Second Person Pronouns

The repeated use of the possessive pronoun “your” before “countrymen” functions as a way to invoke wisdom and duty. It resonates with a later passage where Baldwin compares the America Negro’s regard toward white Americans as that of a parent to a child. It exemplifies his call to love and accept them. I find it curious that he chose “your” instead of “our”. There is a divorce or perhaps a passing of the baton between narrator and addressee. It is as if he were saying you can do better, or perhaps expressing frustration, saying almost this is “your” problem now.


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Adjectives to connote duality and emphasize meaning

In My Dungeon Shook, Baldwin uses adjectives to emphasize meaning, in a piece that at once elicits rage and radical acceptance.

The first adjective that I notice, is a number, as he writes to his nephew (Baldwin 3), “I have begun this letter five times and torn it up five times.” Obviously, this letter isn’t frivolous, it is something Baldwin writes with exacting language, and because he does so, there were multiple drafts.

Next, he describes his nephew and likens him to his father, Baldwin’s brother, as he says, making the familial connections clear. In this way, as he describes the nephew, he is, in effect, describing all three of them. He wasn’t stingy with adjectives as he writes (Baldwin 3,4), “like him you are tough, dark, vulnerable, moody—with a very definite tendency to sound truculent because you want no one to think you are soft.” I like the play here between tough and vulnerable, and between truculent and a façade of toughness (as not to be perceived as soft). This supposed dichotomy sets us up for the duality in the message that Baldwin sends. He is saying, two seemingly contradictory things can be true at once. Just like the white man is oppressing, and “there is no reason to become like white men (Baldwin, 8),” and yet, “you must accept them.”

Baldwin’s rage is clear as he uses the word “brutal” to modify “clarity” as he writes (Baldwin 7), “you were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being.” A slight turn of phrase takes this rage to a more radically accepting place, in which Baldwin doesn’t passively resign to the mediocrity “you were expected to make peace with,” yet asserts a deep knowing that the white man too “are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand.”

Baldwin goes on to use more adjectives to emphasize meaning. On the last page of the letter he uses the word “great” as modifier of multiple nouns. He writes, “great men have done great things here, and will again,” and goes on, “you come from a history of great poets, some of the greatest…”. Perhaps great is used to motivate his nephew toward his own greatness, as he speaks of the shoulders he stands on.

Baldwin ends again with number modifiers as he writes (Baldwin 10), “the country is celebrating 100 years of freedom one hundred years too soon.” The second years, of course, being modified with both 100, and too-soon. His use here is brilliant, as he at ones notes the profundity of the long-time-coming celebration, and also minimizes it, purposefully and rightfully, with the anaphora of “one hundred.”

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Baldwin Option 1

On page 6, “I am writing this letter to you, to try and tell you something about how to handle them“, the italicizing of “them” is really powerful, especially since it’s already a direct address. He’s speaking directly to the “you” but that particular use of “them” there is almost a breaking of the fourth wall, he’s looking elsewhere with his voice, pointing with it, and he expects the “you” and us the readers to follow his gaze. It’s also really striking to me that this happens in a passage that’s in parenthesis. Syntactically it’s buried, it’s a deviation which helps to make it resonate within the piece even more. It’s like a sidebar within a sidebar, a moment of exposure and vulnerability.

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add Baldwinian to the chrome dictionary pl0x

Save for three key moments in the text (one introductory, one elucidatory, one conclusive) Baldwin opts to extend the audience of My Dungeon Shook from the intimate, 1 on 1 confines of a letter to a wider readership through variegated usages of pronouns over proper names and designations. A masterful prose writer, Baldwin employs this counterintuitive strategy-cramming general pronouns into an epistolary text-and is able to eschew the almost-certain disjoint and, instead, draw the reader in. The aesthetic effect of reading My Dungeon Shook is not that of the traditional epistolary novel (eavesdropping, etc) but of reading a letter addressed (or, at least, CC’d) to you.

Baldwin also subtly riffs on standard pronoun-phrasings, in characteristically Baldwinian subversions. Note the following excerpt:

“Now, my dear namesake, these innocent and well meaning people, your countrymen, have caused you to be born under conditions not far removed from those described for us by Charles Dickens in the London of more than a hundred years ago.”

Why “for us by.” Would not simply “by” suffice? Baldwin certainly doesn’t waste words, and it’s not all that likely that Dickens had Baldwin and his namesake in mind when writing his novels. Baldwin, in my opinion, is referencing the shared (and international) class struggle of both poor whites and poor blacks. Dickens wrote for them. Art can be made for (and by, a central theme in Down At The Cross) poor African-Americans. Dickens did not write in a readerless vacuum: he wrote for an audience. Exactly as it was for Baldwin.


Another interesting note is Baldwin’s repeated, ironical use of “your countrymen” as a stand in for both “white people” and “people in power” and its connection to his repeated use of “your father,” a pattern he sets up earlier in the text. This parallelism, despite the (again Baldwinian) playful, but serious euphemism gives the indictment of white America the borrowed air of a familial castigation, rather than of a hateful screed.


Baldwin’s Use of Adjectives

Baldwin is a very strategic writer.  He includes adjective and adverbs to create effect. He also uses a lot of “little words,” which definitely helps with his persona and storytelling.   Everything seemed straight to the point and direct. Baldwin left no room to have the reader confused about anything. There is a moment on page 20 where Baldwin is writing about the life of African Americans growing up in Harlem.  He gives insight to his readers about the “Avenue” a place where all the pimps and whores are; where Black people fall victim to.  His own Father tells him to drop out of school to forgo his education, but Baldwin is wholeheartedly against that idea. He does not want to become another statistic, rather a part of the change.  

On page 20, Baldwin is creating a scene of the “Avenue” and the lives of young Black Americans living there. He really does a great job of creating an image for his readers.  He writes, “in every wine-stained and urine-splashed hallway, in every clanging ambulance bell.” His use of adjective here are strong and vivid.  You really can imagine this disgusting hallway of wine and piss just because of Baldwin’s word choice. But also reels out sympathy of undesirable living conditions.  The “clanging” of ambulance bell further instill this idea of nonstop unpleasant noises.  The “Avenue” is just not an ideal place for people, but unfortunately it is where the majority ends up in.  

He continues, “in every disastrous bulletin: a cousin, a mother of six, suddenly gone mad, the children parcelled out here and there; an indestructible aunt rewarded for years of hard labor by a slow, agonizing death in a terrible small room; someone’s bright son blown into eternity by his own hand.”  Horror; horror is now instilled into readers minds—the horror of living on the “Avenue.”  There is nothing, but bad news.  There is only news of a mother getting rid of her children, a woman dying a horrible death, and a young man’s suicide.  Baldwins wants to describe the difficult lives of African Americans.  This woman worked so hard her whole life, but can only afford a small room. Her only “rewarded’ was death.  This young man was smart and intelligent with a future ahead of him, but he took his life away.  

This passage without the adjective will still have an effect, but not as strong was with them.  We can still get the message and images of life in Harlem, but the words Baldwins chooses to include puts everything on another level.  Baldwin writes the truth and his writing is very real.  He wants us to see this horror.  He wants us to feel sympathy.  He wants us to understand that this is no way for African American to live. 

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The poise and candor of Baldwin

Something I find very striking about Baldwin’s work is the intimacy he creates with his audience that makes him both deeply vulnerable and unflinchingly powerful. In reading his work, I think about an interview from 1963 where he speaks about his forced place in the world, and how he defies it:

This straightforward, candid and bluntly eloquent expression of self is so rooted, it jars the senses. He is so incredibly poised and so unrelentingly unapologetic, his closing comment feels like a slap across the face in its rhetorical stance.

This is what he often does in his written work. He creates narrative that is robust, sturdy, and accessible but also incredibly intricate, intellectual and complex. There is a very interesting mix of both simple language, as Klaus discussed and much more complex use of syntax. The nuances and observations knit his human experience to his readers in “Letter to My Nephew..”:

“But no one’s hand can wipe away those tears he sheds invisibly today, which one hears in his laughter and in his speech and in his songs. I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly has survived it…” (5)

But there is a clear distinction as to where the experiences may clearly splinter:

“This innocent country set you down in the ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish…You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason…You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity.” (7)

Baldwin allowed us access into his world, to this incredibly personal letter to his nephew in order to soak in a level of intimacy only granted to his loved ones. This candor draws us in, makes us feel as though we are sitting in conversation with him without boundaries or borders between us. That invitation is deeply moving but also speaks volumes as to how he also speaks to crowds, in interviews, on the written page otherwise. He possesses a quality that invites others on a more personal level, with his instances of self-celebratory side notes to gassing himself up after certain parts of his speeches.

He also provides sentences that use language as a platform to higher, evolved ideology in “Down at the Cross”:

“Yet I could have hoped that the Muslim movement had been able to inculcate in the demoralized Negro population a truer and more individual sense of its own worth..The unprecedented price demanded-and at this embattled hour of the world’s history- is the transcendence of the realities of color, of nations, and of altars.” (82-83)

He masterfully weaves stories in ways that feel confessional and educational, revelatory yet self-possessed. They are wise observations passed along to us as both cautionary tales and intellectual fodder nourishment for growth.


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Not where you thought we were going

I think that before you interrogate the way that any text deals with continuity/discontinuity, you have to examine the relationship that is established between the writer and the reader about what the text is so that one may establish the standard for what qualifies as an interruption. If the text begins by stating a clear purpose, there is only so far that the reader can follow something that seems unrelated. For Baldwin in particular, I think the continuity standard is established by his setting of the reader relationship as him telling the reader a personal narrative. “I underwent” (15) he begins and sets the scene as his early teenagehood and the topic as religion. Wherever he goes after this first sentence the assumption that underpins the reader-writer relationship is that everything has to do with the telling of this story, this narrative. And so by declaring his intention, when he goes on

Klaus notes that it’s formatting that is often used “to indicate that the shift and subject is deliberate and purposeful” (37), pointing to the reader’s desire to sense the intent or at least the presence of an intent from the writer. For Baldwin it is not often that he defends his choices, but in particular when he brings up bread as an example of something, talking of boxed mass-marketed bread. He draws attention to the discontinuity saying, “I am not being frivolous”. Addressing the fact that he has a point he has not lost, one of the few times that in talking to the reader he is calling attention to a potential confusion or lost train of thought.  Here I think that this serves as discontinuity as a choice but extra marked because of continuity’s default status.

Something that I think is at the root of Baldwin’s voice is that he is explaining a thing which is the thing that you think it is except that it is not because it is a particular kind of that thing that you just don’t truly understand yet. He often explains the thing as something like a deeper shade of another thing. “The fear that I had my fathers voice for example… was not at all like the fear I heard when one of us was ill… it was another fear of fear that the child… was putting himself in the path of destruction” (27)

“There is no music like that music, no drama like that drama” (33)

“The word sensual is not intended to… I am referring to something much simpler and less fanciful.” (43)

Here is the ultimate continuity of word that is actually serving to move the reader into another way of thinking and considering. I am going to re-explain something to you, we are still using the same words, but I am no longer taking you where you thought we were going. 


Continuity/Discontinuity in “Down At The Cross — Letter From a Region of My Mind”

There is a cohesive through-line in James Baldwin’s essay “Down At The Cross — Letter From a Region of My Mind” but he treads upon continuity with light feet and digresses here and there to related aspects (as Klaus would call them). Baldwin moves through the heavy subject with a sort of tangential elegance that unfailingly brings the reader back front and center, tying his words together and building upon his earlier words.

One specific example of both surrounds his anecdote about Elijah Muhammad and dinner at his home. On page 47, Baldwin introduces Elijah Muhammad to the narrative, saying that he “had heard a great deal” about Elijah Muhammad before having met him. Then continues his discussion of the black experience in America, touching on Nation of Islam [NOI] public speeches, police inhumanity, power, Germany and the Third Reich, WWII as a turning point, an incident in O’hare Airport where he and his friends were not served by a young racist bartender, and god as black which leads him back to NOI and Elijah Muhammad. But that is rather well tied together and demonstrably continuous. Then Baldwin arrives at Elijah Muhammad’s home on page 61 and for five pages he describes the events of the evening but on page 66 he begins to explain NOI beliefs and sort of examines NOI and Christianity through a common lens, continuing into a discussion of sin, humanity, and the risks that black people cannot afford to take when it comes to white people — the nuances of which completely take the reader far away from Elijah Muhammad’s dinner table such that when Baldwin writes, “I said, at last, in answer to some other ricocheted questions…” there is an abruptness to it that surprises the reader (or at the very least, this reader).

I think in anything that is informative, complex, and contains competing elements the chance for discontinuity is great. Baldwin is excellent at using repetition to reground the reader in the narrative, essentially creating callbacks to tether his arguments. Catherine noted one such example in the “wine- and urine-stained hallways” and he does this as well in other places, with the women and the baby at Elijah Muhammad’s home, the pimps and racketeers on the Avenue, and the church pastor in the back room, among others. [Separately, but related: he repeats the adjective “unnerving” to describe Elijah Muhammad’s actions twice in less than a page to drive that point home.]

Beyond the technical and craft elements, the greatest piece of continuity in the essay is Baldwin’s intrinsic belief that life is all we have and we are absolutely in it together and if we cannot be that, we are doomed to fail — whatever side of the line we fall upon.


Baldwin and adjectives and cadence and visceral images

Blog Option 2: Examine a passage in which Baldwin uses adjectives for particular effects.

I read through The Fire Next Time over the winter break in preparation for our class, and I was struck then by the clarity of message and the (unfortunate) timeliness – will this country never address its founding problems? I think there was something in there about Kennedy’s prediction of a black president in forty years, and how that isn’t the point, to achieve the pinnacle of white systems. And then we did have a black president forty years later, and here we are still with our same problems, so, yeah, Mr. Baldwin…I wish he were required reading in America.

I read through again for class this week and was struck again by the return again and again to the importance of love. And it was instructive to read with an eye for his adjective use, especially after watching and listening to a couple of his speeches.

I noticed entire passages where perhaps only a couple of adjectives could be found (and many nouns repeated – drilling home important ideas like “love,” “survival,” etc.). Baldwin is powerful is his use of only nouns and adjectives, setting mini scenes with just these forms of speech, as in the following, which uses very few adjectives (I’ve italicized the sparse adjectives):

p.100: “It is very hard to believe that those men and women, raising their children, eating their greens, crying their curses, weeping their tears, singing their songs, making their love, as the sun rose, as the sun set, were in any way inferior to the white men and women who crept over to share these splendors after the sun went down.”

I suppose that the phrases with gerunds in this quote are modifying phrases and function as adjectives in that way, but their structure as individual three word noun and verb structures add more action and make me hear the cadence of Baldwin’s speech (short-pause-short-pause-etc) as we discussed the other week.

Baldwin also has sections where he is painting vivid details, creating something almost visceral, and in these instances, adjectives (and adverbs, at times) are abundant (I’ve been conservative in my italicizing here – you could argue that there are even more modifiers):

p.20: “For the wages of sin were visible everywhere: in every wine-stained and urine-splashed hallway, in every clanging ambulance bell, in every scar on the faces of the pimps and their whores, in every helpless, newborn baby being brought into this danger, in every knife and pistol fight on the Avenue, and in every disastrous bulletin: a cousin, a mother of six, suddenly gone mad, the children parcelled out here and there; an indestructible aunt rewarded for years of hard labor by a slow, agonizing death in a terrible small room; someone’s bright son blown into eternity by his own hand; another turned robber and carried off to jail.”

These adjectives create powerful images, and Baldwin seems to know this, coming back to more than one as he concludes the book, re-using even the same adjectives (he references the wine-stained and urine hallways again).

-by Catherine LaSota




Voice and Identity in Chimamanda Ngozi’s Americanah

A couple of months ago I had dinner with my partner and his sister, Chidinma, and they began to talk about how they had to change their accent when they first came to the U.S. They’re Nigerian, he came when he was sixteen and she came in her twenties. She had come to Columbia for a Master’s in Journalism and soon after the start of the semester she realized that she would have to work on her accent in order to participate fully. They also spoke about having to grapple with the heavy racial context of the U.S. that somehow forced an African American identity on them.

I had recently picked up Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah and you can imagine I had no choice but to move it to the top of my list after such a dinner. The main character Ifemelu has a similar experience as Chidinma, in college she decides to adopt an American accent because she is thought of as unintelligent. Years later she decides to stop faking the accent after a telemarketer compliments her American accent. In this quote Ngozi details the process and effort by which Ifemelu achieves said accent.

“Ifemelu decided to stop faking an American accent on a sunlit day in July, the same day she met Blaine. It was convincing, the accent. She had perfected, from careful watching of friends and newscasters, the blurring of the t, the creamy roll of the r, the sentences starting with “so,” and the sliding response of “oh really,” but the accent creaked with consciousness, it was an act of will. It took an effort, the twisting of lip, the curling of tongue. If she were in a panic, or terrified, or jerked awake during a fire, she would not remember how to produce those American sounds.”

I often think of how languages and accents work their way into our identity. How our voice, how we hear ourselves, how others hear us and treat us because of it, inform our identity and vise-versa. I think specifically of how our voice affects our authority when we speak. There’s a great bit where Trevor Noah explains how Nelson Mandela coached Obama on his voice in order for him to become President. I’ll leave that with you, at about 8min in:

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