While the history curriculum taught in school has been fixated on the overarching themes that map Martin Luther King Jr.’s character, insights into what truly made him extraordinary are harder to find. The “I Have A Dream” speech has been continuously referred to, studied and recited as a signal of his incredible ability to convey meaning and emotion just through words. However, this truly unique talent was honed over many years in Black churches and in front of Black audiences. Martin Luther King Jr. was able to influence and connect with listeners in ways others could not. He was, in fact, gifted in this area and led to his ability to change lives.
In “The Dangerous Road Before Martin Luther King”, James Baldwin begins the essay with a deep examination of a Martin Luther King Jr. Church service. Church in the Black community was a staple. It was a place of refuge, fellowship, renewal, inspiration. In many cases, it served as a refueling station for the battle – a place to hold one over until next Sunday as one endure the constant fight of being Black in America. Preachers attempted to serve congregants in the best ways possible but also knew the suffering first hand. Martin Luther King Jr. truly brought something different to the struggle of his churchgoers. When Martin was preaching, he brought something different to his audience. Martin embodied the plight. He held himself on the same plane of struggle with the congregation and thus could truly walk with and inspire them. Baldwin knew something was different. Baldwin describes the “joy” within the church: “The joy which he filled this church, therefore, was the joy achieved by people who have ceased to delude themselves about an intolerable situation, who have found their prayers for a leader miraculously answered, and who now know that they can change their situation if they will.” This was a condition that could only be found when love, strength, and community were mixed together for an end cause. Martin’s preachings transcended the constant pressures placed upon the people by the outside world. The congregation was not simply receiving the sustenance to go another week but was receiving the strength and ability to believe that their situations will be altered. He gave them tangible hope. He gave them a roadmap to a better life. The ability for Martin to relay the ideas and hopes of change inside his congregation provided the groundwork for his public appearances and famous speeches.
Additionally, the importance of James Baldwin’s description of Martin Luther King’s congregation is poignant and informed. He was no amateur listener. As the stepson of a preacher, Baldwin attended many sermons but did not find the love he hoped to get from the church. The constant themes of judgment and punishment turned Baldwin away from the Church of his youth. However, in King’s Church, he saw that love filled the air. Love was an essential ingredient in the inspiration that Martin provided for his people, and it showed. He cared for all those who heard him and provided a message that lit a spark in all those that listened. Through this love, he was able to help his congregants, his community, the world fight for a better way.
The contrast of hate and love has been a constant theme in Baldwin’s work. In “The Dangerous Road Before Martin Luther King”, Baldwin writes, “… Martin Luther King really loves the people he represents and has-therefore– no hidden, interior need to hate the white people who oppose him…” (639). This is a powerful statement. A cycle of racism is really a cycle of bigotry. Eliminating hatred from the cycle simultaneously eliminates racism. Martin Luther King and James Baldwin both preach a gospel of love because both understood that accepting the white man’s description of a black man, is the biggest mistake. It only results in hatred for oneself, which is expressed by hatred for others. This does nothing but continue the cycle of bigotry and racism.
An understanding of true identity is needed (on both sides) in order to get over the disease of hatred. Whites need to have an understanding that they are not superior, and blacks need to see that they are not inferior. This takes the white community opening their eyes to the truth of America, and the role they play. Often, the message stops here, but Martin Luther King addresses the black community as well. He states, “We can’t keep on blaming the white man. There are many things we must do for ourselves” (Baldwin 644). This cycle of racism and bigotry is a two way street, and MLK sees that the black community has an important role in the matter as well. Blacks must replace the hatred in their hearts with love. When true love is found for oneself and one’s community, hatred thrown does not have the same effect. It is seen that what the white community is selling is not something necessary to buy. Internal freedom is received, and hatred for the ones feeding the lies is no longer necessary. It is seen that the hatred thrown is not a reflection of the receiver, but of the giver. When true love for one’s identity is found, true change can come forth.
Being that I am going into the field of education after graduation, I was very touched and humbled reading G.’s story in “A Fly In Buttermilk.” The evils this young boy faced and his reaction to them was a very shocking read, but the thing that did not surprise me at all, but which I believe Baldwin found shocking, was G.’s silence. He did not speak of any of the traumatic experiences beyond stating that there was “name calling” and one case of him being tripped in the hallway. But this is what a lot of kids, in my experience, tend to do: they internalize their experiences. And this is probably the biggest fear of mine in becoming an educator, that I will not be able to help children achieve the ability to vocalize their experiences.
One line that particularly affected me upon reading this essay was Baldwin’s take on the general public’s reaction to integration: “admiration before the general spectacle and skepticism before the individual case” (CE, 188). This attitude toward integration is generally what I believe is the current state of education today, and it perpetuates the silence of students. I do not believe anyone in this country would argue that education in and of itself is an objectively bad thing. However, I agree with Baldwin’s claim in “Nobody Knows My Name” that most Americans “have so little respect for genuine intellectual effort” (CE 201). This is the experience I myself faced attending public high school in New York, as I would consistently see kids attempting to coast through school without actually desiring intellectual stimulation, and their parents would perpetuate this behavior by consistently arguing with teachers and administrators. Those who cared about their education were the most silent, and those who did not were the most vocal. Generally, people admire the spectacle of school: playing sports, socializing, and hopefully getting a diploma by the end of the whole experience. But with regards to the individual case, the few kids trying to learn something to bring value to their own intellectual stimulation, people are skeptical, and this is why the silence of those who care for their education continues.
G.’s story is inspiring, but not surprising to me, because he and his family genuinely desired a good education and not the spectacle of school as so many families in American society do. His silence as a “weapon,” as Baldwin describes it, is then logical to me because it is the sign that he was able to put his mind toward his education and not let the spectacle distract him. G.’s silence is a sign of his dedication to his education and it is a powerful weapon because it allows him to not fall victim to the retaliation that would lead him into the side of school that is spectacle. But the weapon of silence also has a fatal downside, because while it helps individuals ignore the general spectacle of our current system of education, it does not stimulate any change in that system. Individuals can get by if they are one of the few “truly exceptional” students as Baldwin notes, but this is generally not the case. So, while silence and pride protects the individual, they do little to improve universal school reform. I do not know what the solution to this issue is, as all of Baldwin’s statements in these essays still have vast implications today. But if America somehow learned to love learning and be vocal about that love of learning, I believe some of the issues of our current school systems could be solved. I am sorry if this was a very niche and unorganized post, but I have a lot floating around my mind when it comes to education issues of the past continuing into today and I would love to hear other people’s thoughts.
In James Baldwin’s recollection of Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermon, he notes that King implored his Black audience to fix problems in the Black world in addition to critiquing the constraints of the white world. King tells the crowd to save money, stop committing crimes, and tell the white man that segregation is wrong. Baldwin writes that, though King’s directions elicited a wave of laughter, “he had meant every word he said, and he expected his hearers to act on them” (Baldwin, 644). Further, “they also expected this of themselves, which is not the usual effect of a sermon; and that they are living up to their expectations no white man in Montgomery will deny” (Baldwin, 643). At first reading, I felt reluctant to agree with King’s directives despite his audience’s willingness to act on them. He seems to understate how the white world still impacts these problems in the Black world. Whites restricted African-American access to good-paying jobs that would allow them to save money. The crime rate is a direct result of poverty and racism that African-Americans dealt with much more than their fellow Americans. Further, standing up to a white man risked all sorts of consequences, especially in the hierarchical world of the South. Thus, I first felt that King was somewhat harsh to his Black parishioners.
However, after more reflection, I feel that King’s sermon delivers a necessary ingredient for energizing the civil rights movement: hope. In his directives, King seemingly rejects the outlook on the world that plagues Bigger Thomas in Native Son. The white world crushes Bigger and seemingly robs him of his agency and, thus, his humanity. This idea is the central point of Baldwin’s critique to Native Son. Driven by forces outside his control, Bigger does not have the power to control his own fate. However, in King’s directives, he stresses to the faithful that they can do something to change their reality. They are not locked into a world of pain and suffering that plagues Bigger. Even if saving money, preventing crime, and speaking up to white men about segregation do not end racism or gain political rights, the ability to act empowers people and gives them a sense of humanity that Bigger never fully claims. By fighting against their reality, African-Americans in King’s church gain agency in their future. Thus, King’s directions to his audience give them hope that they themselves have the power to change the world, rebuking the force-driven reality of Bigger Thomas.
In recent years, the term “white feminism” has entered the common lexicon as a way to describe an ideology that seeks “not to alter the systems that oppress womenーpatriarchy, capitalism, imperialismーbut to succeed within them” (Solis). While Audre Lorde does not use the term “white feminism” in “The Uses of Anger,” she highlights examples of how this approach to feminism fails to effect substantial change and instead promotes the continuation of a system that excludes and oppresses women of color. In her article “When Feminism Is White Supremacy in Heels,” Rachel Elizabeth Cargle discusses how she and her fellow black feminist activists responded to the murder of 18-year-old Nia Wilson. Cargle and her black activist community called upon white feminists to use their platforms to acknowledge the senseless murder of a black woman. While many white allies did, a large number of them also grew defensive and lashed out.
This situation is analogous to Lorde’s example of white women addressing racism on college campuses. They blame their inability to properly confront racism on the fact that no women of color attend their events. Lorde writes, “In other words, racism is a Black woman’s problem, a problem of women of Color, and only we can discuss it.” This sentiment is apparent in the defensive responses of those white feminists. Too often in modern-day activist circles, black women are charged with the responsibility of educating white women and white people in general about the oppression they have faced. White feminist activists should prioritize stories like Nia Wilson’s instead of waiting for black activists to ask them for support. And when black activists encourage them to use their platform, white people should respond with genuine willingness instead of with their ego. “The Uses of Anger” aligns strongly with Cargle’s article, as Lorde states, “Oppressed peoples are always being asked to stretch a little more, to bridge the gap between blindness and humanity. Black women are expected to use our anger only in the service of other people ‘s salvation, other people’s learning.” White women’s rights activists should listen to Lorde’s words and work to educate themselves instead of waiting for black women to take on that emotional labor.
Megan, in her presentation last week, spoke about Foucault and power in Giovanni’s Room. She mentions that “the power that David holds and does employ actually works towards his own oppression. Thus, it is not in spite of his power but because of his power that David experiences a sort of ‘death’ in Giovanni’s Room.” Before this presentation, I was unaware of Foucault’s idea of power not being autocratic or liberating, but being another form of oppression. I saw this in Baldwin’s Going to Meet the Man as well. Jesse’s power is derived from his memory of the castration of a black man, which is an incident that makes him think of himself, a white man, as superior to a black man. This power is bestowed upon Jessie by this incident and through society that believes a white man is superior to a black man. Power really becomes a form of oppression for Jessie, because without thinking about it, he cannot do something as simple as make love to his wife. He is a slave to this power which oppresses him. When a black man in jail is singing to him, disobeying Jessie’s command, Jessie cannot help but beat the man up, to retain his mental superiority. Additionally, this power consumes his life to the extent that he cannot stop thinking about it even when he is trying to fall sleep. It is only after recalling a hate crime against a black man that Jessie can get an erection. Baldwin writes that Jessie “thought of the morning and grabbed her, laughing and crying, crying and laughing, and he whispered, as he stroked her, as he took her, ‘Come on, sugar, I’m going to do you like a nigger, just like a nigger, come on, sugar, and love me just like you’d love a nigger.’” (Baldwin 348) Jessie is oppressed by his power over black people because it consumes his life, in the day and in the night.
After learning about Baldwin’s history with the church, we can see that he is heavily influenced by religion through his writings and even throughout his life as a queer man. One could say that he had a complicated history because of what the Bible says about homosexuality, and his complicated relationship with his Father who was a preacher. However, in “The Dangerous Road Before Martin Luther King,” we can clearly see the adoration of Baldwin towards Martin Luther King Jr. and we also see the way Baldwin’s view of the church changed being in King’s presence. It says a great deal about King’s influence on individuals, but his influence on the Black community, as well. In a way, if King could have Baldwin see churches in a new light, he surely could lead the community to a new future.
Reading Baldwin’s works, it is prominent that he writes about love: loving oneself, loving thy neighbor, and searching for loving relationships. It is clear in this essay that Baldwin is writing his love for King and the way he could garner hope and love from, and for, Black people. Baldwin writes that the newfound joy and power in the church was because King was not creating a space of protest and condemnation but of hope and love. The very thing that Baldwin, one might argue, was always looking for in the church, other people were looking for, as well, and they found it in King. He was a great speaker and a figure that people looked up to, but what distinguished him from others was that “he suffered with them and, thus, he helped them to suffer,” (Baldwin 643). Now, was Martin Luther King Jr. perfect, no, and Baldwin writes of this and we know of these things now. However, it cannot be disputed that King affected change in Baldwin as he did for the rest of the country. One question I ask is, although Baldwin saw the new change in the church and many others did, as well: would it have been the same if they were not looking for it? Baldwin was always searching for love, in everything, but what if he had already found it, would King have had the same effect on him. Would Baldwin be judging more of his actions instead of his words?
Sometimes, it feels as though I know too much about Martin Luther King Jr.. I first learned about him in kindergarten after watching Our Friend, Martin. The movie frames Martin Luther King Jr. as the sole reason why segregation ended and why racism stopped existing in America. It is an interesting take. But it is also a movie that came out in 1999. In that time, little was really known about Martin Luther King Jr.. However, it was 1999 that the trial where the United States of America that was put on trial for the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. where it was ruled that our government had coordinated the assassination.
It is so interesting to think about the way Martin Luther King Jr. is talked about today. He was a martyr. He was lovely. He was perfect. Yet, he continually cheated on his wife and allowed someone to push Bayard Rustin out of the movement because Bayard Rustin was gay. The man was essentially hated by the end of his life. As he began to speak out about poverty and the Vietnam war, his approval rating dropped. I believe this was prime time for the US to assassinate him. However, I doubt the US completely thought out the impact Martin Luther King Jr.’s death would have on the movement. In fact, they probably did not predict the riots that would break out after his assassination.
I guess that is part of the reason the US pretends to love Martin Luther King Jr.. It is almost funny how Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by the same state that pretends to venerate him and drags his corpse and name through the mud in an attempt to quell Black discontent. It is almost funny that a car company sampled part of one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches to sell a truck. At this point in time, Martin Luther King Jr. no longer represents the people. He has become a part of the American imagination and has been run through the propaganda machine that so many go through.
In “Uses of Anger,” Audre Lorde offers a really productive definition of anger: “Anger is a grief of distortions between peers, and its object is change” (p. 129 in my edition of Sister Outsider). Lorde invites everyone into her project of transforming these distortions and instead recognizing the creative power of difference. She asserts that if she fails to recognize the oppressions faced by other queer women and Black women, “then I am contributing not only to each of their oppressions but also to my own” (132).
I love that Lorde foregrounds her belief that honoring differences is what will ultimately enable us to defeat racism, misogyny, homophobia, and other oppressions. She talks about this in the context of her identity as a Black lesbian in both “Uses of Anger” and “Revolutionary Hope.”
In her conversation with James Baldwin, Lorde calls Baldwin in. Throughout this semester, our class has noted Baldwin’s failure to attend to Black women’s lived experiences. Baldwin’s writing is largely self-reflective, dwelling on his understanding of what it means to be a Black, queer man in the U.S. In this conversation, Lorde listens to Baldwin but also challenges him to gain a deeper understanding of her experience of moving through the world as Black, queer, and female. She does not let him get away with minimizing her experiences: when he says that “in this republic the only real crime is to be a Black man,” she replies, “No, I don’t realize that…. I realize the only crime is to be Black, and that includes me too.” Lorde asks Baldwin to see her—to really see Black women and queer women—to more effectively dismantle racism, sexism, and heterosexism. (I would love to learn more about the relationship between Baldwin and Lorde and how they shaped each other’s views and work.)
I think this conversation is really powerful because even when Lorde expresses a disagreement with Baldwin, she does so in a way that moves both of them forward and helps them better understand each other. This aspect of their conversation makes the title “Revolutionary Hope” fitting. The power of centering hope is so profound. Elsewhere in Sister Outsider, Lorde talks about how she has learned to speak up even when she is afraid; progress can only be made when oppressive silences are shattered. Lorde’s radically hopeful perspective, by focusing on accountability and reaching across difference, only strengthens Baldwin’s work speaking out about civil rights.
Even though I have not read Madeleine, the similarities outlined by Baldwin between this work and Giovanni’s Room are hard to miss. In my last blog post and in my presentation about Baldwin and queer identity, I alluded to the idea of inauthenticity through David’s inability to accept his attraction and love for Giovanni, and I will expand upon this theme further in this blog post.
In “The Male Prison,” Baldwin writes that “it is not necessary to despise people who are one’s inferiors — whose inferiority, by the way, is amply demonstrated by the fact that they appear to relish, without guilt, their sensuality.” This reminds me of the way David resents Giovanni and how he sees Giovanni as someone who is inferior to him just because Giovanni has accepted who he was and who he loved “without guilt.” This could also be compared to the characters of Jacques and Guillaume, but for them it is not so much “sensuality” as it is power and dominance over others. In fact, for them, “it is impossible to have either a lover or a friend” (The Male Prison) because of the ways in which their wealth is intertwined with their masculinity, and how that affects their sexual and romantic encounters: “the possibility of genuine human involvement has altogether ceased.” Jacques says that his “encounters are shameful… because there is no affection in them, and no joy. It’s like putting an electric plug in a dead socket. Touch, but no contact. All touch, but no contact and no light.” When one does not examine how their masculine identities influence their relationships with other men, therein lies a double edged sword of dehumanising others and being dehumanised themselves.
Men uphold toxic patriarchal values that end up hurting themselves almost as much as it hurts women. Baldwin writes in The Male Prison: “when men can no longer love women they also cease to love or respect or trust each other, which makes their isolation complete. Nothing is more dangerous than this isolation, for men will commit any crimes whatever rather than endure it.” David is unable to fully trust and love Giovanni because being with him reminds him of this prison of heteronormativity that he ensnares himself in, because to leave the prison is to leave the majority and be isolated. To leave the prison is to be “dirty” and live a life of shame. In David and Giovanni’s confrontation, Giovanni phrases this perfectly when he says “You want to leave Giovanni because he makes you stink. You want to despise Giovanni because he is not afraid of the stink of love.” When David is in the prison he cannot fully love Hella, but when he “endures the isolation” outside the prison to be with Giovanni, he still seeks the comfort and familiarity of the prison in which he grew up.
“But I’m a man,” cries David, “a man! What do you think can happen between us?” to which Giovanni responds “You know very well… what can happen between us. It is for that reason you are leaving me.” In the end, David cannot endure the pain of an authentic life. He cannot see Giovanni as a lover or a friend, and is afraid of him because he embodies the acceptance and authenticity that David views to be impossible for him to achieve.