I took this course because as an English major I thought that taking a class solely on the works of James Baldwin was essential to my development as someone who is interested in writing my senior thesis on American literature. Before taking this class I knew that his works were significant with regards to the Civil Rights Movement. However, I did not think that his writing and experiences would become so personal to me. I think I ended up enjoying his essays more than his novels, mostly due to the fact that his essays delved into his personal life and I understood him better as a person from his essays. I enjoyed the Notes of a Native Son collection the most because the essays were written while he was abroad in France and my final essay is going to focus on this collection because I want to explore what made Baldwin’s time that he spent in Europe so transformative for his journey as a writer. I want to understand why Americans are able to cultivate a better sense of identity abroad. I understand that Baldwin left America to escape racism. However, I feel as though this feeling persists throughout generations of Americans who feel the desire to escape for other reasons (apart from travel). I will be studying abroad in England next semester and wonder how the experience of living abroad will affect my identity and how I view my Americanness. I look forward to exploring these ideas further in my final essay through my analysis of Notes of a Native Son. Now that I have read and conversed about Baldwin in an academic setting I feel prepared to read the works that we didn’t have the opportunity to discuss in class on my own and in other classes.
Throughout this class, Baldwin has always amazed me. From beginning with Notes of A Native Son, Go Tell it on the Mountain, and many other iconic works. Baldwin is fascinating to me because of how he writes his stories. The connections to the Bible, the writing of family, and identity that Baldwin has is something special. The overall connections that he is able to subtly portray throughout out his works is nothing short of exceptional. I believe that Baldwin had a gift to write. His time spent in Paris is something that shaped him into the successful author he was. I think that as the course went on, I was able to grow on my blog posts. I was able to truly receive Baldwin’s works as what they were. I find that I was able to use arguments to prove my points and understand what Baldwin was aiming for through his writings. Once I was able to get a grip on the daily readings, I felt as though I was able to be more involved in conversations and discussions.
The books read are something that will stick with me as I move onto the final edits of my paper. I wish to talk about Baldwin and how he writes about the Black identity and the portrayals of the Black church in his works. I find that while he incorporates the Bible into his work, he also backhands their work at the same time. I think he does a good job of talking about how the Church was able to shape him as well. Baldwin did have a strong faith as he was growing up, even becoming a preacher for an abundant amount of time. I want to argue that Baldwin’s works were his first time being able to subtly argue against the Church, through his character names and subtle hints of the Bible such as the curse of Ham. I believe that many people were bale to pick up on this. Through the articles shared within my group, I believe that I will be able to argue this successfully.
A self-proclaimed critic of America, James Baldwin writes about the past, present, and future of our country with unparalleled profundity, eloquence, bluntness, and foresight.
As I suggested in another blog post earlier this semester, Baldwin remains timeless, unfortunately, however, not for the reasons he might have hoped. He gives voice to difficult and upsetting topics, problems that persist today, and compels his readers to look the issues of racism, sexuality, religion, and violence (as they relate to one another in American life) square in the eyes of faces of characters like John and Gabriel in Go Tell It On the Mountain; Giovanni, Jacques, and David in Giovanni’s Room; or Jesse and his parents in Going to Meet the Man. In case the message was not explicit enough in these texts, Baldwin offers an even more scathing portrayal of America in his shorter essays such as “The Price of the Ticket,” “My Dungeon Shook,” and “Faulkner and Desegregation,” to name a few of my particularly favorite works. In engaging with Baldwin’s prolific canon in writing and class discussions, I cannot say I felt particularly proud to be an American at any point in the semester. I am angered, frustrated, and disappointed by the little tangible change that has occurred in the decades since his passing. Yet, as Baldwin notes, these feelings are complicated by my whiteness and complicity in the oppression of Black Americans, manifest in seemingly small acts I take for granted like my ability to wear a hooded sweatshirt in public or pull over on the side of the road in front of a police officer without fear.
In “A Fly in Buttermilk,” Baldwin writes, “You can take the child out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the child” (187). This sentence best captures one of my greatest takeaways from this course: the progress I seek for my country hinges on my ability to own my whiteness, privilege, and power– the things that make me American. I am part of the buttermilk that entraps and suffocates, and, while I detest it, I own this role. Baldwin reminds me that any attempt to distance myself from this reality, be it a “northerner joke” about the South or considerations of a more permanent life abroad in Spain, is futile. As much as I do not want to claim this America, I must. It would be a disservice to Baldwin, this class, and the future of our nation not to. He carried America’s dark history in his writing, a weight I am committed to undertaking and working to alleviate in his spirit.
Throughout this course, we have experienced Baldwin in an open format. We have learned about his life, his struggles, and his work. Without this class though, I would have never know about him. While reading about him, I was able to see how he expresses himself. His books hold a certain sadness in them about family and identity. The source of searching for himself through his work, as well as reading other works and commenting on them. I think that is why I though of Baldwin while reading Lorde.
Reading about how Lorde writes that racism should be responded to with anger, I have to think about the stereotype of ‘Angry Black Women’. In a course I took, Intro to Africana Studies, I wrote about stereotypes that black women typically hold. One of which was the ‘angry black woman’, which tends to go back to times of slavery when they were reinforced in the media. Expression is important as Lorde states by saying ‘Anger is loaded with information and energy.’ Anger is one of the most important emotions because of the fact that there are unresolved things and anger is often the way that people are most likely to see and hear you as a person. I like the sentiment that women of color are more than just their anger, yet their anger is a way of survival, not purely an emotion. It is a way to express themselves. It is also key that everyone shows this anger though, not just women of color, but white women must also stand up and own what they do and say through anger for their gender. Because one race can not start a movement, but a whole gender can. People do not want white women to talk about racism, but it is key in being able to have an open dialogue. Understanding is what is important in being able to take a stand and find understanding between people, and with understanding may come a solution.
As someone who is proud to be from the north, well as north as New Jersey can be considered. I found it interesting to have the perspective of the north almost thrown in my face. Slavery was nothing more than an economic system to everyone. It was a way to get labor for free, so the profits were astronomical. Yet, the north always seems to almost shade the south to make it seem as thought they are the only ones in the wrong. Yet, this is not the case it is simply a way for the North to make them feel as though they are better than others. The north is often considered pretencious and egotistical, which i can honestly understand. It is a sense that people do not think they can do wrong, just because slaves were free sooner than they were in the south. Yet, the north is just as guilty in the fundamental and continuous enslavement of African Americans. Just because the north has statues and memorials for powerful African American people, does not mean that everything is okay.
As someone who lives in a consistently blue state, people often feel that everything is okay and they are on the right side of history, but that is truly not the case. So many wrongs have happened in the North, such as Stonewall and many other uprisings int eh North have happened, and still happened including a few black lives matters movements. The case is that the North has a deep rooted history in African-American culture that still continues today, which can also be seen in the education system in the North. Public schools in places such as New York City are often lower on the scale compared to the rest of the country. I also believe that the North has a better sense of accepting the wrongs done throughout history, but often forgets that they had their role as well and do not fully deserve to be put on a pedestal.
Audre Lorde’s analysis of the function of anger in combating racism is a refreshing take on the misleading assumption that black women are vessels of indisposable anger. She takes the negative connotation of anger and turns it into a catalyst for change. Women are told every day that they are supposed to look a certain way and act a certain way that does not disrupt the environment that they find themselves in. Women of color are not allowed to react to the racism that they experience, especially in the workplace. I admired how Lorde did not hold back on criticizing how the conference perpetuates racism. She states, “Yet the National Women’s Studies Association here in 1981 holds a conference in which it commits itself to responding to racism, yet refuses to waive the registration fee for poor women and women of Color – for instance, Wilmette Brown, of Black Women for Wages for Housework – to participate in this conference. Is this to be merely another case of the academy discussing life within the close circuits of the academy?” The hypocrisy of organizations meant to promote inclusivity by hosting Lorde as a speaker while simultaneously presenting as an exclusive event is unsurprising. Lorde also states, “Hatred is the fury of those who do not share our goals, and its object is death and destruction. Anger is a grief of distortion between peers, and its object is change.” I found this distinction between anger and hatred to be profound as I have correlated the two. Lorde’s description of anger as a grief of distortions between peers allowed me to understand why anger is a feeling and hatred is acted on. Towards the end of the MLK/FBI documentary it was stated that the fear of black Americans has a lot to do with white people’s own perception of themselves and the danger of black people forcing a reckoning with the violence of the American past. I think that the fear of black anger is the reason why black women are stereotyped as angry individuals and are forced to appear and act without resentment. Lorde’s analysis of anger as a form of protection and change has changed my perspective on how anger should not have to be oppressed to validate the feelings of others, while invalidating your own. Anger is more political than I imagined.
While reading part 2 of Giovanni’s room, I could not help but to think of time. The timing of everything that happened. I mainly think about wasted time. At the end of the novel, when David and Hella see each other again, Hella talks about how she thinks she’s ‘known it for a long time’. Time becomes an important topic towards the end of the story of David. Hella admits to not only David, but to herself that she might have known that David was not hers. Yet, Hella was waiting for David to tell her the truth, stating, ‘I had the right to expect to hear from you — women are always waiting for the man to speak. Or hadn’t you heard?’ I think this line speaks volumes. Hella might have known that David was not the man for her, but in the world women do tend to want men to talk to them, to hear the truth from men, especially men that they care about. I believe that Hella was also correct when she said ‘But if women are supposed to be led by men and there areb’t any men to lead them, what happens then? What happens then?’ Hella is fed up in this moment. She waited on a man that was not right for her, when she could have been living her life wiht other people, starting a family, finding love. She has so much to live for and could have been living for, but she wasted her time on someone who would never truly love her.
There is also David who wasted time. He wasted time waiting for a moment of clarity that he had already had, but cared to not admit. He did not want the homosexual label to be put on him, but wanted to be seen as ‘normal’. David feels stuck in his life and in turn, he is stuck in a sense of unawareness and in being in his childhood. and though it is not explicitly stated, he is stuck in Paris. The last scene in the novel, you see David rip up a letter from Jacques, but then pieces are blown back in his face, cementing himself in Paris, stuck with the same people, in the same patterns.
Giovanni’s Room explores queerness as a foreign concept in a foreign land. Baldwin wrote Giovanni’s Room while living in Paris. In “Take Me to the Water” he states, “My journey, or my flight, had not been to Paris, but simply away from America” (376). Baldwin simply wanted to be in a place where he would be relieved from his life in America. Although I believe that Giovanni’s Room could have been written in America, it is quite fitting that he writes the novel in a country that is foreign to Baldwin, just as David’s concept of his queerness is foreign to him. David states, “My flight may, indeed, have begun that summer–which does not tell me where to find the germ of the dilemma which resolved itself, that summer, into flight. Of course, it is somewhere before me, locked in that reflection I am watching in the window as the night comes down outside. It is trapped in the room with me, always has been, and always will be, and it is yet more foreign to me than those foreign hills outside” (227). This idea of seeking out a foreign concept of life in order to escape or redefine the sense of self has allowed me to think about how the American identity is also sort of foreign to black people. Baldwin doesn’t feel a sense of belonging in America so he seeks out clarity in another country with language barriers and no money. In Take Me to the Water he also states, “Still, my flight, had been dictated by my hope that I could find myself in a place where I would be treated more humanely than my society had treated me at home, where my risks would be more personal and my fate less austerely sealed” (377). While Giovanni’s Room is a novel about David’s struggle to accept his queerness, I think that the novel can be used to explore how Baldwin’s sense of identity functioned when he was not in a state of crisis. Maybe he was able to write about his sexuality because he was not burdened with the task of tackling his race first. My theory is that Giovanni’s Room is just as much an allegory for Baldwin’s veiling of his blackness in Europe as it is about David’s veiling of his sexuality.
Baldwin and Lorde’s perception of what it means to be black in America is clearly distinguished by gender. Baldwin initially argues that the American Dream is desirable by all black people. However, it is an experience that they cannot attain due to their blackness. Lorde argues that this is not the case for her and she knew that the American Dream was something that she had no interest in because the American Dream did not include her. I agree with Lorde on this part because the American Dream is not an idea that was created for the oppressed. Most notably, Lorde touches on how black men and women destroy each other due to that oppression. She states, “Differences and sameness. But in a crunch, when all our asses are in the sling, it looks like it is easier to deal with the sameness. When we deal with sameness only, we develop weapons that we use against each other when the differences become apparent. And we wipe each other out – Black men and women can wipe each other out — far more effectively than outsiders do.” I find this statement to hold a lot of truth today. In my experience, I have found that there is a lack of desirability of black women in the eyes of black men. Black men find proximity to whiteness by partnering with white women as more desirable and this is also pushed through the media. How black women are treated by black men significantly impacts how black people are viewed by society. If they are not taking care of each other then the rest of the world will treat them poorly as well. Baldwin states, “In both cases, it is assumed that it is safer to be white than to be Black. And it’s assumed that it is safer to be a man than to be a woman. These are both masculine assumptions. But those are the assumptions that we’re trying to overcome or to confront…” Baldwin is trying to argue that gender inequality shouldn’t factor into overcoming racism. However, Lorde’s argument against this mindset is so important because gender does matter. She states, “And the fury that is engendered in the denial of that vulnerability – we have to break through it because there are children growing up believe that it is legitimate to shed female blood, right?” I have to break through it because those boys really think that the sign of their masculinity is impregnating a sixth grader. I have to break through it because of that little sixth-grade girl who believes that the only thing in life she has is what lies between her legs…” This conversation highlights the differences in the ways black boys and girls are raised. Black girls are taught to be modest and close their legs so that black boys do not see them as a target. However, as Lorde states to Baldwin perfectly, “But what we do have is a real disagreement about your responsibility not just to me but to my son and to our boys. Your responsibility to him is to get across to him in a way that I will never be able to because he did not come out of my body and has another relationship to me. Your relationship to him as his father is to tell him I’m not a fit target for his fury.” Lorde’s understanding that issues of race must be examined from a standpoint that includes gender and sexuality is imperative and her explanation to Baldwin reveals that understanding what it means to be black in America cannot be understood by only male perspective, because the male lens often leaves out the nuances of the female experience, no matter how much they understand about race.
I have thoroughly enjoyed this class and the content in it, but my favorite aspects were the discussions we had and how difficult they were to broach at times. Baldwin has long been one of my favorite writers, but I hadn’t read or understood much of his writings on Civil Rights and sexuality, so experiencing those taught me a lot. It was even more enlightening to hear our class’s thoughts and reactions as we moved through the content together.
The main takeaway I got from reading Baldwin and other contextual works was nuance. Baldwin has a habit of stripping away all pretenses and getting to the heart of the sickening, dark, internal thoughts and feelings people have and talking about them in a, I guess human, way. Baldwin talked a lot about self-love and acceptance, and his gospel of love made regular appearances in his work, but in order to fully understand self-love he had to dive into the deepest recesses of self-hatred. Baldwin’s ability to experience, feel, and communicate multiple conflicting views and feelings simultaneously is simply astonishing.
Personally, this class was difficult for the express reason that it made me face things I’d rather not talk about. And, with no intention of pretense, I am very good at talking about difficult things. I am a straight, white, man. I had my reserves the entire semester about opening my mouth at all on the topic of race, gender, or sexuality. I personally think expressing my opinions about race draws attention away from people who actually need to be heard. But I understand my role a bit better now, especially after reading Baldwin’s essays The Price of the Ticket, My Dungeon Shook, and Nobody Knows My Name. So here. Acknowledging my privilege was not the most difficult part. I’ve known and talked about that for a while. Acknowledging my ignorance was also not the hardest part. Admitting I was and am guilty about those aspects of my life and identity, and that I am often blind to true action because I’m worried about them, is high on the difficulty chart. But hardest of all was admitting my deep-seated love for horrible things. I have tried to pick and choose aspects of the South that I love and hate, but they are all tied together and I am inextricably bound to it. I have tried to distance myself from the bad things. I do not mean to say those bad things must be accepted themselves, but they must be accepted as part of an identity. The same feeling applies to my family, to relationships in my life, to the morals I try to live by, and to myself. It seems dangerous to be proud of an identity so flawed, but I think now that it is far more dangerous to repress that identity, lest it manifest in more unhealthy ways.
Talking about this didn’t make it any easier to accept, but it did make it easier to understand. And for that, I am incredibly grateful to be in such a messy, complicated, nuanced, and tough conversation. Thanks y’all.