This week’s presentation on James Baldwin and Religion really got me thinking about community. As our lovely presenters shared with us this past Wednesday, Baldwin argues that some community-like aspect is integral to love. After all, John’s transformation throughout Go Tell It On the Mountain is largely dependent upon the people around him: Elisha, who guides John through his encounter with the “power of the Lord,” and Gabriel, who introduces John to organized religion in the first place, are each necessary components of John’s final metamorphosis from a position of self-loathing to the imperfect beginnings of self-love. (I’d argue that this transformation is more of a bildungsroman than a true religious epiphany, but that’s a post for another time.) In a way which directly opposes Richard Wright’s depictions of a solitary, isolated Black experience, Baldwin argues that humanity is bonded across all of its differing races and creeds through oppression, and that this collective suffering is important to the achievement of holiness and the attainment of love.
Now, I know that this is a class concerned with Baldwin’s commentary on the Black condition, but I can’t help but feel like a lot of these ideologies are applicable to the current Stop Asian Hate movement as well. In case anyone didn’t know, 2020 saw a 1900% increase in anti-Asian violence. The past few weeks, my Instagram has been inundated with all the relevant statistics and rebuttals of commonly held Asian stereotypes—specifically, the “model minority” myth, which perpetuates the idea that Asian-Americans, through years of hard work and perseverance, have transcended the socioeconomic barriers they once faced and now enjoy a position of relative wealth and success. This argument is problematic for several reasons: it inherently pits the Black and Asian communities against each other in its insinuation that the struggles of Black Americans stem from a simple lack of effort (read: “Black people are lazy and Asians are not”) when, in reality, Asian-Americans simply do not face the same depth of discrimination that centuries of slavery and systemic racism have inflicted on countless generations of African-Americans; it also further marginalizes an already-marginalized demographic of impoverished Asian-Americans who do not enjoy the aforementioned wealth or success attributed to their race.
It is the latter which I find particularly pertinent to our discussions of community and love. We’ve talked extensively about Baldwin’s criticisms of the overly simplistic white-as-oppressor/Black-as-oppressed narrative, as well as the weird American obsession with creating a Black/white binary which discounts the existence of any nonconforming parties (we discussed this in relation to the US Census on the first day of class). The model minority myth erases the racial injustice that so many Asian-Americans continue to face and exacerbates the perceived proximity to whiteness that, according to the racial binary in place, casts them as oppressors rather than oppressed and thus inhibits any opportunity for solidarity with other racial minorities. To synthesize this with Baldwin’s assertions that we are bonded through our mutual oppression and that only through our acknowledgement of this shared experience can we truly learn to love each other, I’d argue that stereotyping Asian-Americans as flourishing, contributing members of society thus alienates them from other communities of color. In masking a history of suffering and racial violence which should unite Asian-Americans with fellow BIPOC, we instead estrange them from other victims of racism. And so, not quite white but not quite un-white, we condemn millions to racial limbo where, denied community with their fellow man, they wait, loveless, for absolution.
For more information on the model minority myth and historical context surrounding the relationship between the Black and Asian-American communities, please feel free to check out these links(!):