Susan Naomi Bernstein

Reading and Writing for Genre: James Baldwin’s “Letter to My Nephew”

Blog Post created by Susan Naomi Bernstein Expert on Feb 19, 2018

 

“Yet one must also recognize that morality is based on ideas and that all ideas are dangerous — dangerous because ideas can only lead to action and where the action leads no man can say.” Student-selected quote from “Stranger in the Village” by James Baldwin (Notes of a Native Son 1955).

 

 

The following activity is adapted from several journal entry assignments that students were invited to write as part of preparing to draft the first essay of our spring semester course, the second semester of Stretch. Many of the students spent the fall semester of Stretch reading and writing about Baldwin, and some had requested that we continue this work in the spring. Because several new students joined our cohort, we began the semester with new material from Baldwin, a refresher for students enrolled in the fall semester and an introduction for students new to the cohort in the spring semester. We began with the often-anthologized essay “Stranger in the Village,” then continued with “Letter to My Nephew,” which serves as a model for the first writing assignment in the course.

 

ASSIGNMENT

Our first writing project asks you to write a letter to a younger audience about a contemporary issue of significance to you and to future generations. An example of this genre is James Baldwin’s “Letter to My Nephew,” first published in The Progressive in 1962, and republished in 1963 as part of Baldwin’s book The Fire Next Time.

 

James Baldwin uses this genre to introduce his main idea to his immediate audience (his nephew) and his wider audience (the general public and readers of The Progressive). After reading this letter, return to the first three paragraphs to observe how Baldwin creates an extended introduction.

 

  1. The first paragraph details Baldwin’s writing process and shows Baldwin’s relationship to his nephew and to his nephew’s father (who is Baldwin’s younger brother). Baldwin also introduces his main purpose for writing.
  2. The second paragraph describes Baldwin’s relationship to his brother.
  3. The third paragraph elaborates on Baldwin’s purpose for writing.

 

You can model your own opening paragraphs on this template:

 

First paragraph = direct connection to audience

  • Describe your writing process
  • Discuss your relationship to the audience
  • Introduce your purpose for writing

 

Second paragraph = background about why I am writing (choose from the following or add your own):

  • Events as you imagine them to be in the future
  • Current or recent events
  • Historic events that still hold relevance

 

Third paragraph = develop your specific purpose for writing:

  • To describe a specific problem faced in the current moment
  • To discuss a specific hope for the future
  • To create a specific plan for the future

 

The following is a student’s draft of a first paragraph, based on the model.

 

I have tried writing this letter and have evidently struggled to find the words to express the importance of words. It’s strange that something used in our daily lives could be so influential and important if used correctly. Words can either damage or heal and most importantly change the world. My hope is, dearest readers, that you never lose the fire in your soul. That you face the monsters under your beds with the utmost confidence and vaporize them with the power of your voice.

 

We workshopped this paragraph as a whole class, and discussed specific revisions:

  1. We pointed out the main idea of the paragraph (in bold), and suggested revising the paragraph to clearly present this main idea
  2. We were concerned that “dearest readers” was too broad an audience for the specific focus needed for this assignment.

 

Our suggestions here centered on finding a more concrete audience, even if that audience was imaginary for traditional-aged first-year students (grandson, grandniece, great-grandchild of my best friend, etc).

Outcomes