On Religion and Nonviolent Protest in James Baldwin’s Blues for Mister Charlie
Isaac Butler Guests on Lit Century, with Sandra Newman and Catherine Nichols
Welcome to Lit Century: 100 Years, 100 Books. Combining literary analysis with an in-depth look at historical context, hosts Sandra Newman and Catherine Nichols choose one book for each year of the 20th century, and—along with special guests—will take a deep dive into a hundred years of literature.
In this episode, Isaac Butler joins hosts Sandra Newman and Catherine Nichols to discuss James’ Baldwin’s play Blues for Mister Charlie (1964). It was written to address the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till, but Baldwin alters characters and events in surprising and significant ways, notably—and, at first glance, perversely—focusing the narrative on the moral struggles of a white character. This week we discuss Baldwin’s aims in making these choices, and how they come across in 2020.
From the episode:
Catherine Nichols: The play considers the role of the church to be a lot more negative than I think I do looking back at this era of civil rights protest compared to our current era of civil rights protest. I think he can see the negatives of what the church is doing in terms of how it’s asking people to be more passive and to think of other people as individuals, when they’re being treated as types within a power system. He sees the church as taking power away from Black people who otherwise would be carrying guns and would be defending themselves more. If you do reduce the influence of religion in people’s lives, I don’t know if that then makes them more powerful as a group.
Isaac Butler: Yeah. Although Baldwin, who had a very, I would say, complicated relationship to his religious upbringing, to put it mildly, certainly felt some sense of greater dignity having left that part of his life behind.
Catherine Newman: With good reason.
Isaac Butler: With very good reason. One of the bracing things about reading this play is since it’s written in 1964, it has this kind of skeptical, complicated look, very sanguine look, at nonviolent protest, and at protest sort of centered through the church, which was an institution Baldwin was extremely skeptical of. And I think that in part because of the history of this particular decade that the play is in the middle of, we tend to have a very different point of view on that stuff than Baldwin does or that the play does in this moment of, well, I don’t know how successful this strategy is going to be. I don’t know if we aren’t just robbing people of their dignity. And after this summer where we’ve seen a renewed skepticism about the value of peaceful protest, that was a really bracing thing to encounter.
Isaac Butler is the author (with Dan Kois) of The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels In America, and also of the forthcoming The Method. He is also a theater director, most recently of The Trump Card, a meditation on the peculiar rise of Donald Trump; he also wrote and directed Real Enemies, a collaboration with the composer Darcy James Argue and the video artist Peter Nigrini, which was named one of the top ten live events of 2015 by the New York Times. He is the co-host of Slate’s Working podcast.
Sandra Newman is the author of the novels The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done, shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, Cake, and The Country of Ice Cream Star, longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and named one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post and NPR. She is the author of the memoir Changeling as well as several other nonfiction books. Her work has appeared in Harper’s and Granta, among other publications. She lives in New York City.
Catherine Nichols is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Jezebel and The Seattle Review, among others. She lives in Boston.