Whose protest novel?

After last Monday’s class, I was having a conversation with a friend on the idea of Native Son being or not being a novel about race. The idea we were stuck on was what a Black woman might feel after reading this novel. How could they identify with its message as a Black reader? Are they supposed to identify with Bigger after his treatment of women, or worse, should they have to identify with Bessie after her treatment by Bigger?

Some of the presentations touched on the differences between Wright’s treatment of racial experiences and Baldwin’s. I truly feel as though Wright misses the mark in trying to get his message across by making the deliberate choices that he did. In failing to understand sexual violence against women and making blatant references to the bible, for instance, that solidified this misunderstanding, I feel as though he lost any connection he might have had to his Black female audience.

In addition, the presentations touched a little on Baldwin’s queer identity. Baldwin seemed to have a more intersectional perspective on the race idea. It’s possible his queer identity gave him the ability to critique Wright’s work and lacking perspective of the issue. I personally agree with Baldwin’s view on the novel and Bigger’s character. Wright did not have to deliver this message by means of stripping Bigger of his humanity. We have referenced in class the idea that Baldwin was growing up and existing in a time where who he was, a gay Black man, could have gotten himself killed. I wonder if when reading this novel, as someone who himself had been a victim of hypermasculinity and the patriarchy, Baldwin was able to have this discerning eye. On the whole, I would have to agree that Native Son is not the most accessible protest novel.

Naturalism, Dr. Seuss, and Me

If you haven’t heard by now, this week Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced that they will cease the publication of six classic children’s books which “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” Now, this didn’t come as the biggest surprise to me; Theodore Geisel’s racism manifested in numerous political cartoons, support for Japanese internment camps, and blackface. But that this racism had extended to the stories which so defined my childhood—stories like And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street! and If I Ran the Zoo—was a disappointment for which I was thoroughly unprepared.
And yet, as I perused article after article, book after book, the racist imagery became apparent in monkey-like depictions of tribal Africans and Asian “helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant” from “countries no one can spell” (those are real quotes from If I Ran the Zoo). I knew that I must have read those words countless times–seen the images of yellow-faced Asian men literally carrying a white man with a gun on their heads—and simply thought nothing of it.
As we learned in our readings this week, naturalism, which Irving Howe defines as a sort of scientific detachment from the subject matter, is a philosophy with which Baldwin proves particularly concerned. Of his own encounters with racism, he says, “I knew about the south, of course, and about how southerners treated negroes and how they expected them to behave, but it had never entered into my mind that anyone would look at me and expect me to behave that way” (CE 68). Clearly, Baldwin exhibits some of that same detachment from the Black condition of which he accuses Wright when Wright withdraws to Paris and ingratiates himself to the French intellectuals, falling out of sync with the Black American experience and seemingly forsaking the cause for which he once so vehemently advocated (CE 266). There is a divorce, a disjunction, an otherness which defines the relationship between both Wright and Baldwin and Black America in these instances.
I would argue that the liberals who Baldwin so distinctly criticizes in “Many Thousands Gone” fall victim to this same otherness when they assert that, “though there are whites and blacks among us who hate each other, we will not,” eager to subscribe to the dream that “the battle is elsewhere” (CE 34). And, as I’ve racked my mind these past few days trying to figure out how I could have forgiven such blatantly racist rhetoric, especially anti-Asian rhetoric, part of me wonders if I didn’t experience some of that same otherness myself. True, I was young when I last read Dr. Seuss, and I am only half Asian, and these are certainly facts which colored my perception; regardless, I can’t help but wonder if I, like Wright and Baldwin and those liberals before me, found comfort in denying my proximity to the issue, and whether this denial was rooted in shame, ignorance, or some concoction of the two. In short, I guess, the question I inevitably return to is this: is naturalism natural?

Relationship, Nuance, Art

One of the most striking differences between the first book of Go Tell It on the Mountain and Native Son for me was the rich relationships and side characters Baldwin offered. In “Many Thousands Gone,” Baldwin claims that “Bigger has no discernible relationship to himself, to his own life, to his own people, nor to any other people.” Certainly, as a reader, after 400 pages of Bigger’s isolated experience of the world, I found myself, while not put off, thoroughly fatigued. That fatigue sets in early, though. From the beginning, there is a feeling that everything in Wright’s world reflects back onto his main character. The shameful undertones of Vera and her mother as they change furtively and quickly in the opening of the first scene seems to somehow be more about Bigger’s shame and isolation. The competitive egos and insecurities of Bigger’s friends feels more indicative of Bigger’s issues than of an honest, nuanced depiction of community, friendship, or Black men. For me, this related back to the question of artistry that came up during Ahana’s presentation. This impulse, to create a main character with such overwhelming and isolating gravitas, was a bold choice. It was not always very relatable or efficient, and I believe some of the poetics, artistry, or connection was lost as a result. 

Going into Go Tell It on the Mountain, I was curious to see if these same issues might come up or how they might be addressed differently. I think looking at the depiction of the mother in Baldwin’s book could be an excellent access point, especially as gender was such a gripping and obvious issue in the last text. At least for starters, I believe Baldwin explains the relationship between John and John’s mother much more effectively, artistically, and honestly. For example, as John thinks about old pictures of his mom in comparison with her current battered appearance, he finds that “between the two faces there stretched a darkness and a mystery that John feared, and that sometimes cause him to hate her” (20). This line beautifully conveys the ominous, mystical, and confusing feelings that John must wrestle with in his relationship with his mom. It is far more discernible, relatable, and redemptive almost. 

Yes, but no.

The presentations last week illuminated some remaining questions I have on the effects of Native Son. In Notes on Native Son, I thought James Baldwin accurately articulated one of the most significant issues with Native Son as the lack of humanity in Bigger and in the story in general. Though Wright intended to highlight the brutal realities of being Black in America, I did not feel his novel accurately depicted most Black people’s experiences. Bigger was murderous, violent, and unable to process his own identity. Despite the racist structures present in America, Black people do not just resort to this behavior. The anti-Blackness and classism prevalent in American society during the early 20th century certainly had countless detrimental effects on African Americans’ lives. There are prejudicial structures that arguably plague every institution that rules our society, and laws are codified to defend and promote these systems. Reading about these realities is one thing, but the lived experiences are often indescribable; Wright’s attempt to describe these realities was undoubtedly impactful but not reflective of the true Black American experience. 

After last week’s final discussions on Native Son, it became clear to me that many readers of the novel are compelled to believe that societal oppression can lead Black men to commit the acts that Bigger did. I do not identify with this novel. It is not because I don’t identify with the difficulties of being Black in America, but rather because, despite the societal oppression that I and other Black Americans face, we as humans are more motivated by a respect for and in the preservation of humanity than we are by violence and anger. Contrary to the story told in Native Son, Black Americans–specifically Black men–constantly must look past the difficulties posed by racial prejudice in order to maintain their humanity. I argue that Wright’s novel portrays a man who loses control rather than what most Black Americans experience. 

Additionally, the title of Native Son implies a sort of deterministic reality for Black American men. It almost suggests that they have rage, anger, and hate that may or may not lead them to resort to violent actions because they are oppressed. This is not consistent with my lived reality of interacting with Black men who look past the prejudice they face because it is innate to maintain humanity rather than commit violent acts. While structures in American society do disproportionately affect Black men, Bigger is not an accurate portrayal of what is “native” in any humans. I agree with Baldwin that humanity lacked in this novel and argue that it did not accurately represent Black men in America. 

The Last Straw

It is often funny to compare the sayings and parenting styles of different parents, especially those from different cultural backgrounds. However, there can be cycles of abuse and negative comparisons that can be harmful more than hurtful. One of the last lingering thoughts I have about Native Son, is Wright giving us two different perspectives of motherhood through the lens of a Black mother and a white mother. We discussed in class the idea of hysteria and how it was “treated” in women who were emotional. We also discussed Wright’s writing of black women being degrading and, in simple terms, horrible, and I believe both of these things play a role into the way he wrote Bigger’s mother, and Mrs. Dalton and the perceived upbringing of Black children. 

There are several instances of Wright showing that Bigger’s mother is what he believes to be a bad mom, and the opposite for Mrs. Dalton. One of the easiest differences to spot is the naming. Bigger’s mother is not given a name by Wright. He calls her “his mother,” “the mother,” and even writes, “The black woman sobbed,” (Wright 302). On the other hand, Mary’s mother is named right when we meet her, Mrs. Dalton. She is painted as all white, and even though she is blind, she is written to see everything and even as a white person who helps Black people see themselves. She is even praying over Mary when she comes home drunk (Wright 86). In the third book, we see Bigger’s mother beg Mrs. Dalton to help her son, even though he killed her daughter and Mrs. Dalton pats her head in a weird pet way. I think this is another thing that has really made me feel negatively towards the novel. I think that Wright has tried very hard to show that he holds white women on a higher pedestal, and even after reading Baldwin’s criticisms, this is the thing that bothers me the most. 

Rage & Hate

One of the most problematized aspects of Native Son was Bigger Thomas’ rage and his lack of foundation in his identity as a person. In trying to speak to too many Bigger Thomas characters that Wright encountered in his life, the Bigger Thomas we encountered became a hollow representation with a lumbering and unfocused rage. Through Bigger Thomas, Wright addressed the daily indignities, humiliations and injustices that black people had (and still have) to suffer in America. In “Many Thousands Gone,” James Baldwin writes against the manner in which Wright depicts Bigger Thomas. He states that “it hastens to confine the Negro to the very tones of violence he has known all his life” because it didn’t show Bigger as a unique person or a member of a community. Another one of James Baldwin’s criticism of Native Son was that it cut out a “necessary dimension … the relationship that Negroes bear to another, that depth of involvement and unspoken recognition of shared experience which creates a way of life.” I find Baldwin’s assessment of Native Son interesting since his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain confronts several of the themes found in Native Son.

From the first part of Go Tell It on the Mountain, I can see the themes of faith, religion, morality, race/racism, gender, hatred and identity. All of which were present in Native Son. However, from the beginning of Baldwin’s novel, I can see that rage/anger is going to operate in a different and more controlled manner; maybe through a more internalized way rather than the externalized violence that Bigger exhibited in Native Son. Both the anger that John and Bigger Thomas live with are strong, overwhelming and understandable. I’m curious to see how Baldwin is going to use that rage in a way that doesn’t “confine” John to the same fate as Bigger Thomas.

Is There Refuge Under Afropessimism?

After Elizabeth’s presentation on Wednesday, I have been thinking a lot about how James Baldwin engages with Frank B. Wilderson III’s critical framework, Afropessimism, through his discussion of Richard Wright’s life, work, and legacy.

In Alas, Poor Richard, Baldwin speaks on how his relationship with Wright and Wright’s work has evolved as Wright’s life came to its “untimely” (Baldwin CE 247) conclusion in Paris. Baldwin notes that Paris—among other European cities—was perceived as a “city of refuge” (Baldwin CE 249) for Black Americans in the 1960’s who had the means to emigrate from the US.

Perhaps this act of Black American’s seeking refuge on European soil during the height of the Civil Rights Movement can be seen as an attempt to decolonize oneself and one’s history. It’s not like decolonization through the adoption of Pan-Africanism into one’s American life; this does not do much to decolonize one’s surroundings. And it’s not like decolonization via Garveyism’s Back-to-Africa Movement; the effects of slavery and colonization still reside in African nations. Immigrating to Europe, home of numerous imperial nations, seems like it could be a step toward decolonization…or at least an ironic escape from a colonized reality. After all, the United States has been tainted with the tattoo of Afropessimism. Ever since the first African native was stolen from their own soil and enslaved by colonists, Blackness become “synonymous with Slaveness” or what I’d call irrredemption (Wilderson III).

However, as we talked about in class, the treatment of Black people and Black Americans in European cities is still far from that of a first-class citizen. Professor Kinyon shared with us an example of the subtle differences in how Black American immigrants and Black African immigrants are treated in Ireland: native Black Africans fall victim to more overt racism, while Black Americans are viewed with slightly higher regard (because of their “marginal whiteness” or closeness to whiteness as Americans). It seems as though Europe [and other continents]’s Knowledge and recognition of the history of Black peoples as a result of colonization leaves Blackness inseparable from Slaveness, yet again.

Now, I wonder, if Afropessimism knows no borders, is there hope at all for full redemption for the Black Individual? And if no, is any effort in the direction of redemption (even if unsuccessful) more destructive to decolonization than it is constructive?

What does it mean to be white?

This question came up the first day of class and I wanted to consider it again through the context of the Wright and Baldwin material. We have had a lot of discussion about how Blackness is viewed by the white gaze, but we can also consider whiteness as it is viewed by Black writers and characters. There can be shifting perspectives in talking about white people as they are perceived as a group, as individuals, and even as an ideal. Wright encapsulates whiteness as an ideology in Native Son: “To Bigger and his kind white people were not really people; they were a sort of great natural force, like a stormy sky looming overhead, or like a deep swirling river stretching suddenly at one’s feet in the dark” (114).

Bigger’s understanding of white people connects to our discussion of whiteness as a price that is ultimately commodified with privilege in society. Bigger reflects on this awareness when talking about the leaders of the community that, “they are almost like the white people when it comes to guys like me.” He understands that these members of the community can’t fully buy the ticket of whiteness, but can benefit from certain privileges by conforming to the aims of white people. Professor Cheryl Harris at UCLA builds a similar argument in her article “Whiteness as Property” about whiteness has historically evolved into a form of wealth written into law. She demonstrates how even “passing” as white can be viewed as a form of property. Whiteness was also something Bigger felt he had to learn and grow in understanding of as he got older–like a taboo topic saying, “he had even heard it said that white people felt it was good when one Negro killed another.” Baldwin similarly writes in Notes of a Native Son that, “in that year I had had time to become aware of the meaning of all my father’s bitter warnings…I had discovered the weight of white people in the world.” Baldwin further describes this series of realizations about white people as a loss of innocence.

In this discovery, Baldwin had to wrestle with his previous notions of white people in contrast to new experiences and warnings that “I would see, when I was older, how white people would do anything to keep a Negro down.” We begin to see this in Go Tell it on the Mountain with John’s understanding of whiteness when “his father said that all white people were wicked and that God was going to bring them low.” I’m curious to see how the opinion of John’s father compares to the rhetoric in the 60’s and 70’s of the white man as the Devil.

To Be A Stranger

James Baldwin is not the first Black American to attempt to escape America. I would say it’s a Black American tradition. We had Marcus Garvey who wanted to colonize Africa, but make it Black. Runaway slaves escaped and crossed the border into Mexico. Many Black Americans ran to Haiti when America decided to make colonizing Haiti, for a second and third time, its most important job. Black American artists— Nina Simone, Paul Robeson, Josephine Baker, and eventually Richard Wright, all left America because America is not a safe state for the lives of Black Americans or open to the success of Black Americans.

America is a dangerous place to be if you are Black. James Baldwin would eventually learn that the hard way. With a file opened on him as a disorderly that threatened that status of America as a slave state and the death of his close friends Medgar Evans, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X, James Baldwin fled to France. I imagine that if James Baldwin had not left, he too would have eventually been murdered.

It is not hard to imagine. Black people to today are still constantly dying in mysterious ways after leading protests or coming out against America’s stance as a slave state. If the state can get away with murder against regualr citizens right now, anything could have happened to James Baldwin back then.
But I do not believe that is the only reason James Baldwin left. In existing in America as a Black person, specifically as an African-American, you exist in a state of constant “strangerhood”. I define strangerhood as an existence where you are constantly considered a stranger, no matter how much time you have spent somewhere or who you know. While all Black people experience being a stranger in America, African-Americans live in a constant state of strangerhood from the time they are born to the day that they die.

You are not a citizen in America. The state does not care about your survival. The people who live in the state who are not Black do not know of your existence, and if they do know, they ignore it. You are transient. It is almost as though you do not exist. The first breath you take and the last breath you take are one in the same.
James Baldwin was aware of this existence, or lack thereof. Despite his feelings of being a stranger abroad, it was still better than being a stranger in his own country because at least there is a reason for him being a stranger abroad.

To be African-American and a stranger in America was and is to live a life of constant death, where every breath you take is like your last. While Baldwin initially criticized Richard Wright for moving to France and escaping America, Baldwin eventually recognized why. I attribute that realization to age and the wearing down of the Black spirit.

As a child, you are somewhat aware of being different. You notice how you are treated differently in school. You notice how your parents act differently in the home than outside the home. However, it is not until you are older that you begin to realize. And realizing is different from noticing. In realizing, you are feeling the effects of the things you noticed. You are being worn down by them. You are being torn apart by them. Eventually, some reach an age where they can not take it anymore. In realizing that they can not take it anymore, they escape somewhere else. As Baldwin and many other Black Americans did and continue to do.

Baldwin and Wright: Fear in Religion

Upon reading Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain for this coming week of class and reflecting upon Wright, I would like to discuss the way each of the writer sees religion, specifically how they fear the institution of the Catholic Church. Both Bigger and John express fears of organized religion, albeit John’s fears are more explicitly stated. But each character associates religion with gender, which creates a fear within both characters over how they are able to effectively express their masculinity. But while Bigger associates religion with femininity in the form of his mother, John seems to associate it with masculinity in the form of his father, as he is a preacher who instills the fear of God into the hearts of his children on a daily basis.

Bigger sees access to religion as something that would make him more feminine and thus destroy his masculinity, which he views mainly as his capacity for violence. When the preacher comes to his jail cell and requests Bigger pray to God for his fate in the trial, Bigger refuses to do so, thinking that he must accept his death because he created this path for himself through his acts of violence. But I believe there is a deeper meaning to Bigger’s refusal to pray that stems from his fear of the women in his life. The main religious figure in his life is his mother, whom he does not feel comfortable around and refuses to be himself in front of. At one point (though I forget the exact page number), Bigger associates his mother’s devotion to God to Bessie’s alcoholism, showing that he believes religion to be a sign of weakness. He does not see religion as a path toward salvation, but as a crutch that can barely assist one in escaping their painful existence. Bigger’s fear of religion peaks during the trial, when he sees the burning cross outside the court being used by the Klan to intimidate him. This imagery of white people using the cross as a symbol of hate definitely ties Bigger’s fear of religion to whiteness, but I feel that his fear stems more from his hatred of women; he does not want to be “feminine” in the way he perceives the women around him like his mother, so he abandons religion.

John, however, sees religion as a much more masculine institution, as his father is a preacher. Additionally, he is constantly reminded by the fear of sin; people at his church and in his life frequently bring up the threat of eternal damnation. And it seems that the one practice John is most fearful of that will lead him to eternal damnation is premarital sex. So unlike Bigger, John embraces religion, but this embrace still leads him toward a path where he is afraid of femininity. But rather than being afraid of himself losing his masculinity in the face of a female figure, he is afraid of embracing it. So John and Bigger’s mutual fear of religion leads to opposite ends in the two boys. For Bigger, he embraces his masculinity, equating it to the sexual violence he exerts upon Bessie and Mary. For John, he is scared into embracing religion, and thus avoids confronting his sexuality in fear that he will face perdition in the afterlife.

I am not sure what to make of these two opposite takes of the combined role of religion and fear, but I thought it would be interesting to explore especially because the topic of fear came up a lot in the presentations last class. If anyone has any thoughts let me know, as I am still trying to piece this all together.