Monday, October 17, 2005

Personal Essay Class, Week Five

For class tonight we were assigned James Baldwin's essay "Notes of a Native Son." I have not read this lengthy essay before and now am wondering how I managed to miss it. It is a powerful essay in which Baldwin examines his relationship with his father, racism and what it can do to a person. It is not a happy essay. Early on he writes, "He had lived and died in an intolerable bitterness of spirit and it frightened me, as we drove him to the graveyard through those unquiet, ruined streets, to see how powerful and overflowing this bitterness could be and to realize that this bitterness now was mine." But over the course of the essay in which Baldwin realizes just how much his father had protected him from the world while he grew up, he comes to the conclusion:

This was his legacy: nothing is ever escaped. That bleakly memorable morning I hated the unbelievable streets and the Negroes and the whites who had, equally, made them that way. But I knew that it was folly, as my father would have said, this bitterness was folly. It was necessary to hold on to the things that mattered. The dead man mattered, the new life mattered; blackness and whiteness did not matter; to believe that they did was to acquiesce in one's own destruction. Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated and this was an immutable law.
Wow. If you are looking to read the entire essay, you can probably find it excerpted numerous places, but you can also read it in Baldwin's essay collection Notes of a Native Son. The writing assignment to go along with this essay was to write about a personal experience of race. Writing short essays for class has been really easy. What I am finding is not easy is reading them aloud for the first time after I have finished them. With every essay I have done so far when I read it to my husband at some point during the reading I burst into tears. I am always surprised by the emotion that comes up. Thank goodness I have managed not to cry in class. Last week a woman in class did start crying. The essay she read was about caring for her aging parents and how, even as a woman in her 50s, she still just wanted to be their little girl. She sobbed her way through it, her raw emotion more affecting than the actual essay itself. The teacher suggested that those difficult emotions is one reason why people read personal essays. We also discussed how much time to allow to pass between an event and the writing about it. The teacher said some writers want to examine it immediately, to catch the experience while it is still raw. Other writers have a five year rule. Personally, I don't know about a five year rule, but I am definitely in the camp of letting time pass a bit. I'm beginning to better understand Wordsworth's idea of "emotion recollected in tranquility." But even then there is no guarantee the emotion will have no effect on you. Still, it is easier to look at and understand when it is recalled. The sharp edge is gone, but there are oh so m any facets that were not visible when it was immediately felt. So off I go to class tonight. It is number five out of twelve.