Your academic specialty is the intersection of race and religion. Who writes especially well on that subject today, and what’s your favorite book to assign to and discuss with your students at Princeton?
There are some brilliant scholars of race and religion in the country. Many of them were on full display in Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s PBS special on the Black church. My colleagues, Judith Weisenfeld and Wallace Best, come to mind. Lerone Martin, Josef Sorett, Anthea Butler, William Hart, Mayra Rivera, Monica Coleman and Keri Day also stand out. I am really excited that the dissertation of the legendary scholar, Hortense Spillers, will be published by Duke University Press. “Fabrics of History: Essays on the Black Sermon” will have an immediate impact on the field.
To be honest, my favorite book to assign, besides “The Fire Next Time,” is Toni Morrison’s novel “Beloved.” I have been teaching both books for over 20 years. At some point, everyone should read Baby Suggs’s sermon in the clearing. And every one of my students must grapple with the question Baldwin asks on Page 104 of the Vintage edition of “The Fire Next Time”: “What will happen to all that beauty?”
Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?
Yes! I loved Ralph Ellison. In my first year of graduate school, I wrote every single paper on him. I wrote a general exam on Ellison’s “Invisible Man” and the French theorist Michel de Certeau. I still think that “Shadow and Act” and “Going to the Territory” are extraordinary works of American criticism. But after reading Arnold Rampersad’s biography of Ellison, I despised the man. The way he treated his mother, his betrayal of Albert Murray — monstrous.
Another book comes to mind. I read Orhan Pamuk’s “The Museum of Innocence” with a friend and we found communion in how we were both unsettled by the novel.
What book would you add to the canon, and which would you remove?
Given my love of “No Name in the Street,” I would add it to the canon. The book I would remove would probably be “The Ambassadors,” by Henry James. I know how important the book is to Baldwin, but James defeats me every time I crack open his work. I prefer his brother, William. His sentences dance. Henry’s, not so much.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
I should have known this, but I didn’t. In W. Ralph Eubanks’s wonderful book “A Place Like Mississippi,” he mentions Gilbert Mason, a local physician in Biloxi who led a series of “wade-ins” at Biloxi beaches. On April 24, 1960, “hundreds of peaceful Black protesters were beaten by a mob of whites carrying pool cues, clubs, chains, blackjacks, lead pipes and baseball bats.”