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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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