During the fall 2019 semester, first-year students shared the common experience of reading and discussing James Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village” in their first-year writing classes.
Desmond McCarthy, chair of the English department, said he has wanted to “resuscitate the idea of a common reading for some time.”
Initially, the first-year common reading program meant all incoming freshmen were encouraged to read the same work of fiction or nonfiction over the summer. “Then, ideally, a number of their general education classes for their first semester would involve some element of that reading,” said McCarthy.
He explained the previous University-wide common reading program had been discontinued. “The problem with this program and why it was discontinued was that it’s very hard to interrupt the flow of your class and incorporate an entire novel or an entire work of nonfiction.
“For example, within the English department, within our first-year writing program, we had many instructors who would want to incorporate a common reading in some way, but they ended up having to assign two weeks for people to read it and by the time you do that, it really interrupts the flow of your class,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy added book-length readings were a challenge with the previous common reading selections.
He said with longer novels, most students were not reading the books over the summer, which defeated the purpose of the common reading program.
This semester, the English department launched its first-year common reading program with James Baldwin’s essay, “Stranger in the Village.”
“What I wanted to do was have a shorter reading and make it possible to incorporate it into our freshman writing classes,” said McCarthy.
He said after consulting with his colleagues, the Baldwin essay was chosen.
McCarthy said, “[James Baldwin] is one of the most important African American writers of fiction and nonfiction in the twentieth century. He is one of the most important writers about white privilege and the impact of racism, and all of the dualities, contradictions, and shortcomings of the American experience.”
He said the benefits of teaching the essay are “two-fold.” He identified one reason as wanting a “common intellectual experience” for all freshmen and to do so with a manageable text. “James Baldwin’s essay is fairly short, but quite complex,” he said.
McCarthy added another reason for selecting “Stranger in the Village” was to “engage in an anti-racism project as a department.
“We are very concerned about some of the incidents that have happened on campus in the last few years, and we are very cognizant that we are privileged to be teaching a much more diverse student body than we enrolled as recently as five years ago.”
McCarthy said most of his colleagues are teaching “Stranger in the Village” this semester, and that feedback has indicated a “profound experience” for professors and students alike.
Among these colleagues is English professor Lorianne DiSabato, who has taught the essay in her Introduction to College Writing course this semester.
DiSabato said she was both “excited” and “a little bit intimidated” when “Stranger in the Village” was chosen as the English Department’s common reading.
“I couldn’t initially think of a way to fit it in with what we’re talking about in [Introduction to College Writing]. In my particular section of Intro, we focus on [readings concerning] challenges facing college students, so “Stranger in the Village” wasn’t initially, immediately seeming to mesh with that,” she said.
Before teaching “Stranger in the Village,” DiSabato said the class had already read “four or five different essays.” She said students would read the essay, write Blackboard blog entries about their own reactions, and read one another’s posts before discussing it as a class.
“So, what ended up happening was that [format] really worked well for the James Baldwin [essay], because again, we had already set the parameters of, ‘You’re going to be reading people’s reactions to an essay and here’s the kind of respectful response techniques we use in this class,’” she said.
DiSabato added it was interesting to see which parts of the essay resonated with students. “Everyone could kind of relate to the whole idea of being a newcomer somewhere … and as first-year students, you feel like newcomers – but not everyone is a stranger in the village in the way that Baldwin is.”
DiSabato explained Baldwin “talks about how it’s different if you’re a stranger as the only person of color and everyone is white. … If you walk in and you’re an outsider, but you’re from a place of power, that’s very different than if you’re an outsider from a place of vulnerability.”
Speaking on the relevance of the essay to the FSU community, DiSabato said, “[The essay] gave us an ‘in’ to talk about the different forms that racism takes. … I was very explicit … in saying why we were talking about in [this essay].” She said one of the reasons for reading this essay was because of the hate crimes that have happened on campus in recent years.
DiSabato said she felt it was “good” to have students talk to one another about a challenging topic in a “comfortable and respectful way.”
English professor Joseph Opiela has also taught “Stranger in the Village” this semester. He said it has been a “rich teaching experience.”
He said, “[The essay’s] central themes of difference and assimilation are as relevant to students today as when Baldwin wrote [the essay].
“It provides a lot of opportunities for class discussion,” he added.
Opiela said each student in his class picked a passage and commented on the meaning of their selection.
“We talked about how as first-year students in college, they’re also ‘strangers in the village,’” he said.
He added it’s “important for students to have opportunities to discuss the essay’s themes of difference and assimilation. It’s valuable to do that openly, and without bias, as part of one’s college education.”
Opiela identified the topics and themes of “Stranger in the Village” as “difficult subject matters to engage in,” but added these conversations need to be held to show racism is a “major social problem.”
He added, “Framingham State prides itself on being welcoming and inclusive to students of all backgrounds, and the essay explores how America, because of its uniqueness and history, can and must do the same for all its citizens.”
English professor Patricia Horvath said she taught “Stranger in the Village” at the same time she taught “I am Not Your Negro,” Raoul Peck’s biographical film about Baldwin.
“The essay and film consider a number of ideas that we grappled with, including intentional versus inadvertent racism, what it means to be ‘on display,’ and representations of African Americans in American cinema,” she said.
Horvath added her class talked about the idea of being a “witness.” She said they discussed “what Baldwin witnessed as an African American in a remote Swiss village, what the villagers witnessed in seeing him, and the ways in which the reader/viewer becomes a witness to Baldwin’s experience.”
Some first-year students found it interesting to have class discussions about racism in the context of Baldwin’s essay.
Freshman Matheus Harris said, “Talking about it in class, we touched a lot on the topic of racism. … It’s not just the racism in the U.S. at the time, but also in other countries.”
Freshman Yana Trubetskaya said her class had already been discussing racism leading up to the reading of Baldwin’s essay.
She said her class discussed the contrast between racism in Switzerland and America.
“In America, we have a whole history with slavery, segregation, [and] racism. … But, in Switzerland in that village … [Baldwin] always felt like an outlier because they had never seen a Black man before. … They were just really oblivious to the other people that existed in this world.”
She also said her class had been discussing the “American Dream” and they used “Stranger in the Village” to guide them in understanding racism.
The common reading has led some students to research Baldwin even further.
Freshman Austin Riffelmacher researched James Baldwin in his Expository Writing class and found his work was “worth a delve deeper.
“My general understanding was that he was a well-respected African American writer. What I soon discovered was that he was one of the most important Black voices throughout the 20th century. Contrary to my belief that Baldwin was primarily a novelist, I found that he was a playwright, essayist, and critic” as well, he said.
He added, “What James Baldwin’s life and work reveals to me is a vastly fascinating and complex weight for one writer to carry. To be a Black, gay man in those times was a struggle in and of itself, but to write openly and honestly about both is both audacious and honorable.”
Riffelmacher said, “I am truly astonished by his life and career and have developed a connection that will last beyond the semester.”
[Editor’s note: Desmond McCarthy is advisor to The Gatepost.]