Today the New York Times featured an article which chronicled how James Baldwin's works are no longer appearing on high school reading lists across the country. Some educators claimed that his work is too controversial, complex, or sensational for young people. Others pointed to his glaring omission from the Common Core's suggested books as justification for his absence in classrooms. Still another group of educators felt that Baldwin's works just don't make the cut now that room as been made to accommodate other more contemporary black authors such Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison - because you know you kids should not be exposed to too many black voices of course...
This truly saddens me. There would have been no coming of age for me and development of me into a thoughtful person without reading works by authors like James Baldwin. I say this because as a black woman, understanding racism and learning to articulate its pernicious effects and systemic breadth came not by happenstance, but by reading works such as The Fire Next Time which put profound language to the social truths I knew but needed to learn how to express. Coming into your own is all about struggling with identity, and learning how to situate yourself and your experiences in the broader context of society at large. In my humble opinion, Baldwin did this so well that every young person needs to read his works.
To hear that Baldwin's works are being stripped out of the classrooms precisely because he touched on complicated and mature subject matters is the biggest sore spot for me in this entire issue. Young people need to learn how to critically analyze complex subjects and interact with subjects like sexuality and violence on thoughtful terms in school if they are to ever develop into reflective adults. Identity is not a quaint, shallow subject matter. It's deep, scary, raw, and outlandish at times. Baldwin's works will of course stoke the flames of educators and parents who wish to whitewash literature and push puritanical values on the youth, but the kids need to face the fire to emerge pensive and well-adjusted young adults.
None of this is to say that James Baldwin's works are the gospel. It is just my perspective that it is a shame that an author whose works so profoundly convey the quest for self-determination and struggle to speak the truth- two key elements of coming of age- is now relegated to the sidelines of high school literature courses. If it is the mission of the schools to foster intellectual development in young people, omitting Baldwin does not advance this cause at all.