. 

To identify themes according to certain of Baldwin's major works, we can make a chart of themes as follows: 

  • Go Tell it on the Mountain: the religious experience of African Americans; coming of age and identity formation; pressure to conform; race as it shapes family, social, and individual lives.
  • "Sonny's Blues": coping with social pressure; artistic ambition; family strain, compassion and turmoil; race and it shapes family, social, and individual lives. 
  • The Fire Next Time: the nature of maturity and compassion in terms of social class/groups; racial resentment, racial obligation, and social change.  

 

In this book of essays, as in many of his novels, Baldwin promoted activism, awareness, and positive change. 

...he urged [Americans] to reconsider the true state of their land in order “to end the racial nightmare . . . and change the history of the world.

 

 

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