Another Blog Post

Initially, I was not very enthusiastic about the idea of writing a blog post and a response every week. It has always felt like forced conversation to me. Every Sunday I would dread the reminder for the blog post that I set on my phone, and wait till the last hour before I would finally sit down to write it. However, my view on the blog posts changed dramatically after I was preparing for my presentation.

I did not know what I should present on. My thoughts were quite scattered, and I needed to do something to streamline them, so that I could pick a topic. I went over my blog posts for Native Son and found that my posts for week 1 and 2 had a common thread – anger. This made it easy for me to find a topic that I could begin researching. 

I feel that anger was an omnipresent thread for me in our readings for this semester. From Native Son, where Bigger is an angry character full of rage against the white people that have oppressed him and anyone else belonging to his race, to Baldwin’s conversation with Audre Lorde that generated anger within me for the way even marginalized men can treat or ignore women, anger was always there. After taking this class, I think my major takeaway has been that even anger can be expressed calmly. In The Dangerous Road Before Martin Luther King Baldwin is clearly angry about the situation that America is in, and how black people from his community have been treated. That is why he is so invested in King and the movement that King is leading. Yet, Baldwin’s essay barely mentions any hate, but talks about his love for the man that is doing his best to fight that very hate. Similarly, Audre Lorde, in her conversation with Baldwin, is angry at the ignorance of black men when it comes to black women. However, she responds to Baldwin’s ignorance calmly, without losing her temper. 

I often hesitate to talk about things that make me angry. The class is called James Baldwin: From the Civil Rights Movement to Black Lives Matter. I have never spoken much with the people around me about Black Lives Matter, simply because it enrages me enough that I think I will not be able to get my point across. After this class, I hope to change that. I feel like I should be able to find a way to coherently express my anger with calm. 

Final Reflection: Baldwin as a philosopher

Looking back on all of my blog posts from this semester, I am struck by the diversity of subjects I was able to cover, along with all of my fellow classmates. I wrote my first blog post on Black Existentialism and my most recent on American Idealism. In between I touched on intersectionality, various images of light and darkness in Giovanni’s Room, and the evolution of shame for John in Go Tell It on the Mountain. Our discussions in class also illuminated the diverse subjects connected to Baldwin. In the syllabus it reads that “we will interrogate questions of race, sexuality, violence, and migration… Baldwin’s life and work will allow us the opportunity to explore transatlantic discourses on nationality, sexuality, race, gender, and religion.” In class we discussed how religion and sexuality affected the character of John, what Baldwin asked of white America in his critical work, how race functioned in Paris differently than in the U.S., and more. My main point is to say that I cannot tie up the course neatly, with one succinct explanation of how Baldwin is relevant today and how his work links up with a broad swath of experience. 

I do want to argue for a point that we have not brought up in discussion, however. We have discussed Baldwin as a writer, a black queer man, a son, an activist, and more. But we have not called him a philosopher. The power of using this label is that it acknowledges Baldwin’s work in a field dominated by white men. Additionally, spotting the philosophy in Baldwin’s work further bolsters the power of his literature. In “Down at the Cross” Baldwin does some of his most interesting philosophical work. First, he considers the suffering of Black people. He concludes something about the nature of God from this exploration:

“But God—and I felt this even then, so long ago, on that tremendous floor, unwillingly—is white. And if His love was so great, and if He loved all His children, why were we, the blacks, cast down so far?” 

Baldwin disrupts a tradition of Christian philosophy that has come before him. Instead of characterizing God as unraced, as an eternal and all loving entity, he calls him “white.” It is the only way for him to explain the uneven and persistent suffering of Black people. The power of this statement is that it forces Christians to take a hard look at who is bearing the brunt of the suffering that many Christians value as instrumental or in accordance with God’s plan. 

Baldwin is a philosopher in many other ways: from his theory on the tragedy of life to the power of love. His literature grapples with these themes and Baldwin clearly does so in his own life as well: his attempted suicides and desire for love both point towards his deep reflection about life and whether or not it is worth living. This new label for Baldwin is just another lens through which to view him and his work. I look forward to finding new ways to think about Baldwin going forward!

Final Reflection

At the beginning of the semester, I was quite averse to the prospect of writing a weekly blog. However, the exercise was important to my ability to process our assigned readings and to expand the scope of my understanding of the readings through my peers’ blogs. Upon reviewing many, many blog posts, I was reminded of the name of our course: “James Baldwin: From The Civil Rights Movement To Black Lives Matter.”

The name of the course implies that James Baldwin bridges the gap between the civil rights movements of the past and the present. As I reviewed the reflections contained in each blog, I saw more clearly how Baldwin serves as this intertemporal connection. His wisdom, though justifiably subject to criticism by thinkers today (especially feminist and globally-oriented thinkers), holds up quite well. He offers insight for a nation that has both changed dramatically and resisted dramatic change. 

One example of dramatic change that has occurred is the increasing acceptance of queer people, in both the social and legal sphere. Looking back at weeks 4 and 7, I noticed that Baldwin’s fiction writing anticipated important, ongoing conversations in queer theory. His characters capture Sedgwick’s theory of homosociality in Go Tell It On The Mountain and Edelman’s theory of reproductive futurism in Giovanni’s Room. Perhaps most importantly, Baldwin not only anticipated these theories, but his work actually complicates them. His civil rights essays and social commentaries reject the idea that the image of the queer person and the image of the child must exist in tension. 

At the same time, the U.S. has resisted dramatic change in many ways. Even as queer people gain legal recognition, the U.S. continues to suppress Black voters, incarcerate Black and brown people through a privatized prison-industrial complex, underfund predominantly Black schools, etc. etc. etc. These are issues that Baldwin spoke to, and we would do well to listen to him today. Returning to one of our very first readings of the semester, “On Being ‘White’ and Other Lies,” we might ponder how America’s continued oppression of specific communities is part of an ongoing “moral choice” to become white (Baldwin 180). Moreover, we might expand the scope of the question. As the U.S. sends money to Israel and provides the Israeli military with weapons used against indigenous Palestinians, we ought to think about how the U.S. literally globalized oppression. Globalization didn’t merely bring U.S. fashion and technology to the world; the U.S. has exported colonialism, war, and terror. Hence, although Baldwin spoke primarily to Americans as an American, his insights––in many cases––now apply to the world.

The Black Story

One of the themes I’ve noticed in the last few weeks of discussion and of blog posts is that of history. Prof. Kinyon asked us how we tell our history, specifically America’s story. I would like to use this framework when investigating how Baldwin might respond to this question. The past placed Baldwin in his present – one filled with racism, oppression, and injustice. Black folk have been sites of contention and victims of violence for many centuries. Racism has come in different forms, to varying degrees of visibility, but it has continued to exist. Baldwin wrestles with these ideas when crafting his identity as a black man during the Civil Rights era. He dislikes the way that history writes him and refuses “to bow down before that history” as it means “accept[ing] that history’s arrogant and unjust judgment of him” (Williams). Just as Baldwin re-writes himself in the cultural landscape of identity, he re-writes history to be a recipient of his opinion. He does this most explicitly in his letter to his nephew, which Elizabeth touched on within her blog entry. He tells his nephew, “It will be hard, James, but you come from sturdy, peasant stock, men who picked cotton and dammed rivers and built railroads, and, in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity” (Baldwin, “A Letter to My Nephew”). He re-understands history for his nephew: it is not one prescriptive of shame, indignity, or disgrace. Although history has placed black people in a specific position, Baldwin refuses it take anything else. He will not succumb to the self-loathing and misfortune that white history would have him believe of himself. He reclaims the notion of history as Black when contextualizing his and his nephew’s present. He says, “We have not stopped trembling yet, but if we had not loved each other, none of us would have survived, and now you must survive because we love you and for the sake of your children and your children’s children” (Baldwin, “A Letter to My Nephew”). This is a form of empowering truth. Baldwin answers: we tell America’s story by telling the black story.

The Cost of Whiteness

On Wednesday, the groups presenting on Baldwin and Civil Rights posed the following questions: How are our identities related (Black vs white, male vs female)? Are they interdependent? How so?

In our recent class discussions, we have considered the question: what is the cost of whiteness?

To me, the answers to these questions are quite similar. 

In Bodies That Matter, Judith Butler states the following: “Th[e] exclusionary matrix by which subjects are formed requires the simultaneous production of a domain of abject beings, those who are not yet ‘subjects,’ but who form the constitutive outside to the domain of the subject…This zone of uninhabitability will constitute that site of dreaded identification against which–and by virtue of which–the domain of the subject will circumscribe its own claim to autonomy and to life. In this sense, then, the subject is constituted through the force of exclusion and abjection, one which produces a constitutive outside to the subject, an abjected outside, which is, after all, ‘inside’ the subject as its own founding repudiation” (xiii).

In this excerpt, Butler is describing what it means to exist as a queer, trans, gender nonconforming individual, but I believe her understanding of these unlivable conditions also apply to being Black in America. She describes an articulation of a norm here as inextricably linked to the creation of the abnormal. In fact, she extends this to say that the existence of what is normal is actually reliant upon what is abnormal. Applied here, and in response to the original question posed by this group, I might ask: what would it mean to be Black in a world void of whiteness? Blackness fortifies the regulatory norm of whiteness. Whiteness cannot be without its direct opposition to and distance from Blackness–the abjected, unlivable, uninhabitable position in society. Thus, what whiteness costs is Black lives. Butler may say that the privilege of whiteness makes the site of the materialization of Black bodies devalued and endangered–quite literally not just figuratively, as we see everyday in our society. 

I think Baldwin would agree with this application of Butler. I think he would understand Black bodies as abjected in society, as never existing as the subject but only as the nonsubject that grants the subject livability. 

Laissez-Faire

This semester, we have been able to take a close look at how James Baldwin exposes and challenges the standing mythologies/delusions that literally and figuratively entrap the American people from justice. He challenges Richard Wright’s notion of a nation’s “native son”. He pushes back against the doctrines and practices of American Protestantism in Go Tell It on The Mountain and “Down at the Cross”. He revises the hegemonic image of an “American” through his exploration of the rich WASP character David’s queerness in Giovanni’s Room. And we can see through his engagement with the civil rights movements that he works to challenge the white supremacist historical narrative that propagates AntiBlackness and rewards whiteness. Baldwin does so much work to expose the United States’ iniquities and to call for radical change…so why leave for Paris?

Now, we’ve already talked about this a bit in class, and of course the simple answer is that Baldwin is just human. He is not meant to serve as a martyr for our liberation or out literary exploration. But it is certainly surprising that Baldwin would flee a nation to which he seemed called to bear witness, and for which he hoped to inspire positive change. I’ve sat and thought about this with some peers, and I see two possible ways to understand Baldwin’s move to Paris (in the context of the works that we have read this semester; of course there is so much more to his story than these…)

We can understand his emigration from the US as either Baldwin falling victim to a mythology that other nations in the “Old World” are free from the social consequences of imperialism and slavery. Or maybe…we can understand his emigration as the ultimate surrender to this nation’s fate: doom. I wonder if Baldwin felt that the nation could actually, feasibly, find redemption. I don’t know if I can say I can. After all the intellectual work that Baldwin has done, the issues he wrote of are still real and relevant today! So what do we do? Maybe, we go to Paris?

Confused.

I am still continuing to try to understand the social and historical context in which Baldwin was living and writing. There are parts of me that understand that he was choosing his words carefully in order to appeal to those of the time, and who he was writing for. And there are the other parts of me that think back to our discussion of revolution and how we cannot change the way America was built if we do not burn everything down, and how there were so many opportunities for Baldwin to do this. I think back to him constantly referring to himself as “strange” or the “stranger” in Paris and how if he would have spoken out about Algeria he might have faced the same backlash that Martin Luther King did when speaking out about the Vietnam War. However, Paris was not his country. As you can see the back and forth that my mind is struggling with on this topic. The issues of the treatment of Black Women was in his country and most of the time a part of the same struggles that he was fighting for, yet the acknowledgement was not there. 

As Professor Kinyon stated last class, it is important that when one is refuting something or making claims, it needs to be based in fact and I am not an expert by any means, I acknowledge that. However, there is some truth in the way that Baldwin’s conversation and his portrayal of Black women has made me feel. I also understand the idea of representation and that the women he was writing about were products of their time, but given the freedom of artistic choice when writing your own novels, I begin to question one’s true intention. Again, I am not an expert in the slightest and am being affected by the power of hindsight and I fully acknowledge that. I will continue to do the research I had started for my paper and presentation and will continue to keep an open mind and understand that one never stops learning.

Shareholder Theory (Or, Maria Finally Uses Her Business Studies For Something Useful)

So every finance major you’ve ever met has learned that central tenet of the corporate religion known as shareholder theory: financial managers exist to maximize shareholder value. Simply put, a good financial manager seeks to increase their corporation’s profits and thereby grow a stock owner’s dividend payment; if the stock owner is happy, the manager is happy.

This might seem intuitive, but shareholder theory actually introduces a quagmire of moral ambiguity. Underpaying employees; exploiting child workers; and engaging in cheaper, environmentally unsustainable practices can each increase profits, but at what cost? Can any businessperson worth his salt truly justify such blatant unethicality?

Yes, actually. According to shareholder theory, we’re taught exactly that.

 That’s because those employees and those children are not shareholders, but stakeholders: parties with a vested interest in a firm but who do not necessarily own stock in that firm. In this case, the stakeholders rely on the company for income–they want the company to do well so that they can make enough money to survive. In all cases, shareholder theory requires that financial managers completely cut stakeholder interests out of the picture; shady business practices of all sorts are not only allowed, but encouraged, so long as they benefit shareholders.

During this week’s discussions, we debated whether or not James Baldwin had a responsibility to represent the female perspective in his work as a man. Professor Kinyon reminded us that James Baldwin catered his rhetoric to a white male audience. White women historically supported the political narrative by aligning their votes with their husbands’; Baldwin could therefore concentrate his conversion efforts on an all-male congregation and achieve similar results.

To synthesize these ideas, the men are shareholders: they own stock in the political arena and Baldwin (our trusty financial manager) must appease them to succeed. The women that Baldwin marginalizes in his body of work are stakeholders and, according to shareholder theory, simply do not factor into the equation. 

The funny thing about shareholder theory, though, is that–as ingrained into our curriculum as it may be–it doesn’t work. Studies show that when companies put their stakeholders first, they actually perform significantly better in the long run. By taking care of employees (factory workers, custodians, etc.), a company improves its own efficiency and reaps higher profits, therefore better satisfying both financial managers and shareholders. This is called stakeholder theory.

I believe that in the same way, Baldwin could have maximized his own success by addressing the female perspective in his work. If his goal was to increase interracial cooperation and improve the Black condition in America, Baldwin might’ve enjoyed greater success by affording women the same time and attention as men rather than ignoring 50% of the very society he sought to change. While I can understand the logic that led Baldwin to tailor his rhetoric to white men, I can’t help but question whether or not his efforts to maximize shareholder value at stakeholders’ expense precluded him from fully recognizing another value–that of the female perspective–altogether.

The Price Paid by Irish Immigrants

Last week, our class discussed the “price of the ticket” for Irish immigrants in coming to America and becoming white. The process of becoming white and finding success in America as Irish immigrants hinges on denying the Black presence and thus debasing themselves. As Baldwin writes in “On Being ‘White’ and Other Lies,” the price of the ticket for white people is delusion. Because white Americans have built their identity on fear of Black people and the fear of lacking power, they are unable to have a community. Instead, as Baldwin writes, they are a multitude. However, they have deluded themselves into believing they are a community. 

Irish immigrants are a particularly interesting case of paying the ultimate price for power. Aside from their delusion, another price they pay is losing their community, their language, their culture. In joining the white monolith, Irish immigrants lose their Irishness. The extent of many Irish Americans’ understanding of Irish culture is rooted in celebrating St. Patrick’s Day and possibly supporting Notre Dame football. 

In coming to America, the Irish lose their identity, but many of them left to escape that same fate back home. The English were hard at work subjugating the Irish people, stripping them of their language, their religion, and their freedom. Ironically, the Irish who left for America ended up suffering the same fate. In the process of escaping one power attempting to crush their culture, they lost their culture themselves. To some immigrants, the cost of the ticket was lower than the cost of staying. As white Americans, they denied the existence of Black Americans like the English denied the existence of the Irish. Black Americans were able to retain their community, because it was not built on fear. They developed a language and kept their culture alive as they battled for freedom. 

Black Education?

Over the weekend, I witnessed an argument between my friends about the merits of Black students attending HBCUs versus PWIs.  Many of the points made brought me back to James Baldwin’s short story, “A Fly in Buttermilk,” where he talks to G and his family about the experience of attending an all-white school. Baldwin writes, “I began to suspect that the boy managed to support the extreme tension of his situation by means of nearly fanatical concentration on his schoolwork; by holding in the center of his mind the issue on which, when the deal went down, others would be forced to judge him. Pride and silence were his weapons. Pride comes naturally, and soon, to a Negro, but even his mother, i felt, was worried about G.’s silence, though she was too wise to break it. For what was all this doing to him really?”(193) While some might argue that society has progressed and that the severity of racism Black students face today cannot compare to what G experienced, there is complete merit in the observation that learning can be much more difficult when one is uncomfortable, isolated or misunderstood. While all Black students are not the same, it can be argued that being the first or the only can create a tense or difficult learning environment.  When there is a lack of understanding or relatability relative to teachers, administrators, and even fellow students, it can negatively affect learning. Rather than being immersed in the subject matter, these students can be preoccupied with understanding, fitting in, and not being ridiculed. Learning environments are critical to information share and retention. While the discrepancy in education levels G saw between his two schools is much greater than the differences between HBCU’s and PWI’s, when one thinks of “elite” institutions, HBCUs are rarely included. This leads to a few questions. Is there a discrepancy in what is being taught? Can HBCUs help Black students thrive because they’ve eliminated the distraction of isolation? Should Black students explore PWIs even if there’s a tangible price to pay academically and or socially? Should the best and brightest Black students attend HBCUs to bolster these critical centers of learning? In fairness, it would seem that many of the answers are dependent on an individual’s preference. A blanket approach would underserve many. The fight should be to grow the population of college attendees—information and education seekers—above all else. These are a series of difficult choices and considerations. As we discussed in class, segregation and integration have both resulted in additional challenges for Black people in America.