Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. How did Baldwin see his responsibility as a writer? As a “disturber of the peace”?
2. Baldwin tried to warn white America of the cost to themselves and the country if they clung to the myths and legaends of America. What are some of those consequences? How does white America continue to promote or defend an America that exists only in its imagination?
3. Despite his resentments towards his stepfather, Baldwin ultimately understood that he had to let go of the hate and confront the pain and trauma for him to feel free. How do you think that shaped him as a person, a writer, and a witness?
4. Why do you think his time in France helped Baldwin get a better view of America and how he saw himself as a Black American? How did it mold him into a writer?
5. “To make it real. To force it on the world’s attention” is how Baldwin defined what it means to be a witness. How is a witness different from an activist? Or does Baldwin present them as one and the same? How do we bear witness today? Name some examples.
6. Of Martin Luther King Jr., Baldwin states “Martin and I never got to know each other well, circumstances, if not temperament, made that impossible.” How would you compare or contrast both Baldwin’s and King’s temperaments? Their views on the civil rights movement? Their take on “the lie”?
7. Glaude mentions the complex relationship between history and memory—what actually happened and the stories we tell about what happened. What are some examples of changing facts to fit a narrative? And what are those stories trying to accomplish?
8. Glaude acknowledges an important question when it comes to America’s history: What do we do about George Washington and other notable yet complicated figures? What are your thoughts?
9. Discuss Baldwin’s and the author’s views of forgiveness, especially Black people’s readiness to forgive the sins of white people. What does forgiveness mean? Why do you think giving up on that is important?
10. What did James Baldwin mean about being an “American exile”—both living abroad and within his home country? Why does the Glaude suggest that “elsewhere” is a more appropriate term? What can elsewhere offer?
11. Glaude talks about finding and building “communities of love.” What does that look like for you?
12. Baldwin shines a bright light on America’s criminal justice system. Discuss the myths versus the realities of America’s law enforcement and judicial institutions. In what ways have they evolved? In what ways are they still the same as in Baldwin’s time?
13. Have you come away from the book with a new perspective—both on Baldwin and the problems he wrote about? What are your takeaways?