Writers Who Bear Witness

As I read the essays this week, I was really moved by Jacqueline Woodson’s reflection on how much James Baldwin meant to her. It is especially meaningful to read the end of her essay where Woodson recalls thinking, “But we were supposed to meet one day,” when she learns of Baldwin’s death. Her description of feeling close to Baldwin and looking to him as “a source of strength and light” is a testament that Baldwin truly was the prophet he believed himself to be. 

Woodson says that she and many of her fellow writers of color “believe that we’re writing because Baldwin wrote, that history repeats itself and continues to need its witnesses.” I think that Woodson’s reflection parallels “My Dungeon Shook” in how both authors regard the importance of memory and the relationship with history through multiple generations. For Baldwin, writing was a profoundly important way of bearing witness to race relations in the United States, as well as America’s broken relationship with history. 

“My Dungeon Shook,” a letter Baldwin wrote to his nephew James, reveals how Baldwin saw the importance of passing on his memories to the next generation, so that the younger James could know his roots and not be trapped in white constructs. Baldwin tells his nephew that white Americans are “trapped in a history which they do not understand” (294). But as Woodson’s testimony reveals, in voices like Baldwin’s lie the hope that the U.S. can at last learn from its history. Woodson discusses all of the different social movements that she has witnessed, seeing activism by ACT UP and Black Lives Matter and trans rights advocates over the years. Throughout her life, Baldwin was always present as someone from whose “fearlessness” she could learn. Woodson articulates that Baldwin’s witness shaped how she saw writers and activists passing on what they saw and intervening in American history to create a better future. 

Baldwin’s letter is not just to his nephew, but to all of us, just as Woodson’s story now bears witness. Only by listening to and learning from prophetic voices like Baldwin and Woodson can Americans, as Baldwin puts it, “make America what America must become” (294).

One thought on “Writers Who Bear Witness”

  1. I think it would be interesting to discuss how we see this compulsion to listen and learn from these prophetic voices translating into the mission of this class. I was struck by the contrast Woodson draws between encountering Baldwin as “lumped” in a canon of gay writers versus the more personal and anecdotal encounter with his work as intimate and fearless. How do we see this question of canon and of witness as related to our obligations and motivations as students in a Baldwin class?

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