Final Reflection: Baldwin as a philosopher

Looking back on all of my blog posts from this semester, I am struck by the diversity of subjects I was able to cover, along with all of my fellow classmates. I wrote my first blog post on Black Existentialism and my most recent on American Idealism. In between I touched on intersectionality, various images of light and darkness in Giovanni’s Room, and the evolution of shame for John in Go Tell It on the Mountain. Our discussions in class also illuminated the diverse subjects connected to Baldwin. In the syllabus it reads that “we will interrogate questions of race, sexuality, violence, and migration… Baldwin’s life and work will allow us the opportunity to explore transatlantic discourses on nationality, sexuality, race, gender, and religion.” In class we discussed how religion and sexuality affected the character of John, what Baldwin asked of white America in his critical work, how race functioned in Paris differently than in the U.S., and more. My main point is to say that I cannot tie up the course neatly, with one succinct explanation of how Baldwin is relevant today and how his work links up with a broad swath of experience. 

I do want to argue for a point that we have not brought up in discussion, however. We have discussed Baldwin as a writer, a black queer man, a son, an activist, and more. But we have not called him a philosopher. The power of using this label is that it acknowledges Baldwin’s work in a field dominated by white men. Additionally, spotting the philosophy in Baldwin’s work further bolsters the power of his literature. In “Down at the Cross” Baldwin does some of his most interesting philosophical work. First, he considers the suffering of Black people. He concludes something about the nature of God from this exploration:

“But God—and I felt this even then, so long ago, on that tremendous floor, unwillingly—is white. And if His love was so great, and if He loved all His children, why were we, the blacks, cast down so far?” 

Baldwin disrupts a tradition of Christian philosophy that has come before him. Instead of characterizing God as unraced, as an eternal and all loving entity, he calls him “white.” It is the only way for him to explain the uneven and persistent suffering of Black people. The power of this statement is that it forces Christians to take a hard look at who is bearing the brunt of the suffering that many Christians value as instrumental or in accordance with God’s plan. 

Baldwin is a philosopher in many other ways: from his theory on the tragedy of life to the power of love. His literature grapples with these themes and Baldwin clearly does so in his own life as well: his attempted suicides and desire for love both point towards his deep reflection about life and whether or not it is worth living. This new label for Baldwin is just another lens through which to view him and his work. I look forward to finding new ways to think about Baldwin going forward!