This course sets side-by-side two authors who might be considered a literary father and son: James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates. The content and form of Baldwin's memoir The Fire Next Time provided inspiration for Coates' Between the World and Me: As Baldwin addresses "My Dungeon Shook" for his namesake nephew, Coates addresses Between the World and Me to his son, Samori; both books are concise, remarkably candid reflections on growing up black in America.
The Fire and Between were both published at times when a critical number of white people were ready to listen to hard truths about the dangers of being black in America; Baldwin wrote during the Civil Rights movement and Coates's book came out as media attention on (the consistent problem of) police brutality had intensified. These contexts do not explain their brilliance but rather their wide appeal, for the traction they gained in the popular imagination while offering incisive commentary on white violence and complicity.
While both books speak uncomfortable truths, they seem to do so from an intimate place: The conceit of private conversation with a loved one helps this sense, but so does the deep reflectiveness of both writers, their commitment to complex truth presented plainly. For both, lies and ignorance are at the heart of white supremacy, so their candor in writing is not just an act of self expression but an act of protest.
The Fire and Between speak what folks on both sides of DuBois's "color line" need to hear: For some, they articulate clearly the otherwise vexed or silenced truths of one's lived experience, lifting somewhat the weight of oppression and invisibility; for others, they reveal a whole world of knowledge obscured by one's own ignorance and privilege, challenging whites with facts counter to the American narrative, facts that demand to be acted upon if we are all to be free.
In 1963, The Fire Next Time spent 41 weeks in the top 5 of The New York Times Bestseller List, the first "essay" book to do so. Before this literary feat, Baldwin had already been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Ford Foundation grant. Later in his career, he earned an Honorary Doctor of Letters Degree from Morehouse College as well as La Légion D'Honneur, France's highest honor.
Between the World and Me won the National Book Award in 2015, a watershed year for recognition of Coates' talent. That same year, "The Case for Reparations" won a National Magazine Award, and Coates was given a MacArthur Fellowship (also known as "the genius grant").
We look forward to sharing these narratives with you! In each of five emails, which you can schedule to receive at a pace that suits your needs, you will receive:
- A summary of portions of these readings.
- Commentary by Julia Davis.
- Questions for reflection and practice.
- An invitation to journal about what you're learning.
Your guide for this exploration is Julia (Julie) Davis, who was a 2018 - 2019 fellow with The Practicing Democracy Project. Julia holds an M.A. and C.Phil. in English and American Literatures and Cultures from Brown University and a B.A. in English from the University of California at Santa Barbara. When she created this program, she was pursuing her Master of Divinity at Claremont School of Theology with a focus on Interfaith Chaplaincy. Her interest in chaplaincy grew out of her 17 years experience teaching American literature at the college and high school level. Julia is passionate about the intersection of spiritual practices and social change.
These two narratives are one of the selections included in the We the People Book Club, an opportunity to strengthen your vision of democracy by contemplating America's past and possibilities as presented by classic and contemporary literary voices.
(choose your own start date and frequency)