So what a lot of people don’t know is that I was never meant to be in this class. I had to get specially placed into ENGL 40873 after literally every other available course filled up on registration day. Unwilling to submit to a semester of solely business-based learning, I sent a very anxious email to some higher-up and, a few exchanges later, received notice that I had been placed in James Baldwin: Civil Rights to Black Lives Matter.
Even lesser known is how grateful I am for this reality everyday.
Before February of this year, I had no idea who James Baldwin was. My understanding of American literature was limited to Steinbeck and Hemingway, and I had little interest in nonfiction. I was too terrified to talk on the first day of class because I thought I might look stupid, especially when I realized that the majority of my classmates were older than me. And I felt disconnected from the central themes of the class because, simply put, I am not Black. I am limited to my own experiences, and I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to make any meaningful contributions during our discussions.
I am proud to say that I was wrong.
James Baldwin examined with particular care ideas of strangerhood and unbelonging. As a Black man, a queer man, and an expat, he was well-versed in rejection. He was an expert, I think, in being lonely even when he was not alone. But as I mentioned in class, strangerhood is as much a choice as it is a circumstance. Baldwin so defined himself by his differences that he blinded himself to the possibility of a shared human experience; he internalized his rejection and he rejected society right back.
I figure that you can choose to let your experiences separate you from the pack–you can choose to focus on your dissimilarities and adopt an attitude of perpetual solitude, or you can reconfigure your perspective a bit and instead enjoy the many, many ways that our individual experiences enrich our collective human identity. I may not be Black, and I may not be queer, and I may not be a man, but I still managed to find so many parallels between my own life and Baldwin’s.
I’ve talked about this class with so many different people, and I’ve gotten to explore the material from so many different points of view. After any given lecture I’d update my poli sci roommate, or or my anthro major neighbor from down the hall, or my accountant friend, and we never failed to find some parallel between the day’s lessons and their own studies. At work I once called a ‘68 grad who studied English at Notre Dame: we talked about James Baldwin and the myth of the tortured artist for three whole hours.
I guess that’s the final lesson: there’s a unity in multiplicity, and there comes a sense of comfort in the knowledge that we are more alike than we realize. We just have to challenge ourselves to find it.