Teaching Inside: Rumination on Help

In addition to my unmitigated stanning for Toni Morrison, there is pretty much nothing anyone can say to me about the brilliance of James Baldwin. I’ve always been a fan, but recently — perhaps, given the current political climate as well as a friend of mine who is probably Baldwin reincarnated — I’ve found myself gravitating back to works of his that I’ve already read. Baldwin, like Morrison (actually, that should be reverse because, age LOL but whatever!), writes in layers; nothing is an accident and nothing is a coincidence. His writing is intentional, deliberate, and epic in scope.

So obviously I had to have guys, this spring, read some Baldwin. I started them out with “Sonny’s Blues,” one of Baldwin’s more accessible pieces, especially for those new to his work.

But, well, before that, let me take a step back.

The facility in which I work initially allowed me to suggest to the guys that they put together submissions for Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Ed that talked about how they felt about being able to access higher education while incarcerated. February 22, I got the first draft of a piece from one of my new students (who I ultimately ended up quoting in my dissertation). He wrote the following powerful statement:

“For higher education to be offered to the incarcerated brother means so much more. It means a brand new start at life, it means out with the old and in with the new. It means society has finally listened to your apologies and is hearing your cries for help. They are willing to reach out and give you that shot to live when death may have been diabolically closer than we would like to admit. Higher education for the incarcerated brother means (metaphorically speaking) chains being broken so that the next generation does not have to suffer for their fathers sins. It means doors of positive opportunity will open and communities that were rife with broken homes and also stripped of their male role models and father figures forcing woman to work and raise children in impoverished neighborhoods will once again thrive.”

This notion of needing, asking for, and receiving help — and the gratitude that grew out of that — was so palpably real to me when I read this. And it made me think of Sonny and the ways in which he sought help for his addictions. In the story we first see Sonny’s addiction to music; he plays the piano so often that people come to think of him more as a sound than as a person. His addiction to music turns into a heroin addiction and, at the end of the story, we hopefully see the beginning of Sonny’s ascent out of the clutches of addiction; but he needs the help, support, and love from the family he felt never understood him.

On March 23, a student wrote, as part of his reflection about “Sonny’s Blues”:

“Growing up black in America is something. One can only describe it as something because of the difficulty that comes with classifying the event as good or bad, a blessing or curse, or some amalgamation of paradoxes. A black man feels a great pride of having the courage to be black and survive despite the odds stacked against him. In that same breath, being a black man in America carries such a burden that one can feel as if they are constantly living under a black cloud. Sonny was faced with the task of growing up black and poor in Harlem — the then-cultural Mecca of Black America — at the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement. Having to brave these three experiences at the same time — three sides of the same coin that delivered the same message to him, that he was unimportant and unwanted in America — was a heavy cross to bear for Sonny. Finding it difficult to express his angst, Sonny found his voice in music.”

Again, we have this idea of needing help, wanting to, and desperately needing to, express oneself genuinely and authentically, and understanding that whether it is music or education, repression and oppression can be equally debilitating.