One of the best things about having friends who all study their different passions is having nightly debriefing sessions about the day’s revelations. It became our routine while doing homework in the evenings to listen to what each other learned during the day and share what is currently fascinating us in our studies. We each listen attentively as the Pre-Med explains the structure of a liver, ask the Mendoza for updates about the newest brand management theory, and tune in to the latest detailed lecture on beer fermentation from the Bio-Chem. I don’t know if any other English Majors have attempted to explain gender constructions, queer theory, or racial politics to STEM friends…but it’s an interesting conversation, to say the least. Since they aren’t used to having scholarly, liberal arts-based discussions on social justice issues, they were initially hesitant to join in because they felt they lacked the right words to talk about issues of race, gender, class, etc.
Enter James Baldwin. I’ve always felt that fiction can help us make sense of the world around us and give us the opportunity to have hard conversations rooted in storytelling. I found myself giving my friends brief summaries of the novels we read in class and used them as a starting place to ask them questions we brought up in class. I read them the movie theatre scene from Native Son, and this evolved into a very heated rant about the absurdity of strip clubs, followed by a discussion on homosociality. I practiced my group presentation in front of them and we had a really honest conversation about biblical arguments against homosexuality that we’ve either heard used against ourselves or were taught in Catholic school. We had a great talk about the word “queer,” how some of us identified or did not identify with the term, and the general liberation we’ve found with the removal of labels on our identities. Reading them an excerpt from The Price of the Ticket resulted in my friend in Irish Studies and I having a great debate on what it means to be white and how the historical persecution of Irish people resulted in the adoption of whiteness in America. I also asked my Colombian roommate about her experiences with binary Black and white racial categories. She told me stories about having to ask her parents if she was white or Black, all the times she’s changed her answer on census questions over the years, and her decision in recent years to switch to the “Other” box.
This course allowed me to have amazing classroom discussions and foster personal growth. However, Baldwin also helped me connect with my friends in ways I hadn’t felt able to before and gave me the confidence to start initiating challenging conversations with those around me. I’ll certainly be taking Baldwin’s message of love and the confidence to speak his truth with me in the years to come.