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A Decades-Old Baldwin Novel Has UMSL's Campus Thinking And Talking In New Ways

From left, UMSL's Priscilla Dowden-White and Andrew Kersten joined Monday's program. The show also included the perspectives of several UMSL students.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

Shortly after Andrew Kersten joined the University of Missouri-St. Louis last year as its dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, he and a group of colleagues put out a campus survey listing about 20 different books. “Which book should we choose for the UMSL Common Read?” they wanted to know.

Before long, as Kersten remembers it, one particular novel quickly rose to the top among the 300 responses to the survey: James Baldwin’s “If Beale Street Could Talk.” And from there, what he and others thought would amount to a public lecture and a few classes “took off like wildfire.” More than 50 faculty members opted to incorporate the book into their courses this fall.

On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Sarah Fenske talked with Kersten and Priscilla Dowden-White,  associate professor of history, about how Baldwin’s 1974 novel about Tish and Fonny is resonating across campus and the broader St. Louis community, decades after it was written. The conversation also included the perspectives of several UMSL students and faculty members.

“I think [the common read] allows people to have a sense of camaraderie, that we’re all reading the same book, we’re all hearing the same exact story told, and that way we can have this open dialogue about it,” said Idalis Williams, a graduating senior at UMSL. “It doesn’t have to be about necessarily feelings of what you see on TV or what you don’t see; it’s about what we have in front of us in this book.”

Kersten noted that the idea for the common read began with grant money from UM System aimed at fostering diversity and inclusion on campus.

“[We wanted a text] that would provide a platform for discussions that would help us meet one of the key goals of the new UMSL strategic plan, which deals with diversity and inclusion,” he said. “[The common read] also deals with another goal, which is becoming an anchor institution in the region — in other words, extending the university out into the community, and we thought given the topic this would be a great way to engage the community and the campus at the same time.”

Dowden-White said she was pleasantly surprised at the number of community members as well as faculty and students who chose to adopt the Baldwin book.

“Across disciplines — I expected it from the liberal arts disciplines, but I honestly didn’t expect it from some of the other disciplines,” she said.

Kersten expanded upon some of the ways that Baldwin’s novel works well as a jumping-off point for discussions in all sorts of fields.

“In some ways the book is deceptively simple … but in the text is really everything that you can think about — there’s the justice system, there’s race, there’s class, there’s gender, there’s age … and of course, family,” he said. “And I think it is just a book that everyone can relate to. In some ways it’s an easy read — you can get through it, but it will leave you thinking about it for months after.”

Dowden-White added that “If Beale Street Could Talk” is also a powerful read because of how Baldwin reveals the everyday lives of the people that he writes about.

“Toni Morrison talked about what she referred to as ‘the white gaze’ and how it’s important to her as a writer to get beyond the white gaze,” Dowden-White said, “and what she meant by that was not that African Americans are not affected by their relationships in society with white people — but that they live their lives every day apart from those circumstances as well, even when those circumstances are in various ways having an impact.”

UMSL School of Social Work faculty member Joe Pickard has been asking his students to relate the Baldwin text to various sociological theories covered in class. He noted that when it comes to the common read, “there’s something special about knowing that you’re part of a much larger body of learners.”

“One thing we know is that people who read, particularly novels, tend to develop more empathy than they might otherwise,” he said. “And as you’re reading you’re putting yourself into somebody else’s shoes. With this book, I don’t necessarily anticipate that all my students will suddenly change their perspectives around social justice, race and so forth. But I do hope that they will all learn to at least understand perspectives of black Americans and [the] black community, and maybe some of the struggles that might be unique to them.”

St. Louis on the Air also spoke with UMSL students Jennifer Harris and Lacey Corbett about their takeaways from the common read and from the book itself. Harris said that while there are moments of despair in the novel, it mostly left her feeling hope.

Corbett, who is a graduate student in Pickard’s course on human behavior in the social environment, said she was struck by the Baldwin book’s connections to multiple key issues in contemporary St. Louis.


Related Events
What: Common Read Lecture: Radical Love in James Baldwin’s “If Beale Street Could Talk”
When: 2 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019
Where: J.C. Penney Auditorium at the University of Missouri-St. Louis (1 University Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63121)

What: Film Screening
When: 2 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019
Where: J.C. Penney Auditorium at the University of Missouri-St. Louis (1 University Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63121)

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Tonina Saputo. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.
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