One of the themes I’ve noticed in the last few weeks of discussion and of blog posts is that of history. Prof. Kinyon asked us how we tell our history, specifically America’s story. I would like to use this framework when investigating how Baldwin might respond to this question. The past placed Baldwin in his present – one filled with racism, oppression, and injustice. Black folk have been sites of contention and victims of violence for many centuries. Racism has come in different forms, to varying degrees of visibility, but it has continued to exist. Baldwin wrestles with these ideas when crafting his identity as a black man during the Civil Rights era. He dislikes the way that history writes him and refuses “to bow down before that history” as it means “accept[ing] that history’s arrogant and unjust judgment of him” (Williams). Just as Baldwin re-writes himself in the cultural landscape of identity, he re-writes history to be a recipient of his opinion. He does this most explicitly in his letter to his nephew, which Elizabeth touched on within her blog entry. He tells his nephew, “It will be hard, James, but you come from sturdy, peasant stock, men who picked cotton and dammed rivers and built railroads, and, in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity” (Baldwin, “A Letter to My Nephew”). He re-understands history for his nephew: it is not one prescriptive of shame, indignity, or disgrace. Although history has placed black people in a specific position, Baldwin refuses it take anything else. He will not succumb to the self-loathing and misfortune that white history would have him believe of himself. He reclaims the notion of history as Black when contextualizing his and his nephew’s present. He says, “We have not stopped trembling yet, but if we had not loved each other, none of us would have survived, and now you must survive because we love you and for the sake of your children and your children’s children” (Baldwin, “A Letter to My Nephew”). This is a form of empowering truth. Baldwin answers: we tell America’s story by telling the black story.
One thought on “The Black Story”
I absolutely love this post Kiera!!! It reminds me of how, earlier in the semester, Professor Garibaldi connected the way Lil Nas X repurposes and reanimates Renaissance art to Baldwin’s repurposing of Biblical imagery. That also really reminded me of the way Walter Benjamin, in Theses on the Philosophy of History, says that fashion always has a flair for the topical and compels the Historical Materialist to “brush” history against the grain. I’ve always been struck by the artistic metaphor in the word brush there. I feel that both Benjamin and Baldwin (and Lil Nas X too) believe that history is a tool of the oppressor. And know that radical art challenges and rewrites that history. That’s not to say stories will totally save us without action. Only that, truly pushing against a history that crushes people can be worthwhile and transformative!
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