Summer Spotlight: James Baldwin Life, Letters, Legacy

In Summer 2019, the Summer School was excited to welcome Dr. Zachary Manditch-Prottas from the Department of African and African-American Studies. Dr. Manditch-Prottas answered the following questions about his popular summer session II class, James Baldwin: Life, Letters, Legacy.

What were the focus and goals of your class?

The goal of this course is for students to gain critical familiarity with key themes and tropes of the work of author and activist, James Baldwin. Indeed, Baldwin was never just a writer; he was public witness to injustice that was compelled to speak truth to power in whatever form he deemed necessary. In this respect, this course focuses on Baldwin the theorist as much as Baldwin the author. We examine his classic novels and essays as well as his work across many less-examined domains—theatre, sermon, dialogue, film and short story. Moreover, while committing ourselves to close reading methods and literary theory we situate Baldwin’s works within historical context and consider how he shaped, and was shaped by, events beginning with the Civil Rights Era through our precarious contemporary moment in which he remains a timely voice that we would be wise to listen to. 

What were the highlights of the class for you?

My class is very group discussion-oriented and thus the highlights of my summer are rooted in the lively and thoughtful conversations we had. I particularly enjoyed, and was greatly impressed by, the class discussions where students compared Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk to the 2018 film adaptation by director Barry Jenkins. These discussions emphasized how relevant Baldwin’s work remains today and how talented contemporary storytellers continue to draw on Baldwin as inspiration for their own creativity. 

Do you have any advice for students considering summer classes?

Try to put aside your apprehensions about the expedited nature of summer classes. While the frequent meetings may seem overwhelming they quickly cultivate close bonds in the classroom. Summer courses are a great opportunity to work closely with professors and classmates. In my experience as an instructor, the classroom becomes a community before you know it. Learning is a process, indeed it is a daily endeavor, and summer courses encourage this endeavor to be one of daily guidance and support.


Zachary Manditch-Prottas is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of African and African-American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. He earned his Ph.D. in African American Studies from the University of California, Berkeley. His research and teaching work at the nexus of African American literature, Black cultural studies and theories of gender and sexuality.

His work has been featured in current and forthcoming publications in African Americanist literary criticism including: African American Review, Callaloo, James Baldwin in Context and Words Beats and Life: The Global Journal of Hip-Hop Culture. His current research considers the Black Arts Movement, the origins of Black Pulp Fiction, and the novels of Donald Goines.

Dr. Manditch-Prottas has recently published scholarship on James Baldwin in African American Review and the edited collection James Baldwin in Context.