Sunday, December 24, 2017

Starting with What Matters, Part 2: James Baldwin

In "The Negro Child—His Self-Image" delivered as a talk to teachers on October 16, 1963, and published in The Saturday Review on December 21, 1963, James Baldwin, crafted this 88-word sentence toward the end of his 3,632-word essay:
Now if I were a teacher in this school, or any Negro school, and I was dealing with Negro children, who were in my care only a few hours of every day and would then return to their homes and to the streets, children who have an apprehension of their future which with every hour grows grimmer and darker, I would try to teach them—I would try to make them know—that those streets, those houses, those dangers, those agonies by which they are surrounded, are criminal. 
As background, Baldwin was talking to teachers at the invitation of their school. The premise of his unusual appeal was that no sooner do children develop a conscience that they find themselves at war with a backward society. He was challenging not only the very foundation of education but the moral and political imperative that we all must confront.

Let's start with the base clause of the sample: I would try to teach them that those streets, those houses, those dangers, those agonies by which they are surrounded, are criminal.

Baldwin suspends his subject, I, for 59 words. In doing so, he violates what most writing teachers would say is a hallmark of good writing: getting to the point by starting with the subject and verb. But in doing so, he proclaims how practically complex yet spiritually pure his point is. The words preceding the base clause sets the stage for the teacher's moral obligation: 
Now if I were a teacher in this school, or any Negro school, and I was dealing with Negro children, who were in my care only a few hours of every day and would then return to their homes and to the streets, children who have an apprehension of their future which with every hour grows grimmer and darker ...
By this point in his speech/essay, Baldwin has already established his credibility as a sage of the cultural mores of his time. Starting the sentence with "Now if I were a teacher in this school, or any Negro school" comes at a propitious moment. The additional clause "and I was dealing with Negro children, who were in my care only a few hours of every day" is far from redundant; he is punctuating the educational dilemma in which teachers find themselves. And by concluding the long left branch preceding the base clause with "children who an apprehension of their future which with every hour grows grimmer and darker," Baldwin emphasizes the heart of the problem and pivots to his appeal.

James Baldwin wrote many powerful, dramatic sentences like this one in his essays. You can find them is his Collected Essays and The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings.