Studying an Idea in Depth: A Closer Look at James Baldwin

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302942_Oct 2017_photo.JPGAs a transition between Writing Project 1 and Writing Project 2, I invited students to watch and reflect in writing on a video preview of Raoul Peck’s film “I Am Not Your Negro,” published in The Guardian when the film opened in the UK. In the preview, James Baldwin speaks at the Cambridge University Union in 1965. Baldwin’s subject is the “American Dream,” and he states unequivocally that “what [America/Americans] are not facing is the results of what we’ve done.”

What Baldwin means here is that white supremacy denies that African Americans and other people of color did the hard labor to build this country: “under someone else’s whip. For nothing.”

In reading the reflections, I discovered that students have found in Baldwin’s work a profound inspiration for their own writing. Students have been moved by how Baldwin inserts himself and his experiences into his essays and speeches. By doing so, Baldwin offers a model for writers to create their own profound connections to pathos and ethos, even as he has been dead for three decades. From the students’ perspectives, Baldwin’s writing on the struggles of his time hold significant implications for the world in which students are coming of age.


For these reasons, I decided to design Writing Project 2 so that students would have more time to study an idea in depth. The assignment sheet below offers a glimpse of what we will embark on as we stretch toward midterm and beyond.



Choose one of the three sample prompts below or create your own prompt. The prompts ask you to work on the following skills, which will serve as grading criteria for WP 2:


  1. Choose a significant aspect of “I Am Not Your Negro”  
  2. Explain the significance through supporting examples
  3. Explore research to learn more about your examples
  4. Develop reasons for your own opinions



RESPONSIBILITY: What, in your opinion, does Baldwin mean by “taking responsibility for your own life”? What examples from the movie support your opinion? When you research these examples in more depth, what do you learn?  Why did you choose this option? In other words, what does the phrase “taking responsibility for your own life” mean for you and what relevant experiences support your examples?


AMERICAN DREAM: How did you define the “American Dream” before watching “I Am Not Your Negro”? What specific examples from the movie support and/or contradict your definition? When you research these examples in more depth, what do you learn? Has your definition of the “American Dream” changed as a result of watching the movie? Why or why not?


HISTORICAL MEDIA ARTIFACT: What historical media artifact (music, photography, film, advertising) draws your particular attention in “I Am Not Your Negro”? What specific examples from the movie support your ideas? When you research these examples in more depth, what do you learn? Why did these particular examples draw your attention? Why do these examples seem especially significant in 2017?


CREATE YOUR OWN PROMPT: Follow the four steps above, and take a look at the example included below.


James Baldwin’s Lesson for Teachers in a Time of Turmoil” by Clint Smith might serve as an example for WP 2. In his essay, Smith illustrates each of the four skills to be practiced for WP 2. Smith:

  1. Chooses a significant aspect of “I Am Not Your Negro” (using education and Baldwin’s essay “A Talk to Teachers”)
  2. Explains the significance through supporting examples (providing significant events of 1963)
  3. Explores research to learn more about your examples (comparing past history with current events)
  4. Develops reasons for your own opinions (addressing why he believes his ideas are significant)



See Paul Thomas’s course archive for Reconsidering James Baldwin in the Era of Black Lives Matter.

Photo: Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. [Author James Baldwin and actor Marlon Brando.] From National...

About the Author
Susan Naomi Bernstein (she/they) writes, teaches, and quilts, in Queens, NY. She blogs for Bedford Bits, and her recent publications include “The Body Cannot Sustain an Insurrection” in the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics and “After Basic Writing” in TETYC. Her book is Teaching Developmental Writing. Other publications include “Theory in Practice: Halloween Write-In,” with Ian James, William F. Martin, and Meghan Kelsey in Basic Writing eJournal 16.1, “An Unconventional Education: Letter to Basic Writing Practicum Students in Journal of Basic Writing 37.1, “Occupy Basic Writing: Pedagogy in the Wake of Austerity,” in Nancy Welch and Tony Scott’s collection Composition in the Age of Austerity. Susan also has published on Louisa May Alcott, and has exhibited her quilts in Phoenix, Arizona and Brooklyn, NY.