Did Baldwin understand intersectionality?

  Revolutionary Hope dramatically shifted my perspective of Baldwin. I was excited that the conversation was featured in Essence Magazine, one of the most prolific Black magazines, especially because Essence centers the stories and experiences of Black women. Right before I read the conversation, I finished writing my Baldwin and Queer Identity essay. My essay focused on Baldwin’s rejection of gender norms and roles within his literature and his realizations that norms are societal constructs and do not speak to the entirety of the human experience. I utilized Baldwin’s analysis of gender norms and hypermasculinity in The Male Prison and Giovanni’s Room to display how his personal experiences contributed to his rejection of norms that confine sexuality and gender. From these texts, it seemed Baldwin understood that constructs limit individuality and that oppression comes in many forms based on gender, race, and countless other constructs. However, in his conversation with Audre Lorde (goat), it seemed Baldwin could not understand the implications of male privilege and benefits that stem from being a male. In Revolutionary Hope, Baldwin was hesitant to accept his male privilege and to understand that men can and must help liberate women; specifically, Black men have to help liberate Black women in the fight to end Black oppression.

    Intersectionality is a relatively new concept. Coined by Kimberle Crenshaw, intersectionality refers to the various identities one has and their societal implications. Intersectionality often is used to describe the double bind of living through both racial and gender prejudice. Lorde and Baldwin’s conversation began with the topic of the general Black American experience. Soon Lorde wanted to emphasize that race and gender were intertwined and that Black women deal with oppression from both sides. When Lorde brought up Black men’s violence towards Black women, Baldwin wanted to explain that various factors contribute to the struggles of certain Black men that may contribute to feelings of anger and violence. He attempts to attribute the negative actions of certain men to the oppression they face, which is when Lorde tries to get him to understand that men are not the only ones oppressed. Lorde speaks to the experiences of young Black women and explains that Black men should not ignore the plight of Black women. It seemed as though Baldwin was defensive of his experiences with hypermasculinity and was inclined to defend the actions of some Black men in an attempt to show that external forces contributed to these negative actions. Lorde wants Baldwin to see beyond the gender binary and see that the binary reinforces the oppression of Black women. She doesn’t neglect the plight of Black men, but rather than be concerned with blame, she wants Black people to acknowledge their experiences and redefine how they understand each other and themselves.

The conversation illustrated that gender roles and constructs influenced Baldwin himself. He was not immediately receptive to the idea of Black men helping to liberate Black women because he could not see past the Black masculine plight to understand the double bind. I had suspicions that Baldwin may have been more influenced by norms than I thought with his writing decisions in Giovanni’s Room. Reading this conversation showed me that one of the biggest contentions in the struggle for Black liberation is not just race but gender. I advocate for Lorde’s vision of redefining conceptions of gender to be more fluid and for understandings to be focused not on policing what’s not understood but redefining what is understood to uplift those in the struggle.