Thursday, February 24, 2011

James Baldwin's Nobody Knows My Name: Fifty Years

Fifty years ago James Baldwin issued Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son (1961), a new selection of essays following his brilliant and raw analysis of America and race in his first collection, Notes of a Native Son (1955).

In Nobody Knows My Name, Baldwin continued his searing review of race relationships in America and in Europe, where he lived in exile for some years. He also continued, characteristically, to focus a penetrating light into own feelings and experience, making his work both an analysis of American society and one man's honest attempt to bear witness of the experience of being an American, of being himself.

James Baldwin
In "The Discovery of What It Means to Be an American, "the first essay of Nobody Knows My Name, Baldwin makes an incisive distinction between the value of intellectual activity, as regarded by Europeans versus Americans. He pinpoints the tension in America between intellectualism and idealistic myths, such as American exceptionalism which is still touted to this day:

"A European writer considers himself to be part of an old and honorable tradition--of intellectual activity, of letters--and his choice of a vocation does not cause him any uneasy wonder as to whether or not it will cost him all his friends. But this tradition does not exist in America.
"On the contrary, [Americans] have a very deep-seated distrust of real intellecutal effort (probably because we suspect that it will destroy, as I hope it does, that myth of America to which we cling so desperately)."

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