Final Thoughts

Baldwin has always been a force hanging over my head. His ghost haunted me. His works floated around me in a nebulous cloud of the unknown and I never really reached up to grab them. I had seen the tweets. I had watched a video or two. I read part of a book. But, it wasn’t until this class that I finally took the time to listen to Baldwin.

Not to say that I had not been listening before, but taking a class on a subject is different from a short lived, private interest. There is only so far your private interest can go. On the other hand, a class on a subject constantly expands and challenges your thought process. An example of this is my reading of Native Son vs my reading of Nobody Knows My Name (I believe this is the correct reading).

While reading Native Son, it was easy for me to have empathy for Bigger. He was a fictional character. None of his actions actually affected anyone. His struggle could be applied to real life. However, while reading Nobody Knows My Name, I found that that empathy had run out when it came to David Baldwin. You see, David Baldwin was a real man. He reigned over and terrorized his family. As I mentioned in class, I have known parents like that. I have seen the effects people like David Baldwin have on their children. And I hate him.

This was challenging. For me, it was easier to feel empathy for a fictional character than it was for me to feel empathy for a real person (and I do not know what that says about me but it does say something).

While reading Go Tell It on the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room, I was not necessarily challenged, but I was able to connect to the characters and the stories that James Baldwin was telling. It was interesting to hear that people did not really feel a connection to Giovanni’s Room because I was heartbroken at the end. No one was happy. It happens so often in LGBTQ+ literature and LGBTQ+ works of art that it just felt like another nail in the coffin that some people cannot conceive of LGBTQ+ people being happy.

In Baldwin’s non-fiction pieces, it was interesting to see how he viewed the world. When talking about Martin Luther King Jr., it seemed almost as if Baldwin was infatuated with him (or maybe infatuated with Martin Luther King’s potential). When talking about the Nation of Islam, Baldwin’s distaste for the idea of the need for white suffering. At the same time, it is possible to feel that Baldwin is at a crossroads with himself. A crossroad he always finds himself at, no matter his age or where he lived.

One Last Time…

For my last blog post, I wanted to write a short reflection on what I’ve enjoyed in this class, what I’ve learned, and what I will carry with me moving forward. 

I am grateful for my classmates’ willingness to be vulnerable and to be honest during the difficult discussions we have about race, violence, and discrimination in America. There were often moments in class where Professor Kinyon would pose a question and I couldn’t even begin to come up with a semblance of an answer, but there was always someone who was open to sharing their own experiences, and I learned a lot from them. 

On that note, I am grateful for Professor Kinyon for asking us difficult questions and pushing the boundaries of our perspectives on these topics. Thank you for always encouraging us to think about the nuances of every issue and giving us the opportunity to share them with each other in the classroom. 

Coming into the class, I knew nothing else about James Baldwin besides the fact that he was a Black writer who “moved” to Paris. Now, at the end of the class, I definitely agree that Baldwin’s life and work gave us a rich and complex lens to explore transatlantic discourses on nationality, sexuality, race, gender, and religion. In each unit, I found that there was always a narrative that I had not considered, or at least shied away from: whether it be the difficult discourse of purity culture in Christianity, internalised racial discrimination, queerness and migration, or the purpose of vulnerability in activism. These perspectives not only enriched my understanding of civil rights history in America, but also of race relations and connected issues across the world.

Moving forward, I would like to apply the same nature of purposeful and honest inquiry in the future classrooms that I might teach. I want to encourage students to dig deep to look at the real root of social issues, and examine how that affects the way we live our lives today. In the same way this class has fostered open dialogue, I want to create the same atmosphere of trust and mutual respect so that my future students can learn from each other, and I from them. 

Final Blogpost

This class has stretched me in many different ways. It has challenged my way of thinking and has opened my eyes to new perspectives. I came into this class just excited to learn more about black history. I always knew I would want to educate myself on my history once I got to college, but it had always bothered me that I had to wait until now. That said, this class has allowed me to reflect on a passion I have had for a long time. I often found myself enjoying the readings and essays we completed, and I always had a lot of thoughts. I guess a lot of thoughts brewing from over the last 19 years.

I am now able to look at society and see how Baldwin saw society. This class allowed me to get in the head of Baldwin and see the world through his eyes. That was an experience within itself because he has made such a large impact even in our world today. I think the biggest take away I am getting from this class is the impact identity has on racism in America. Everyone is in search for an identity, and racism is a sign of searching. It provides me with a new perspective to look out at the world in. This is something I will continue to carry into my next 3 years at Notre Dame and so on.

The Final Blog Post

Sometimes Dr. Kinyon began class by asking us if we liked what we read, and for some reason, I always found that question complicated. It should be simple to say if we liked Baldwin’s writing. After all, this is an English class, and that is perhaps the most basic question she could ask of us. However, I think what made the question difficult for me to plainly answer is the content and context of Baldwin’s writings. 

The America Baldwin describes is divided by racism and hate, so much so that he and other Black American writers left for Europe. In fact, Baldwin’s America and America in 2021 are quite similar. The very title of our course refers to the progress that still needs to be made in this country. “James Baldwin, From the Civil Rights Movement to Black Lives Matter.” We have had class discussions about how slavery became Jim Crow which became mass incarceration or The New Jim Crow. While I consider Baldwin’s writing captivating and smooth, I have not liked what I have read. A white family bringing their young son to witness the lynching of a black man. A black woman being raped by multiple white men. I do not like an America that allows, enables, and even encourages these situations. 

I argue that Baldwin’s goal was not for us to like what we read. In many ways, he wanted us to feel the opposite. Upon reading “The Price of the Ticket” and “On Being White and Other Lies,” we all felt a desire to change this country. Baldwin wrote about America’s racism in the time of the civil rights movement, and now he calls us to think about it and write about it in the era of the Black Lives Matter movement. Though this is my final blog, I know this won’t be the final time I think of Baldwin’s arguments and consider how they inform our world today. 

Until Next Time…

So what a lot of people don’t know is that I was never meant to be in this class. I had to get specially placed into ENGL 40873 after literally every other available course filled up on registration day. Unwilling to submit to a semester of solely business-based learning, I sent a very anxious email to some higher-up and, a few exchanges later, received notice that I had been placed in James Baldwin: Civil Rights to Black Lives Matter.

Even lesser known is how grateful I am for this reality everyday.

Before February of this year, I had no idea who James Baldwin was. My understanding of American literature was limited to Steinbeck and Hemingway, and I had little interest in nonfiction. I was too terrified to talk on the first day of class because I thought I might look stupid, especially when I realized that the majority of my classmates were older than me. And I felt disconnected from the central themes of the class because, simply put, I am not Black. I am limited to my own experiences, and I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to make any meaningful contributions during our discussions. 

I am proud to say that I was wrong.

James Baldwin examined with particular care ideas of strangerhood and unbelonging. As a Black man, a queer man, and an expat, he was well-versed in rejection. He was an expert, I think, in being lonely even when he was not alone. But as I mentioned in class, strangerhood is as much a choice as it is a circumstance. Baldwin so defined himself by his differences that he blinded himself to the possibility of a shared human experience; he internalized his rejection and he rejected society right back.

I figure that you can choose to let your experiences separate you from the pack–you can choose to focus on your dissimilarities and adopt an attitude of perpetual solitude, or you can reconfigure your perspective a bit and instead enjoy the many, many ways that our individual experiences enrich our collective human identity. I may not be Black, and I may not be queer, and I may not be a man, but I still managed to find so many parallels between my own life and Baldwin’s. 

I’ve talked about this class with so many different people, and I’ve gotten to explore the material from so many different points of view. After any given lecture I’d update my poli sci roommate, or or my anthro major neighbor from down the hall, or my accountant friend, and we never failed to find some parallel between the day’s lessons and their own studies. At work I once called a ‘68 grad who studied English at Notre Dame: we talked about James Baldwin and the myth of the tortured artist for three whole hours.

I guess that’s the final lesson: there’s a unity in multiplicity, and there comes a sense of comfort in the knowledge that we are more alike than we realize. We just have to challenge ourselves to find it.

Final Thoughts on Love

When I entered this class, all I really knew about James Baldwin was the seconds-long clips I had seen of him on Twitter, starting especially around the time of George Floyd’s murder. I am now leaving this class with a deep understanding and admiration of Baldwin, his life, and his message.

Reflecting more on the question Professor Kinyon posed to us in our circle on the last day of class, I think the one thing that I learned/ that I will really take with me is Baldwin’s message of love–an “explicitly active and political” love as salvation, as a means of liberation (Field 450). 

I have a minor in education and am going to be a teacher next year. On the first day of one of my education classes, everyone was asked to describe the most important element of good teaching. As I sat there thinking about it, the answer that came to my head was love. After studying for the past years about educational disparities and how schools in the U.S. have been unequal since their conception (as they were created for and by white people), I had decided in my head that the only way we are going to fix this incredibly broken system is with empathy and love. We are going to have to actually care about each other enough to decide we will no longer tolerate inequities. As it came along to my turn though, I changed my answer. Having heard everyone else’s answers about impartiality, enthusiasm, and patience, I began to think love didn’t have a place in the conversation and would sound weird. To my surprise, when it became the professor’s turn to respond, he said love himself. 

I think that love as the answer to injustice has become somewhat discredited in today’s conversations–seeming too ‘weak’ or passive a response to an issue that is pressing and even fatal for some. We discussed in class what needs to be done to fix the system–we need to burn it to the ground (shoutout Rae’vonne). That idea is radical. It seems contradictory to love, but I think love can be radical too. Love might be what it takes to burn it down. I personally don’t think love is weak at all, I think it can be the strongest instrument we possess.

John 15:13 states: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” When those who benefit off the abjection of others decide they are ready to relinquish their privilege, and in a sense, give up the life of comfortability that is all they know, everyone will begin to truly live. This is going to take love.

Final Stream of Consciousness (ft. an unsolicited calculus analogy)

Who tells the story of America, and how? If there is one thing that I’ve learned in our James Baldwin course, it is that we may never find this question’s perfect answer. Through engaging with Baldwin’s biography and his publications, I have been trying to practice being an American intellectual historian. I want to track the history of thought. I’ve pushed myself to view Baldwin as just another contributor to this history of thought—not so as to simplify him, but rather so as to demystify and humanize his persona in our popular imagination.

Going into our course in February, I honestly had already sensationalized and heroified Baldwin in a way that many often do with other great American thinkers; I subconsciously considered him—or expected him—to be free of fault or confusion. This left me with a novice approach to understanding Baldwin’s life and his works for the first few weeks…I expected him to answer the question who tells the story of America, and how? with objectivity and excellence. I basically denied him the humanity that I would have given another non-Black non-queer thinker, which is messed up, right?

Well, this course has pushed me to see Baldwin as someone just as human and American as myself. He was not some nebulous being that was sent to solve all of America’s problems. He could not have totally solve the problem of racism in our country. He could not have promises us a perfectly inclusive reformation of the American church. But he did help us understand a direction that our nation should turn. There will always be more that we can argue Baldwin “should have” done, and there is nobility in our criticism…but there is also naïveté in our disappointment.

It’s likely that no one will tell the story of America. It’s likely that there isn’t a way how. It’s likely that we will all just continue to tell our own stories and sew together the scenes that we see most compatible. Maybe America’s story is in Hamilton. Maybe it is in the works of Oscar Wilde. Maybe Audre Lorde or Marcus Garvey or Joni Mitchell or James Baldwin. Maybe nowhere at all. My pessimism, which I am neither ashamed of nor disappointed in, tells me we will never find it exactly. I suppose that just because there is no perfect way to tell America’s story doesn’t mean that the “arc of history” won’t still “bend toward justice”. It’s like limits in calculus (if x = justice, or something). We may not find it, but we can keep getting closer.

Baldwin Enters the 313 Common Room: Final Reflections

One of the best things about having friends who all study their different passions is having nightly debriefing sessions about the day’s revelations. It became our routine while doing homework in the evenings to listen to what each other learned during the day and share what is currently fascinating us in our studies. We each listen attentively as the Pre-Med explains the structure of a liver, ask the Mendoza for updates about the newest brand management theory, and tune in to the latest detailed lecture on beer fermentation from the Bio-Chem. I don’t know if any other English Majors have attempted to explain gender constructions, queer theory, or racial politics to STEM friends…but it’s an interesting conversation, to say the least. Since they aren’t used to having scholarly, liberal arts-based discussions on social justice issues, they were initially hesitant to join in because they felt they lacked the right words to talk about issues of race, gender, class, etc.

Enter James Baldwin. I’ve always felt that fiction can help us make sense of the world around us and give us the opportunity to have hard conversations rooted in storytelling. I found myself giving my friends brief summaries of the novels we read in class and used them as a starting place to ask them questions we brought up in class. I read them the movie theatre scene from Native Son, and this evolved into a very heated rant about the absurdity of strip clubs, followed by a discussion on homosociality. I practiced my group presentation in front of them and we had a really honest conversation about biblical arguments against homosexuality that we’ve either heard used against ourselves or were taught in Catholic school. We had a great talk about the word “queer,” how some of us identified or did not identify with the term, and the general liberation we’ve found with the removal of labels on our identities. Reading them an excerpt from The Price of the Ticket resulted in my friend in Irish Studies and I having a great debate on what it means to be white and how the historical persecution of Irish people resulted in the adoption of whiteness in America. I also asked my Colombian roommate about her experiences with binary Black and white racial categories. She told me stories about having to ask her parents if she was white or Black, all the times she’s changed her answer on census questions over the years, and her decision in recent years to switch to the “Other” box.

This course allowed me to have amazing classroom discussions and foster personal growth. However, Baldwin also helped me connect with my friends in ways I hadn’t felt able to before and gave me the confidence to start initiating challenging conversations with those around me. I’ll certainly be taking Baldwin’s message of love and the confidence to speak his truth with me in the years to come.

Final Reflections

Throughout this semester, we have talked a lot about the ways in which James Baldwin had to fight against the system, the Man, in order to make his voice heard. He faced oppression on many different levels and struggled with the intersections of his identities, often not receiving the crucial and necessary support from the avenues which would be most likely to help him figure out his path in life. Rather, his family and his faith often made it more difficult for him to accept himself rather than being a source of comfort and reassurance. Therefore, it is easy to recognize that Baldwin had to have a strong conviction and a tough spirit in order to become as successful of a writer and leader within the Black community as he did. However, even with all of his accomplishments, it is important to remember that Baldwin was still human. In thinking about our conversations about Martin Luther King, Jr., I felt that this idea that a person can be an extraordinary individual and can still have faults was extremely relevant to thinking about Baldwin as well. Despite all of his strengths and admirable qualities, he was not a perfect man. Even in experiencing a great amount of compiled oppression in his own life, he struggled with understanding the complexity of oppression with regard to how it can affect others. As we can see in his conversation with Audre Lorde, he failed to empathize with her experience of oppression because he was so focused on how he has been disadvantaged and punished for various aspects of his identity. This idea that there is always more to learn and always more room for grace, empathy, and understanding in trying to relate to others is absolutely necessary to discussions of allyship and antiracism efforts. I think that as I reflect back on this semester, this is a key takeaway that I want to remember and put into action in my own life.

Baldwin’s Resistance (ours too)

Last night, my friend was talking to me about struggling to take care of herself. She is a passionate, critical, and involved human who always challenges me to be a better ally, revolutionary, and person. Her critical gaze allows her to hold her community, her friends, and herself morally accountable. This helps her make an actual difference everywhere she goes. She knows that the world can be kinder and expresses that with an urgency. I’m always so deeply impressed and touched by her passion. However, she also holds herself to high standards and struggles with acknowledging the state of her mental health. Almost automatically, I started sharing some things I’ve learned about James Baldwin.

In this class, we have truly challenged and interrogated Baldwin’s canon. By beginning with Richard Wright and discussing the throwaway treatment of the two rape scenes, we familiarized ourselves with the limits of the tradition which jumpstarts and undercuts Baldwin’s career. In Baldwin’s own fiction, we examined the female characters, like Hella, who receive underwhelming, and occasionally misogynistic, depictions. In Baldwin’s essays about France, we discussed his potential responsibility to address France’s racism and ongoing colonization in the context of the Algerian War. Several of us were disheartened by the lack of nuance and attention that the situation received. We resolved this partially by a comparison to King’s backlash at speaking up about the Vietnam War, as well as emphasizing his mental health struggles and suicide attempts. Finally, in the Civil Rights section, we acknowledged yet another limit to Baldwin’s canon. In his lively conversation with Audre Lorde, Baldwin has a frustrating commitment to his distinct perspective as a man. This was yet another challenging subject for our class, as we were once again forced to confront Baldwin’s personal limits. Even though he attempts to hear Lorde out, a disconnect and lack of witness remains in that interview. Ultimately, our class came to the tenuous (I hesitate to say) conclusion that even if Baldwin’s mind wasn’t changed in this interview, it at least must have made him think.

Despite all the ways we encountered frustrations and limits in Baldwin’s canon, I’m primarily left with his radical resistance and transformative message of love. He exposes the spark burning deep within the gilded walls of the Church & of America. He challenges himself and all his readers to enter into the Love we each enflesh in a revolutionary way. It is certainly a prophetic and explosive vision. I feel so blessed to have been able to unpack it right now and with all of you. 

Finally, I’d like to bring this back to the conversation I had with my friend. This powerful and loving person in my life was being so hard on herself for needing a little help to feel ok. So, I tried to tell her about the deep complexity of Baldwin as a person, writer, and revolutionary. Even Baldwin has limits, be they personal or political. And he recognizes them, which allows us to as well! I believe it is a deeply loving act to present those limits unaffectedly and honestly. Accepting his limits resists the totalizing projects of capitalism, authoritarianism, and fascism. Baldwin’s resistance doesn’t seek some neo-liberal consumptive version of success or perfection. He is human and he wants us to be, too. Deeply, radically, and lovingly human.