Monday, July 31, 2006

Guide to James Baldwin: Nobody Knows My Name

James Baldwin's autobiographical account is the narrative of a black man coming of age in the first quarter of the 20th century, a time suffused with huge changes in society. Although there were more opportunities for education and economic access, black men also faced worsening racism, violence, and extreme prejudice.

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In this selection, Baldwin discovers that once he has moved to Paris, he is able to establish friendships and relationships with Americans that were not possible in America. Musing this fact, Baldwin explains that in America, race issues still block people. Ironically, in France, Baldwin is able to communicate with Americans of all races, origins, and class because their common background as expatriates attenuates all other differences.

The selection is from Nobody Knows My Name and the chapter is entitled "The Discovery of What It Means to Be an American."

The selection focuses on Baldwin and his experiences in Paris with fellow expatriates. After 1948, Baldwin made his home in the south of France, where he followed a tradition of many American artists and writers, who found France to be a more hospitable place for artists and writers than America. This was particularly the case in the post World War II era, when anti-Communist fears of the Cold War made innovative writing and socialist ideas dangerous. Returning to the U.S. for lecturing or teaching engagements, Baldwin's writing addressed themes of racism and homosexuality, which made him the subject of a great deal of controversy, even within the black community.

Baldwin, who was both black and homosexual, found himself cut off from the dominant culture for being both black and openly gay.

In the selection included here, what characterizes Baldwin's narrative is a sense of "thrownness." "Thrownness" was first developed as a concept by the existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger. It is "the condition of being taken more or less by surprise, hurled into an unexpected and unpredictable situation. In one sense, all human beings are thrown: they all have to find their way through the world without much in the way of practice." In Baldwin's world, there is an awareness of being thrown into a world of which one has no knowledge - of what came before birth, or what will happen after death. The thrownness contains a feeling of randomness, and thus other individuals are perceived as part of that great outgrouped mass - a condition which makes one focus on the here and now; one's existential condition.

Baldwin writes to correct the prevailing view that people are rigid and cannot transcend their teleological view of the world, and that order, once established, cannot or should not, be re-ordered.

By moving to France, Baldwin places himself in a state of productive chaos, from which he can emerge, reinvented as the person he wants to be, and unconstrained by the ideas of his native society. However, Europe is no utopia, and it is not an Eden, freshly created and without a history. Baldwin observes, with some irony, that the place that allows him freedom is also the place from which the slave ships and slave-trading enterprises originated. In Europe, Baldwin's history comes full circle and he is hyper-aware of this.


James Baldwin's first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1952), is a largely autobiographical account of Baldwin's life. Baldwin's writings include essays, novels, plays, and the best-selling collection from which the selection is drawn, Nobody Knows My Name (1961).

Essay by Susan Smith Nash, Ph.D.
Please click here for a useful text: Excellence in College Teaching and Learning: website.

Guiding Questions (by Elaine Bontempi).


1. According to the author, he wanted to leave American in order to find himself and similar others. Why was it necessary to leave America to do this, when America is supposed to be "land of the free" and a "melting pot?"

2. What were some of the themes of James Baldwin's writings? How did this exacerbate the prejudice he experienced?

3. What is the irony of the author's situation?

4. Why is the author able to experience friendships with Americans in Paris that he could not establish while still living in the United States?

5. Several characteristics placed the author into an outgroup. Name at least three and explain how each trait has potentially devastating stereotypes attached to it.

6. An irony that arises in being thrust into an outgroup, is that in so doing, you also "belong" to a group -whether this group is based upon SES, race, medical diagnosis, etc. Explain the potential effects of these memberships in outgroups.

7. For James Baldwin, it took going to Paris to discover what it meant to be American. Explain this.

8. James Baldwin suggested that one of the reasons it is difficult for American writers is because we, as Americans, have a deep distrust for intellectual effort. Discuss your reaction to this suggestion.

9. Why is it supposedly easier to cut across social and occupational lives in America than Europe? Do the previous readings that you have read in the previous sections support this suggestion?

10. The author writes of his experiences in Europe as an African American. How might these experiences have been different or similar if he had been writing based upon a white man's experiences? Explain.

Useful Web Resources:

James Baldwin: Teacher Resource File. http://falcon.jmu.edu/~ramseyil/baldwin.htm

PBS: American Masters - James Baldwin. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/database/baldwin_j.html

James Baldwin. Kirjasto series. http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/jbaldwin.htm

American Writers: James Baldwin. http://www.americanwriters.org/writers/baldwin.asp

James Baldwin from the archives of the New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/03/29/specials/baldwin.html

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