Breaking the Silence

Listening to Wednesday’s presentations pushed me to think more about the role of memory and history in the texts we’ve read so far. The presenters did a great job of pointing out the silences in the texts and in the writers’ lives—the characters in Native Son who remain voiceless, the identities that must remain hidden, and the emotions that the authors struggle to express. This is such a compelling way of approaching these readings. Interrogating the silences makes it possible to tell a more complete story and expand the world we encounter through Baldwin’s eyes. I noticed Baldwin to be preoccupied with the past and the role of memory in his essays. I would argue that this attention to memory and storytelling is a way of confronting parts of the past that have been painful or silenced.

In “Alas, Poor Richard,” Baldwin asks, “Which of us has overcome his past?” and states, “If we do not know this, …we know nothing about ourselves, nothing about each other; to have accepted this is also to have found a source of strength” (CE 266-267). It seems that for Baldwin, reckoning with the past and finding a way to speak about it is an essential part of his project as an author. Both for Baldwin’s individual memory, confronting his place in his family and in America, and for shared, intergenerational memory of race and identity, being able to find the words for his experiences is crucial. I think that Wright’s and Baldwin’s differing approaches to how they talk about fear, anger, and masculinity, for example, reflect both the silences that remain in their lives and the silences they seek to break.  

As we move into some of Baldwin’s novels, I am interested to see how or if he will continue to engage individual and collective memory in his writing. I’m curious if others have noticed the role of the past in these texts, and whether you think that literature can help break the silences of American history in a meaningful way.