Final Reflections on Baldwin

I think my two biggest takeaways from Baldwin’s writing were that religion can be a tool for individual salvation without some of the church’s dogma and that true love, the love that Baldwin describes as necessary for a true human experience, takes effort.

I was not excited when we entered the religion section of the course. I did not do well in either of my theology classes while at ND and I rarely understood the extratextual material we read for these classes. I thought religious philosophy was not useful to the human experience and that institutionalized religion caused more harm than good in the form of some of its anti-homosexual dogma. But Baldwin gave me a better understanding of religion. It is an experience that is both individualized and communal, and the key to unlocking true religion is love for the world, those in it, and yourself. I do not pray often, but when I do, I often find myself praying for myself, which I found selfish. But Baldwin’s writing showed me that I should not suppress my own wants in order to achieve some dogmatic form of salvation. Salvation can only be achieved, in Baldwin’s eyes, through loving yourself, and additionally loving your community. This leads to my other big takeaway, which is Baldwin’s concept of love.

Before reading Baldwin, I was unsure if I have ever actually loved someone. The love that Baldwin describes, to me, is an active experience that one must continuously work at. There are certainly moments when loving the world and those in it is hard, especially during this hellish year that so many of us have struggled through. But walking around campus these last few weeks, contemplating life after graduation, I have tried to find the things that I love during this depressing time. I see all the bleakness, but I in an effort to narrow out the good. I love Notre Dame, despite several of the institution’s issues. I love the lake and the grotto; walking there brings me peace and joy. And while I certainly do not love all of my friends, I love a fair number of them, and I am going to make an effort not to let that love die after graduation.

This class was my favorite one this semester because of these two concepts of religion and love that Baldwin taught me. Often, I hear people criticize the English major and humanities in general because their content is “not applicable” to everyday life. But Baldwin’s teachings of love and religion are probably the most useful concepts I have learned this year; they are certainly more useful to my development as a human being than my accounting minor. So, I am very glad I took this course and very glad to have read so much from Baldwin. I will definitely be reading some of the stuff we did not get to over the summer.

Thank you, James Baldwin

I had not read any James Baldwin prior to taking this class, and it was a gift to be able to take a deep dive into his work this semester. From exploring religious themes in Go Tell It On the Mountain,to discussing queer identity through Giovanni’s Room, to connecting Baldwin’s incredible essays with contemporary issues of racial justice, our class’s conversations have been a great way to discuss some of the major themes and questions raised in Baldwin’s work. I was surprised to discover how proximate and alive Baldwin’s work felt, and it was a privilege to read him especially in 2021. I think I would agree with his description of himself as a prophet— his work seems ahead of his time in many ways, and it’s overwhelmingly clear that there is still so much we can learn from his work.  

As I’ve been editing my final paper, looking into themes of exile and flight in Baldwin’s writing, I have been thinking about our final class discussion sitting outside last week. I remember that Maria brought up the idea of strangerhood that we have discussed throughout the course, and how Baldwin often described himself as a stranger. Maria brought up an interesting question about how Baldwin’s identity as a stranger is imposed in some ways and chosen in others. I think that this is a really valuable lesson that I want to carry with me moving forward from this class. Seeing how Baldwin is deeply relevant to America today, I think that his convictions about love and community are especially meaningful. Over and over, our class has discussed the emphasis that Baldwin placed on love. With the expressions of hate that we have seen all too much in America, even in the few months of this class, Baldwin’s imperative of love and his call to connect with one another is a message that matters for America today— one that I hope will make me a better American, having been influenced by Baldwin. 

A Baldwin Catholic: A Final Personal Reflection on Baldwin and Religion

Over the course of the semester, my friend and I have had a number of conversations about what it means to be a Catholic. Does Catholicism require a belief in every Church teaching, even those that are not said ex cathedra (from the throne of Saint Peter)? Does Catholicism require belief and acquiescence toward everything in the Bible from Genesis through Revelation? Is Joe Biden really a Catholic? It has been interesting to ponder these questions alongside Baldwin who also questions religion and his faith. I think these issues have been a central theme in my blog posts and I want to spend this last post fleshing them out further.

I am Catholic. I entered this course as a Catholic and I will leave this course as a Catholic as well. Yet, in thinking about these questions, I find myself aligning much closer with the Pentecostal-raised but ultimately distant-from-religion Baldwin. In stating my disagreement with some Church approaches to modern issues and defending Joe Biden as a Catholic (a ludicrous claim according to my friend who sees absolute opposition to abortion as a requirement for real Catholicism), I find myself approaching faith the same way as Baldwin—with love at the center. I understand Baldwin’s frustration with organized religion, which uses the Bible for its own means and too often chooses a policy of hate, discrimination, and division rather than love.

I continue to be struck by the scene Baldwin creates on the mantelpiece of the Grimes home in Go Tell It on the Mountain. On one side, the mantelpiece features a flowered motto, which quotes John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” Meanwhile, another part of the mantelpiece features a “malevolent” green metal serpent, its head raised “proudly in the midst of these trophies, biding the time to strike” (Baldwin, 26). This juxtaposition is the heart of Baldwin’s critique of religion. He sees Christ as a symbol of love, ultimate love that offers eternal life. Yet Christianity seems overly focused on the snake compared to the Word. In Baldwin’s time, the Black Church focused too much on the need to renounce the flesh for the sake of the spirit, emphasizing that the body is bad without highlighting what is good. Baldwin also thought about his father, a man whose understanding of love required keeping his children away from the serpent. Yet such love as this underemphasized the love of Christ by withholding true, active love from his children. If Baldwin makes anything clear about religion in his works, it is that Christianity should be about love not fear. Thus, isn’t love all it really takes to follow Christ? I said I am a Catholic and I reaffirm that statement; yet my Catholicity is not about blindly following teaching but centering the Word of Christ, the word of love. In this way, I guess I am a Baldwin Catholic.

Another Blog Post

Initially, I was not very enthusiastic about the idea of writing a blog post and a response every week. It has always felt like forced conversation to me. Every Sunday I would dread the reminder for the blog post that I set on my phone, and wait till the last hour before I would finally sit down to write it. However, my view on the blog posts changed dramatically after I was preparing for my presentation.

I did not know what I should present on. My thoughts were quite scattered, and I needed to do something to streamline them, so that I could pick a topic. I went over my blog posts for Native Son and found that my posts for week 1 and 2 had a common thread – anger. This made it easy for me to find a topic that I could begin researching. 

I feel that anger was an omnipresent thread for me in our readings for this semester. From Native Son, where Bigger is an angry character full of rage against the white people that have oppressed him and anyone else belonging to his race, to Baldwin’s conversation with Audre Lorde that generated anger within me for the way even marginalized men can treat or ignore women, anger was always there. After taking this class, I think my major takeaway has been that even anger can be expressed calmly. In The Dangerous Road Before Martin Luther King Baldwin is clearly angry about the situation that America is in, and how black people from his community have been treated. That is why he is so invested in King and the movement that King is leading. Yet, Baldwin’s essay barely mentions any hate, but talks about his love for the man that is doing his best to fight that very hate. Similarly, Audre Lorde, in her conversation with Baldwin, is angry at the ignorance of black men when it comes to black women. However, she responds to Baldwin’s ignorance calmly, without losing her temper. 

I often hesitate to talk about things that make me angry. The class is called James Baldwin: From the Civil Rights Movement to Black Lives Matter. I have never spoken much with the people around me about Black Lives Matter, simply because it enrages me enough that I think I will not be able to get my point across. After this class, I hope to change that. I feel like I should be able to find a way to coherently express my anger with calm. 

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!

Final Reflection

At the beginning of the semester, I was quite averse to the prospect of writing a weekly blog. However, the exercise was important to my ability to process our assigned readings and to expand the scope of my understanding of the readings through my peers’ blogs. Upon reviewing many, many blog posts, I was reminded of the name of our course: “James Baldwin: From The Civil Rights Movement To Black Lives Matter.”

The name of the course implies that James Baldwin bridges the gap between the civil rights movements of the past and the present. As I reviewed the reflections contained in each blog, I saw more clearly how Baldwin serves as this intertemporal connection. His wisdom, though justifiably subject to criticism by thinkers today (especially feminist and globally-oriented thinkers), holds up quite well. He offers insight for a nation that has both changed dramatically and resisted dramatic change. 

One example of dramatic change that has occurred is the increasing acceptance of queer people, in both the social and legal sphere. Looking back at weeks 4 and 7, I noticed that Baldwin’s fiction writing anticipated important, ongoing conversations in queer theory. His characters capture Sedgwick’s theory of homosociality in Go Tell It On The Mountain and Edelman’s theory of reproductive futurism in Giovanni’s Room. Perhaps most importantly, Baldwin not only anticipated these theories, but his work actually complicates them. His civil rights essays and social commentaries reject the idea that the image of the queer person and the image of the child must exist in tension. 

At the same time, the U.S. has resisted dramatic change in many ways. Even as queer people gain legal recognition, the U.S. continues to suppress Black voters, incarcerate Black and brown people through a privatized prison-industrial complex, underfund predominantly Black schools, etc. etc. etc. These are issues that Baldwin spoke to, and we would do well to listen to him today. Returning to one of our very first readings of the semester, “On Being ‘White’ and Other Lies,” we might ponder how America’s continued oppression of specific communities is part of an ongoing “moral choice” to become white (Baldwin 180). Moreover, we might expand the scope of the question. As the U.S. sends money to Israel and provides the Israeli military with weapons used against indigenous Palestinians, we ought to think about how the U.S. literally globalized oppression. Globalization didn’t merely bring U.S. fashion and technology to the world; the U.S. has exported colonialism, war, and terror. Hence, although Baldwin spoke primarily to Americans as an American, his insights––in many cases––now apply to the world.

The Black Story

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.

The Cost of Whiteness

On Wednesday, the groups presenting on Baldwin and Civil Rights posed the following questions: How are our identities related (Black vs white, male vs female)? Are they interdependent? How so?

In our recent class discussions, we have considered the question: what is the cost of whiteness?

To me, the answers to these questions are quite similar. 

In Bodies That Matter, Judith Butler states the following: “Th[e] exclusionary matrix by which subjects are formed requires the simultaneous production of a domain of abject beings, those who are not yet ‘subjects,’ but who form the constitutive outside to the domain of the subject…This zone of uninhabitability will constitute that site of dreaded identification against which–and by virtue of which–the domain of the subject will circumscribe its own claim to autonomy and to life. In this sense, then, the subject is constituted through the force of exclusion and abjection, one which produces a constitutive outside to the subject, an abjected outside, which is, after all, ‘inside’ the subject as its own founding repudiation” (xiii).

In this excerpt, Butler is describing what it means to exist as a queer, trans, gender nonconforming individual, but I believe her understanding of these unlivable conditions also apply to being Black in America. She describes an articulation of a norm here as inextricably linked to the creation of the abnormal. In fact, she extends this to say that the existence of what is normal is actually reliant upon what is abnormal. Applied here, and in response to the original question posed by this group, I might ask: what would it mean to be Black in a world void of whiteness? Blackness fortifies the regulatory norm of whiteness. Whiteness cannot be without its direct opposition to and distance from Blackness–the abjected, unlivable, uninhabitable position in society. Thus, what whiteness costs is Black lives. Butler may say that the privilege of whiteness makes the site of the materialization of Black bodies devalued and endangered–quite literally not just figuratively, as we see everyday in our society. 

I think Baldwin would agree with this application of Butler. I think he would understand Black bodies as abjected in society, as never existing as the subject but only as the nonsubject that grants the subject livability. 


This semester, we have been able to take a close look at how James Baldwin exposes and challenges the standing mythologies/delusions that literally and figuratively entrap the American people from justice. He challenges Richard Wright’s notion of a nation’s “native son”. He pushes back against the doctrines and practices of American Protestantism in Go Tell It on The Mountain and “Down at the Cross”. He revises the hegemonic image of an “American” through his exploration of the rich WASP character David’s queerness in Giovanni’s Room. And we can see through his engagement with the civil rights movements that he works to challenge the white supremacist historical narrative that propagates AntiBlackness and rewards whiteness. Baldwin does so much work to expose the United States’ iniquities and to call for radical change…so why leave for Paris?

Now, we’ve already talked about this a bit in class, and of course the simple answer is that Baldwin is just human. He is not meant to serve as a martyr for our liberation or out literary exploration. But it is certainly surprising that Baldwin would flee a nation to which he seemed called to bear witness, and for which he hoped to inspire positive change. I’ve sat and thought about this with some peers, and I see two possible ways to understand Baldwin’s move to Paris (in the context of the works that we have read this semester; of course there is so much more to his story than these…)

We can understand his emigration from the US as either Baldwin falling victim to a mythology that other nations in the “Old World” are free from the social consequences of imperialism and slavery. Or maybe…we can understand his emigration as the ultimate surrender to this nation’s fate: doom. I wonder if Baldwin felt that the nation could actually, feasibly, find redemption. I don’t know if I can say I can. After all the intellectual work that Baldwin has done, the issues he wrote of are still real and relevant today! So what do we do? Maybe, we go to Paris?


I am still continuing to try to understand the social and historical context in which Baldwin was living and writing. There are parts of me that understand that he was choosing his words carefully in order to appeal to those of the time, and who he was writing for. And there are the other parts of me that think back to our discussion of revolution and how we cannot change the way America was built if we do not burn everything down, and how there were so many opportunities for Baldwin to do this. I think back to him constantly referring to himself as “strange” or the “stranger” in Paris and how if he would have spoken out about Algeria he might have faced the same backlash that Martin Luther King did when speaking out about the Vietnam War. However, Paris was not his country. As you can see the back and forth that my mind is struggling with on this topic. The issues of the treatment of Black Women was in his country and most of the time a part of the same struggles that he was fighting for, yet the acknowledgement was not there. 

As Professor Kinyon stated last class, it is important that when one is refuting something or making claims, it needs to be based in fact and I am not an expert by any means, I acknowledge that. However, there is some truth in the way that Baldwin’s conversation and his portrayal of Black women has made me feel. I also understand the idea of representation and that the women he was writing about were products of their time, but given the freedom of artistic choice when writing your own novels, I begin to question one’s true intention. Again, I am not an expert in the slightest and am being affected by the power of hindsight and I fully acknowledge that. I will continue to do the research I had started for my paper and presentation and will continue to keep an open mind and understand that one never stops learning.