In the late winter and early spring of last year, my English department colleagues and I were–like almost every educator in the country– exhausted. Thankfully, our department chair empathized; she acknowledged our fatigue. Her response to it was offering us a much needed and appreciated opportunity to pause and engage in professional learning that fostered self-reflection, creativity, and community building. We spent our weekly after school meetings logged into a virtual platform and participating in live writing workshop sessions with a member of the Hudson Valley Writing Project.
The chance to be part of a small writing community with my colleagues was a powerful experience. Each week, the workshop leader invited us to approach and respond to various writing prompts in whatever manner worked best for us. Yes, she provided guidance, however, the last sentence she spoke before our writing began was often some iteration of “do what works for you” or “take this wherever you want.” Really, this was an invitation to write with honesty, to write individually, to write as we were without fear or shame of “getting it wrong.”
One prompt that still resonates with me is from writing session number 5, March 8, 2021: “Take 5-7 minutes and write a letter to one of your favorite authors.” The instructor’s voice was still rattling my eardrum when an image of James Baldwin sitting in front of a typewriter, his thumb gently pressed against his chin while a white plume of smoke crept from the cigarette resting between his index and middle finger, flashed through my mind. Baldwin’s brilliance had a profound effect on me after my first encounter with his writing at the age of 15. I devoured The Fire Next Time in one sitting. Baldwin’s sage insights about racial discrimination and its corrosive nature, especially upon the shiny veneer that camouflages America’s not-so-shiny self and its lustrous “dream” that, for many folks, remains hidden or unattainable, continues to guide the way I process the world around me within and beyond the classroom. These are excerpts from the letter:
Dear Mr. Baldwin,
Like you, I’m a New Yorker, only a New Yorker from a different time. Our beloved city was not and still is not perfect or fully inclusive, but I wish you could have experienced it. Your life was cut too short. I guess the universe had different plans for you. It’s heartbreaking and unfair. For those of us still milling about as the earth rolls beneath our feet, we have many unanswered questions. As I write this letter and reflect upon your words, I can’t help but wonder:
What would you have written in response to the New York I know, to the history you did not experience?
How would you react to the research and progress with HIV and AIDS?
What would you have written about 9/11?
What would you say about Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam– the “Central Park Five”? Amadou Diallo? Trayvon Martin? George Floyd? Breonna Taylor? The countless others who have had their lives stolen?
What would you say about The 1619 Project?
What would you have written and said about our nation’s 45th president? About the insurrection?
How would you convey your messages in this fast-paced, increasingly digitized world?
What would you say about the pandemic? Survival in it? The loss because of it?
We can do our best to surmise what you may have said as we apply the words you’ve generously left for us all, but that feels like cheating. Cheating you of your truth, of your honesty, and cheating us of the privilege to heed your great wisdom. There is a deep loss in the American philosophical realm. Sure, we have scholars– some influential, insightful, and powerful as they remove America’s deceitful veil, uncovering its unflattering truths for all to see– but these scholars, as brilliant as they are, aren’t you. We have so much to learn, especially now that the ‘fire next time’ has ignited, and it grows. It’s insatiable nature burns rapidly and our scorched earth cries for the sky to pour itself out, to deliver relief. The rivers and oceans have been the first to respond. They swell with passion and urgency, but they are too swift to recognize their power as the people, crops, and lands that burn are in deep peril; what burns is now in over their heads and begins to drown in catastrophic irony. I know your words could be the life preserver that we need, but it’s unfair to burden you with that mission.
I do wish you were here. It’s an honor to read your words, to do my best to apply them to my life and all that surrounds me, and to have shared this earth with you, even if it was for a brief time. Your writing continues to educate and inspire, Mr. Baldwin, and I’m sure it will for all the days the earth survives.
My letter to James Baldwin surprised me. Initially, I thought I’d focus on my admiration for him. Yes, my appreciation for Baldwin is present, but this letter also communicates a reflection on the world through my experience coupled with what I understand of Baldwin’s work. This letter is not complete. It’s not perfect. It does not fully encompass what I’d like to say about Baldwin’s writing or the world as I know it, however, it is a place for me to initiate these processes. It’s also an example of what can happen in the classroom when students determine how to best synthesize and communicate their thoughts and ideas when trying to piece together their own literary analysis and their own reflections upon the world.
Writing a letter to a favorite author or to a character or a text that resonates is one way for students and educators to process their own understandings of the literature they read. Students crave “real world” connections and learning experiences, and this activity provides a chance for students to do so through writing. This activity can move student thinking and writing beyond the tired five-paragraph essay, and transform their words into something pleasantly unexpected and deeply rewarding for students and educators alike.
Holly Spinelli is an English teacher at Monroe-Woodbury High School in Central Valley, New York, and an adjunct instructor of English at S.U.N.Y. Orange County Community College in Middletown, New York. She is an active member of the National Council of Teachers of English’s Committee Against Racism and Bias in the Teaching of English.