When is Language Violent?

A famous adage is “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me.” Of course, we all know such a claim is utter and complete bullshit. Words can do profound psychological and physical harm to humans, contributing to real, biologically verifiable trauma. 

I was reading a NYT article the other day which focused on Professor Loretta J. Ross of Smith College. Described as a “radical Black feminist who has been doing human rights work for four decades,” Professor Ross is an outspoken opponent of cancel culture and reportedly said, “Every time somebody disagrees with me it’s not ‘verbal violence’…Overstatement of harm is not helpful when you’re trying to create a culture of compassion.” To be clear, Professor Ross does think that call-outs, or public demands for accountability, are valuable in certain circumstances (such as politics). And she does believe that language can cause “harm, slight or damage.” Still, Professor Ross complicates the notion of language as violence, and she often pushes back against youth activists, who allegedly use toxic strategies and overstate the violence inherent in language. 

But who gets to quantify how “violent” specific language is? Who decides when harm is “overstated”? In our reading for this week, we read many troubling anecdotes about language as violence, and we read about the discrepancy between how a white educator and Baldwin view the violence of language. In Nobody Knows My Name, G. claims that, “[white students] just––call me names. I don’t let it bother me” (CE 190). But we know due to numerous studies that such an environment did bother G., as verbal abuse can submit the body to chronic stress and cause a number of long and short term ailments, going as far as causing “meaningful alterations in brain structure.” Baldwin recognizes the danger that G. is in, noting that his family is risking “G.’s present well-being and his future psychological and mental health” (195). The white principal doesn’t see it this way, though. The principle claims that the racist incidents G. is subjected to are “nothing at all––‘It was a gesture more than anything else’” (194). 

G. himself draws a line between verbal and physical abuse. He reportedly says, “It’s hard enough…to keep quiet and keep walking when they call you nigger. But if anybody spits on me, I know I’ll have to fight” (193). Of course, there is a difference between verbal and physical violence, as G. notes. But this difference has no bearing on the degree of harm caused by each. It is easy to condemn the language G. was subjected to as violence. It is easy to see how such an environment would cause profound trauma and chronic stress. But today, as young people are accused of being “snowflakes,” we face new challenges. As progressive activists like Professor Ross indict our conflation of language and violence, we have to draw the line somewhere. For example, Professor Ross does not believe misgendering a transgender student is grounds for a “call-out.” But studies have shown that misgendering causes real, physical harm. We must be wary of our language and the harm it can cause, while also recognizing that it is nearly impossible to know how specific language will affect a specific person.

Distance, Knowledge, and Love

I found the section of No Name in the Street where Baldwin discusses his relationship with his old friend to be particularly interesting. His friend, according to Baldwin, has not changed a bit. He is “trapped, preserved” (361) in time. Baldwin, on the other hand, is a public figure who smokes on television and no longer subscribes to the Church that formed so much of his childhood. There is distance between them. This distance is reminiscent of the kind of distance Baldwin saw between white and Black people. There seem to be two worlds, a Black and white one, but Black people are forced to know about the white world because they are confronted with it daily. This causes an epistemic gap where white people do not have access to as much reality: “Therefore, whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves” (312). The distance between Baldwin and his friend poses a different, but interesting question about knowledge, privilege, and reality. Unlike the stark distance between the Black and white worlds, the distance between Baldwin and his friend illuminates a more subtle point about the relationship of Black people to celebrity status and wealth. 

Baldwin goes on to explain what this gap means for him: “For that bloody suit was their suit….they had created Martin…The distance between us, and I had never thought of this before, was that they did not know this, and I now dared to realize that I loved them more than they loved me” (365). Two points emerge from Baldwin’s analysis. First, Baldwin explores the idea that “they” created Martin Luther King Jr. This seems to suggest that everyday Black Americans participated in the mythologizing of MLK and formed the base of support that helped to skyrocket him to prominence. Baldwin, though, had more intimate knowledge of Martin. He knew about his wife, his tendencies at parties, and what it felt like to talk with him. Baldwin’s friend must rely on the caricature of Martin as true whereas Baldwin has access to Martin in all of his humanity. The distance, then, causes the “everyday person” to have a simplistic picture of the world that evades the truth. 

The second idea from the quote above is that Baldwin has a larger capacity to love his friend than his friend has to love him. This claim, to me, is the more controversial one. Baldwin links up knowledge with an ability to love, which seems to incorporate a level of privilege into his theory of love. Is it really true that his friend cannot love him just because he does not know the intimate details of his lifestyle? If love requires an understanding of the other, how does Baldwin account for those structurally barricaded into only knowing about a certain sector of society, for example a poor, Black family? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I d think Baldwin is trying to make sense of the separation that occurs between those Black people with celebrity status (or wealth) and those without. Whether this idea is successful hinges on the relationship between love and knowledge.

James Baldwin, Education & Critical Pedagogy

I’ve been musing on education and the limited space presented to students for social justice and activism. My readings for another class, Critical Pedagogy, and Popular Culture: Transforming Urban Education inform my stream of thoughts on this post. In Nobody Knows my Name, James Baldwin was speaking on the subject of desegregation and stated: “They (the parents) are doing it because they want the child to receive the education which will allow him to defeat, possibly escape, and not impossibly help one abolish the stifling environment in which they see, daily, so many children perish.” Baldwin was lucky, in a way, because his teachers recognized his gifts and saw his brilliance. Just as Baldwin viewed education and his intellect as a “way out,” so did the many parents fighting for their children to receive a better education. However, access to education does not mean access to opportunities. The environment where the learning is taking place has as much an effect as the content of the education being received.

In “Take Me to the Water,” Baldwin speaks a bit to this: ” They [the children] were attempting to get an education, in a country in which education is a synonym for indoctrination if you are white, and subjugation if you are black.” I find his shift in perspective interesting here, especially in light of another point Baldwin made in another essay, “A Talk to Teachers,” where he states, “the paradox of education is precisely this—that as one begins to become conscious, one begins to examine the society in which one is being educated.” I think it’s a positive thing — the ability to perceive the paradox in education. It should be a goal (one of the stops to changing the system of education) to have students completely understand the systems which indoctrinate or attempt to subjugate them. The issue that is being brought to light, however, is that education is failing students in helping them critically assess the content of their education. Schools are (or are supposed to be) places where students are supposed to be molded into active citizens who view justice as liberation from all institutions that oppress anyone. This starts with teachers (and the greater complex of academia) relating to students that the process of schooling is a political process. Schools and education should be examined “both in their historical context and as part of the existing social and political fabric that characterizes the dominant society” (McLaren).

One of the ways in which one can become conscious of the paradox present in education is to spread the understanding of how schools are a microcosm of the world we live in. As students, the first encounter with power dynamics between institutions and people occurs in the classroom. Learning to either subscribe or critically assess those structures also occurs in the classroom.

Mythologization of Baldwin

I hope to continue my discussion from last week on Baldwin’s own biomythography (term intentionally borrowed from Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name), specifically with regard to the mythologization of James Baldwin today. Nearly 35 years after his death, Baldwin’s name and words are invoked as a source of inspiration for such movements as #BlackLivesMatter. Baldwin, beyond other civil rights figures or prominent black authors, is invoked most often. On Twitter alone, “The words ‘James Baldwin’ (1,708 tweets) appear more in the August 2016 archive than ‘Claudia Rankine’ (416), ‘Langston Hughes’ (281), ‘Assata Shakur’ (130), ‘Ta-Nehisi Coates’ (129), ‘Toni Morrison’ (72), ‘Teju Cole’ (55), ‘Richard Wright’ (50), ‘Ralph Ellison’ (49), and ‘Amiri Baraka’ (10) combined” (Walsh). Perhaps Baldwin’s hybridity as both an autor and activist resulted in such an admirable legacy, as his social criticism is given breath on new platforms, such as Twitter. The temporal disjunct between past – namely the civil rights movement and present – namely the BLM movement – is collapsed through and within James Baldwin. He bridges the gap, teaching us of the cyclical and incessant nature of racism in this country. Baldwin, although I believe might support BLM, would revolt against his own mythologization. Melanie Walsh, author of “The Mythology of James Baldwin on Twitter” writes: “Twitter users engage in collective acts of authorship under the auspices of Baldwin as a single literary avatar, creating a communal literary mythology based on Baldwin’s real life and words but also extending beyond him” (Walsh). Whether or not Baldwin intended for his voice to be borrowed and manipulated to support or dismiss certain movements is unclear, yet presumed as not. It raises another question as to who our voices belong to, especially when they are used by others after death. I believe this might anger Baldwin, that his voice is now owned, accessible, and used by the mass public as a means of activism. Would this further Baldwin’s dominant message of the Black man being a commodity owned by the Republic? 

I believe, however unintentional, Baldwin was indeed mythologized, as a ruse invoked in the context of the political and social upheaval we are facing today. His words, and thus his contribution to the world, are quoted (or misquoted) countless times in our media, legitimizing certain social justice movements and giving an eloquent voice to black rage, which Audre Lorde explicitly alluded to in her work “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding To Racism” (1981).

A Rant ;-)

My mother has never made it through an airport without security selecting her for “random” security checks. Nothing–not her American citizenship or the near-imperceptibility of her accent–has ever been able to protect her from the seemingly inherent criminality of her Egyptian birth certificate. It is a sad reality to which my mother has grown numb; even the novelty of a new airport loses its charm after a while. Swedish racism looks no different from Italian racism, or French, or German; after a while, it all blends together. 

When Professor K brought up the book Guns, Germs, and Steel, she mentioned that Jared Diamond classifies Egyptians (and other North Africans) as white. From my little corner of the classroom, I overheard a few people’s surprised reactions and couldn’t help feeling a little jaded: as shocking as this revelation might be to some, I’ve grown depressingly accustomed to checking little boxes that read “Caucasian, including people of Middle Eastern descent.”

The fact is that the US government, despite stark differences in physical appearance and in culture, despite racist travel bans and years of discrimination hailed as a “war on terror,” despite my mother’s sad inability to make it through a single airport unmolested, classifies Middle Easterners as white when, in reality, Middle Eastern people have never enjoyed the privileges American society affords white people. 

There’s a historical basis for this, of course: the Naturalization Act of 1790 defined eligibility for citizenship as confined to “any alien, being a free white person who shall have resided within the limits . . . of the United States for a term of two years.” Various ethnic groups attempted to achieve legal whiteness and therefore obtain American citizenship, but most failed. Dow v. United States, however, expanded the definition of white to include Middle Eastern heritage. 

This reminds me of two discussions we’ve had in class: the first, of course, is that of the Black/white binary and all the ways it erases outlying racial subgroups–Egyptians, for example. The push to exist as “oppressor” rather than “oppressed” directly relates to the Dow v. United States case. While the ruling might have immediately benefitted Middle Eastern people, it has since only suffocated Middle Eastern culture and facilitated discrimination against Middle Eastern persons; after all, it is difficult to explain to your friends exactly how Donald Trump’s travel ban is racist when the inhabitants of the eight affected countries are “white.”

Second (and pertinent to our most recent lectures), I wonder why everyone seems so eager to lump Egyptians (and other Middle Easterners) in with other Causasians. I’d never really considered this before Professor K mentioned it in class, but Jared Diamond’s destructive misclassification might reference some desire to claim Egyptian achievements for the white man. The pyramids, the Temple of Amun Siwa, the Valley of the Kings–that Ancient Egypt accomplished any one of these feats is impressive enough, but that the list is so much more comprehensive is almost unbelievable. 

This, in turn, reminded me of Baldwin’s assertions that “[t]he story of the Negro in America is the story of America–or, more precisely, it is the story of Americans” (CE 19). Our entire nation has been built on Black backs; this entire country is the ultimate achievement of African Americans. Why don’t we learn more extensively about slavery in America, or the racist attitudes to which most of our founding fathers subscribed? Why do we ignore African-American literature in favor of white authors in our American Lit classes? Why do we so violently whitewash our history–that is, African-American history? Could it be that we are trying to discredit the enterprises of the African-American community, just as Jared Diamond discredits Egyptians? Could it be that “the white man on whom the American Negro has modeled himself for so long” is not actually the model, but the modelled (CE 657)? I certainly don’t have the answers, but that doesn’t make it any less worthwhile to think about.

Anger over love?

I found the conversation between Lorde and Baldwin quite illuminating. Baldwin reacted to Lorde with some resistance. At one point in particular, Baldwin asked, “But you don’t realize that in this republic the only real crime is to be a Black man?” and Lorde responded, “No, I don’t realize that. I realize the only crime is to be Black. I realize the only crime is to be Black, and that includes me too.” I loved this response, and I was sort of surprised by this comment from Baldwin. Given the impression of Baldwin that I have gotten throughout the course of this semester, I suppose I would have expected him to empathize with the position of Black women, but it seems that even he too lacked a deep understanding of it. This conversation reminded me of the mission of the Combahee River Collective–which Audre Lorde was also a part of. 

The 1977 Combahee River Collective Statement, written by Black feminists and lesbians, states the following: “We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation are us…Although we are feminists and Lesbians, we feel solidarity with progressive Black men and do not advocate the fractionalization that white women who are separatists demand. Our situation as Black people necessitates that we have solidarity around the fact of race, which white women of course do not need to have with white men, unless it is their negative solidarity as racial oppressors. We struggle together with Black men against racism, while we also struggle with Black men about sexism.” Occupying arguably the most oppressed position in society, Black women are truly the “outsiders-within,” as Patricia Hill Collins described them. We have had extensive conversations this semester about what it means for Black people to be strangers in America, but as we can see from this conversation, Black women are even strangers to Black men. Baldwin states, “There’s a real difference between the way a man looks at the world…And the way a woman looks at the world. A woman does know much more than a man.” Lorde responds, “And why? For the same reason Black people know what white people are thinking: because we had to do it for our survival…” It is interesting that Baldwin incorporates this idea so heavily into his work, yet seemingly fails to understand how it operates between Black women and Black men. 

Reconsidering Baldwin with intersectionality in mind had me thinking about Baldwin’s biggest message being love as a means to liberation, and Lorde’s being anger as a means to liberation. I had never had doubts about Baldwin’s message until now. Perhaps taking up love as arms is only a possibility for those in a more privileged position. Perhaps anger is a means of achieving love. 

James Baldwin, Martin Luther King Jr., and Paulo Freire

Baldwin’s words and observations in The Dangerous Road Before Martin Luther King reminded me of Paulo Freire’s commentary on radical liberation in his work Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Interestingly, when I looked back at my notes from reading Pedagogy, I noticed that Freire had written it based on his observations from the period in which he was in political exile, which naturally made me think back to Baldwin and his self-imposed exile to Paris. I found that Baldwin’s observations on the importance of MLK Jr. as a figurehead had a lot of overlapping themes with Freire’s work, predominantly on the idea of a fear of true freedom, and how conformity, compromise, and complicity ends up hurting both the oppressed and the oppressor.

Freire emphasises that our identities as human beings cannot be fully achieved when structures of oppression that harm and exploit oppressed peoples continue to exist, since such structures actively work to dehumanise them. Freire also highlights that oppressed people can regain their humanity in the struggle for liberation, but only if that struggle is led by oppressed people, which is something that Baldwin observed: “King really loves the people he represents,” (639) and King’s congregation (and the larger Black community at the time) were in fact the ones who “had begun the struggle of which [King] was now the symbol and the leader” (643). 

Participating in structures of oppression may seem to benefit the oppressed at first glance, but Baldwin highlights how this is an impossible standard. “The white man on whom the American Negro has modeled himself for so long is vanishing. Because this white man was, himself, a very largely mythical creation” (657). To model oneself after a myth does not contribute to liberation of the self or of their people. Additionally, Freire highlights that the oppressor also dehumanises themself when they participate in structures of exploitation and oppression, since they begin to see others as simply a means to their own ends, and as objects to be used. Baldwin writes that “salvation, humanly speaking, is a two-way street” (647), and even though this was used as a description for MLK Jr.’s upbringing, I think it encapsulates this notion very well.

Oppressors see the freedom of those who they oppress as a threat to their power, but Freire also writes that the oppressed also fear freedom because it could mean letting go of or admitting where one has power over others, or abandoning a self that has been modelled around internalised structures of oppression. “People seldom give their power away, forces beyond their control take their power from them,” (654) writes Baldwin, but Freire takes this a step further by positing a solution: encouraging dialogue and self reflection on both sides, and pairing it with concrete actions. I thought of this when Baldwin praises Martin Luther King Jr.’s ability to make “it a matter, on both sides of the racial fence, of self-examination” (657).

Radical Empathy & Intersectionality

Audre Lorde boldly proposes radical empathy in the work of redefining identity as a liberating form of resistance. This outlook, which grows out of Baldwin’s assertion that love transcends, renews the life force fighting against the intersecting oppressions of white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy. Radical empathy opposes stagnation by emphasizing unity and harmony through difference and understanding.The way forward requires active listening. For example, Lorde challenges white women in the academy to examine “the needs and living contexts of other women” (Lorde). Lorde doesn’t stop by challenging white feminists to a more honest, nuanced, and selfless allyship. She also acknowledges her own personal strivings to witness to her fellow WOC’s pains. She demonstrates how to listen by sharing “If I participate, knowingly or otherwise, in my sister’s oppression and she calls me on it, to answer her anger with my own only blankets the substance of our exchange with reaction. It wastes energy” (Lorde) For Lorde, the stakes of this call to radical empathy are high. They demand an ego death that allows for unity and real witness. It requires a transcendence of paralyzing guilt, which Lorde identifies as “only another form of objectification” (Lorde). Lorde seems to carve space into the civil rights movement for the wisdom and power of Black women with this approach. It is both bold and welcoming in its intersectional embrace. 

This carries on the legacy of Baldwin’s artistic empathy and passion. His gospel of love lays the foundation for the kind of listening that makes Lorde’s intersectionality possible. After the different moments of misogyny in this course, it was striking to hear Lorde call out toxic masculinity, stating “it’s so entrenched in him that it’s part of him as much as his Blackness is” (Baldwin and Lorde). Like in our discussion of Native Son, Lorde points out the way certain conceptions of Black masculinity rage against emasculation and impotence in a way that needlessly kills Black women. It was refreshing to hear our class’ critique validated in this way. Baldwin then shows us how to push forward, beyond guilt, in difficult conversations. The pair practice radical empathy and witness by allowing different experiences of gender to inform and harmonize their insights.

Violence Versus Motherhood

The interview between James Baldwin and Audre Lorde invites readers to investigate if all of Baldwin’s material is applicable to women or if some of his messages only apply to Black men. Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room specifically looks at issues found in same-sex relationships between men and the shame of male homosexuality. I felt limited in my essay on Giovanni’s Room and Baldwin’s queer politics because the passages from his novel and various Bible passages only applied to male homosexuality. Naturally, Baldwin’s overall message of love in queer relationships can be beneficial to queer women; however, centering the plot around Black men’s experiences in male-dominant circles creates distinctions on the issues experienced by Black men and women.

These distinctions continue in Baldwin’s essays as he focuses on highlighting the physical violence suffered by Black men while addressing sexual violence and early teen pregnancy Black women experience. In “A Fly in Buttermilk,” Baldwin writes about the negative experiences Black students suffer at low-income schools. He writes, “G. is just about at the age when boys begin dropping out of school. Perhaps they get a girl into trouble; she also drops out; the boy gets work for a time or gets into trouble for a long time. I was told that forty-five girls had left school for maternity ward the year before. A week or ten days before I arrived in the city eighteen boys from G.’s former high school had been sentenced to the chain gang” (191). Although studies show that Black and Latina girls are more than twice as likely as white girls to become pregnant before they leave adolescence, I wondered about the impact of placing emphasis on Black women’s fertility as their struggle while emphasizing the physical violence and assault Black boys suffered.

In her interview with Baldwin, Lorde also addresses Black girls getting pregnant early, but identifies this as a struggle for Black boys as well. She says, “There are little Black girl children having babies. But this is not an immaculate conception, so we’ve got little Black boys who are making babies, too. We have little Black children making little Black children.” Baldwin and Lorde discuss distinctions between typical experiences of Black men and women. Baldwins speaks of the male experience saying, “Do you know what happens to a man when he’s ashamed of himself when he can’t find a job?… When he can’t protect anybody? When he can’t do anything?” Audre Lorde responds, “Do you know what happens to a woman who gives birth, who puts that child out there and has to go out and hook to feed it? Do you know what happens to a woman who goes crazy and beats her kids across the room because she’s so full of frustration and anger?” However, Lorde also addresses that Black women suffer physical violence in the same ways Black men do, “Do you know what happens to a lesbian who sees her woman and her child beaten on the street while six other guys are holding her?” In our conversations about intersectionality, it is important to examine distinctions between the adversity Black men and women experience and the portrayals of these distinctions.

Art Imitating Life

Upon reflection, I realized I am not entirely sure that Baldwin’s message of love and self-acceptance is the answer to all the problems the novel presents. After reading Go Tell It On The Mountain, I concluded that Baldwin’s message was that the perseverance of one’s own faith, despite external judgment, is the path to salvation. At his funeral, Baldwin played Amazing Grace, declaring his own faith and salvation. Giovanni’s Room however, ends tragically, in a way that almost makes it hard to see how love and acceptance could solve the character’s issues in such a heteronormative society. It leaves me wondering if Baldwin’s inability to find love and acceptance in his own life is the reason these issues are not solved by them in the novel.

Baldwin related to his characters in Giovanni’s Room; like David he had difficulty accepting his sexual identity, like Giovanni he felt like an outsider, and a foreigner, and it can be assumed that he interacted with men like Jacques and Guillaume. In the Male Prison, and a variety of other texts Baldwin argues that to be truly happy people must reject the call to conform to heteronormativity, and live their truth. In Giovanni’s Room, David and Giovanni were both doomed due to their inability to leave the room, or “the closet,” symbolizing that self acceptance and the perseverance of love may have saved them. That being said, it is extremely probable that David and Giovanni would have struggled even if they “came out”  because of how heavily sexuality is/was regulated. Though they may have been free from internal dismay, the external difficulties of coming out are not something that love and self acceptance necessarily resolve. The tragic fate of the main characters leaves me questioning whether Baldwin wanted readers to conclude that love and acceptance would solve these issues, or if he was suggesting that there was not a solution because he himself could not find one. 

With Baldwin’s lived experiences heavily influencing the novel, I think he should have personalized the story more. It would have illuminated whether he thought there was a real solution. I think that Baldwin’s inability to find comfort in his own identity due to external factors, led to this fate for his characters. Though he declares that love and acceptance are to be the ultimate answers, I think Baldwin struggled to find these answers himself. I think the tragic fate in the novel and Baldwin’s own struggles speaks to the fact that societal norms must shift for love and self-acceptance to persevere.  My presentation touched on the effect gender norms had on Baldwin’s conception of sexuality and understanding of his own identity.  Ultimately my analysis will explain how Baldwin’s interpretation of the effects of these norms  and the effect they had on him were instrumental in his writing of the novel. I’ll find that the only real solution is a shift in societal perspective and that broader society has to want to promote love and acceptance for it really to prevail and save people like David, Giovanni, and Baldwin, himself.