FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
And no black book club would be complete without at least one selection from James Baldwin.
Farah Jasmine Griffin, NEWS & NOTES literary guru, has been moving chronologically up her list of the six most influential black writers of all time. And the author of the "Fire Next Time" comes in at number five.
Dr. FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN (Professor, English; Comparative Literature; African-American Studies, Columbia University): (Reading) This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish. Let me spell out precisely what I mean by that for the heart of the matter is here, en route of my dispute with my country. You were born where you were born and face the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever the details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you.
Those were the words of James Baldwin. They come from his essay, "My Dungeon Shook: A Letter to My Nephew on the 100th Anniversary of the Emancipation." Baldwin was a phenomenal novelist, writer of short stories, playwright. But in my opinion, he excelled most in the essay form, and this is one example of the exquisite nature of his prose.
Born in Harlem in 1924, the oldest of nine children, Baldwin early on discovered his passion for books and writing. But before becoming a writer, at age 14, he was a prodigy preacher in the black Pentecostal Church. The language, the cadences, the beauty of the church continued to exist in his pros long after he left the pulpit. Baldwin would go on to become a prolific writer of essays, novels, plays and public speeches. And throughout the entire body of his work, he insists upon the humanity of black people as a given. He also insist on the messy, difficult imperative to love our fellow human beings even as we struggle with them.
And Baldwin was also especially concerned with portraying the deep humanity of black people, the institutions they created, the conflicts that they endured, not just with white people, but also amongst themselves: between generations, between father and son, between brothers. These were the concerns that Baldwin had and concerns that separated him from Richard Wright.
In "Go Tell It on the Mountain," he delves into the very psyche of the black migrant, the black migrants' experiences, and the children of the migrants. How they had to live with the experience of their parents even as they dwelled on the city pavements, so to speak.
I'd like to leave you with the rest of the selection that I read from Baldwin's essay. He writes.
(Reading) Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity and fear. There is no reason for you to try to become like white people, and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. You must accept them, and accept them with love.
CHIDEYA: That was Farah Jasmine Griffin on the late, great James Baldwin. Griffin is professor of English and comparative literature and African-American studies at Columbia University.
Tune in tomorrow when she names the last pick on her list of the six most influential black writers of all time. Now, here's a hint, number six is the only living author on the list.
You can find more of Dr. Griffin's choices and weigh it in with your own at our blog, nprnewsandviews.org.