How Beacon Press Worked Quickly to Publish Atef Abu Saif’s Gaza Diaries
The Juice Who Greenwashed the Heritage of Black Athlete Activists

The Place I’m From: What Baldwin Teaches Me About Origin and Identity

By Alana Lopez

James Baldwin, Los Angeles, California, 1964. Photo credit: R. L. Oliver, Los Angeles Times
James Baldwin, Los Angeles, California, 1964. Photo credit: R. L. Oliver, Los Angeles Times

One of the first ideas taught in my Literature of the Harlem Renaissance course last semester at Boston University was the concept of Harlem as a haven. In Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem, it was, as its name suggests, a motivating factor for its main character, like that of Ithaca for Odysseus. It was a hub of inventive and unorthodox expressions of self as shown by Louis Armstrong’s jazz or Gladys Bentley’s blues. For Rudolph Fisher, Harlem’s culture is familiar and, though often written off as a fad, rich with history and ultimately timeless in “The Caucasian Storms Harlem.” To James Baldwin, it is home and birthplace as well and, much like him, I’ve come to find that “home” and “haven” are vastly different things. 

“We cannot escape our origins,” Baldwin notes in “Many Thousands Gone,” the second essay of Notes of a Native Son, “however hard we try, those origins which contain the key—could we but find it—to all that we later become.” Like so many of us, he holds a complicated relationship with the place he calls home, and I can’t help but be fascinated by the deftness with which he describes the collision between origin and identity: “those brutal criteria bequeathed to him at his birth.

I come from a smaller town in Arizona full of people who look, think, and act differently than I do, and I can’t pretend that I wasn’t overjoyed to leave it for college. I hated it all through high school, so when I first got to Boston, and people asked where I’m from, I would say (verbatim): a nothing town from Arizona. I spoke about it with absolutely no affection. To me, home is and always will be something I left with a brisk pace and a hesitant glance backwards.

Now, I experience such a contradiction towards my hometown. Two years later, I have come to realize that its narrowness would never negate the fact that it is still my home, still the place where my younger siblings would be raised, and still full of so many people I loved. I somehow simultaneously hate it and love it for everything that it is, and I’ve looked for a way to express this more articulately, more precisely, but I have always come up short. It makes me think of my friend Austin, who is from Arkansas and talks about it in this affectionate way that somehow cherishes and denounces it all at once. I have sought out a way to describe how one loves the (at times) suffocating place they come from in some twisted, backward way, how the place I’m from seems to be the source of all my folly and how I love it anyway. And Baldwin gave it to me.

He speaks of his hometown in “The Harlem Ghetto,” its crowded streets “in desperate need of repair” that seem to incite constant congestion. “Like the insistent, maddening, claustrophobic pounding in the skull that comes from trying to breathe in a very small room with the windows shut,” he posits, and the description is so subtly familiar, slightly harsh, and full of the type of details you can’t quite convey unless you take the time to pay attention. It’s something you can only ever know when you feel it.  

I find this perfect intersection of love and attention so interesting, which Baldwin expresses in “Autobiographical Notes” as it pertains to America as a whole, stating, “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” I know, Austin knows, Baldwin knows: even when you find yourself condemning it with unrelenting conviction, it will still always be the place you know best. I only have Baldwin to thank for the answers to my incessant search for clarity.  

When I moved to Boston—though it was a relief—I felt displaced and inconsequential to this new place that was not mine. It surprised me that both feelings can exist—that you can go somewhere else in hopes it will give you what your hometown cannot, only to find you feel that you don’t necessarily “belong” in either. The same attitude is reflected in the introduction of Notes of a Native Son written by Edward P. Jones as he discusses the feelings he had as an English student in Massachusetts: the feeling that your existence is an independent factor to the world around you.  

When I am so used to being taught Chaucer, Austen, Defoe, and many other authors so far from the setting of my own life, it feels inordinately rewarding to hear thoughts of belonging and identity in Baldwin’s writing that reflect my own. I, too, have searched for traces of myself in other places, just to prove that I am not only a product of my environment, but it is just as Baldwin says: “I might search in them in vain forever for any reflection of myself. I was an interloper; this was not my heritage.” 

More than anything, when I read Baldwin’s writing in class or for pleasure, I feel entirely too lucky to have my scope of understanding expanded. The converging issues of identity and belonging are ones that weigh heavily on my life and the lives of so many others; however, James Baldwin eases this difficulty. “I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly,” he states in the preface of Notes, “but I am, also, much more than that. So are we all.” 


About the Author 

Alana Lopez is a sales and marketing Intern for Beacon Press. Currently, she is in her sophomore year at Boston University, studying English.