The Path of the Righteous (pt2)

As you might remember, a senior member of the English Department visited the classroom earlier this semester to evaluate my teaching. Ironically, considering the conversation we had on Monday, that evaluation went well. And as I mentioned previously, the same model that I have used this semester has worked extremely well previously for this course (both at ND and the previous institution that I taught at). And yet, there’s a way that what works for some, might not work for others. And so I am committed to making adjustments. I also revealed a vulnerability with the class that may or may not be useful to our professor/student relationship. We shall see. 

In thinking about how we might approach the rest of our time in the classroom, I went to the statements that I have written about teaching in general. I am not sure how much you know about the work that your professors do, but we are regularly evaluated and consistently asked to write statements on our teaching, research, and service. This process is especially significant to junior faculty, such as myself, as these statements are one of the ways in which we are evaluated by senior members of the academy. For people of color, especially for women of color, there are often gaps between how they are viewed by their collogues and how they are viewed by their students. And yet, looking at my teaching statements, I am also realizing that there can also be a gap between what I set out to accomplish in the classroom, and the success of that initial goal. 

In my classes, I lean on the discursive; that is to say that I attempt to elicit responses from students with open ended questions so that the conversation will flow freely. The emphasis on classroom discourse as a key component of how I lead students towards understanding the material we are engaging has historically developed into productive discussions on difficult topics.  At times we have experienced the highs of this teaching method, while at other times it has been a challenge to keep the conversation going. I also think it is important to link the discursive to the experiential; meaning that in the conversations that we do have I work to connect the written to the lived. I am sucker for my kid (as you all know by now) and I often use our dynamic or experiences that I have had with her or even personal experiences that I have had to make what we are learning more real. That is to say, the experiences Baldwin writes about nearly sixty years ago are still relevant in my life in 2021. Yet all of this—my goals, desires, plans—do not matter if the students are not learning (or if they do not feel as if they are not learning). 

While your ultimate goal as a student might be getting good grades, as a professor, I actually wish grades did not exist. Instead of doing well and getting As, my focus is always on student growth. Asking questions outweighs having answers. Exceling from my perspective is knowing more about the subject on day 30 then you did on day one. Showing up is half the battle, full participation is the other. And yet I have to admit there has been a shift in the classroom post-2020. I am not sure if the shift has more to do with George Floyd and the confrontation of race relations in America, or if it has more to do with post pandemic trauma (or perhaps both?). But in many ways the classroom seems to be a more combative (right word?? Hostile?) space rather than a space of full experimentation. 

I called my mom after our class Monday (yes, I still talk to my mother regularly) and she mentioned something quite helpful. She asked me if I had called or talked to any of my Jewish friends about what’s happening in Israel right now. I gave her a resounding NOPE. She said, to think about the students from that perspective. You love your friends, and yet you are unwilling to engage in a conversation with them that might not have the best outcome. She said, that the students might feel similarly to discussing race in a racially diverse classroom. Mommies rule =)

In Baldwin’s “A Letter to My Nephew,” he writes that 

You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released.

These are the days that the goal of loving in the face of racism seems so difficult. It is what Baldwin wants each of us to learn from, and yet I wonder how do we love unconditionally when we feel vulnerable and threatened? 

Personally, I feel as if the Trump presidency created our current inflammatory political climate and that he has actively participated and encouraged the increase of anti-semitism and anti-Black racism. How do I love him? How do I even respect him as a former statesman? 

Black people are being killed by police officers without the opportunity of due process under the law. How do I love their murderers? How do Black lives matter in the face of unconditional love?

In relation to this class more specifically, we read Baldwin to understand that love is an active political position in times of crisis. Baldwin suggests that each of us love as a way to not only to heal race relations but to solve them. 

I keep hoping for that solution. And yet each year, it becomes more difficult. But I stay the course. I read. I teach Baldwin. I teach race in America. 


In the teens of the twenty-first century both James Baldwin and Martin Luther King Jr have been resurrected. Proponents of love, both men are actively being reread and researched again. King has been revived in popular media productions such as “Return of the King” and From the Mountaintop. And as each of you know, th 2016 documentary on Baldwin, I am Not your Negro, has renewed interest in Baldwin. At a time of increased violence and visible racism it is not surprising that the lives and work of both men are actively being parsed, debated, and studied. They preached love; King from the pulpit and Baldwin from the page. 

As for me, I don’t know about the philosophy of love. But I am trying. I am trying. 

The Purpose of Defending Bigger

Richard Wright’s Native Son portrays the most horrific crimes of Bigger Thomas. The narration of the novel is so gruesome that I had to put down the book multiple times because of how difficult it was to continue reading what had occurred. While it is true that Bigger raped and killed his girlfriend, Bessie, it is unclear if he raped the white character Mary before accidentally killing her. The narrator makes it clear that Bigger was already afraid of bringing the highly intoxicated only daughter of the Dalton family into the house because of the racial differences between them which may lead to unimaginable conclusions. While there is an underlying suggestion that Bigger sexually assaulted Mary bringing her into her room with a moment of osculation and unnecessary groping before her blind mother comes in, that is the only extent to which the interaction went (if we are led to believe the narrator). If this is true, then we must note that this is not rape but sexual assault. In the trial, there was much debate about whether Bigger raped Mary before she died bringing Bessie as an object of evidence that Bigger is capable of such horrendous actions. While this caused a lot of controversy, I continue to believe the narrator’s retelling of the events, mainly because there is no reason to think otherwise. The narrator in any other setting had not misinterpreted the happenings of the plot as they were occurring. So then, why would a lawyer be willing to defend the atrocities of this man? I think this is the point of the novel. If you recall the interrogations of Bigger, you can see how much the legal proceedings were stacked against him. The prosecutor attempted to falsify a different narrative against Bigger: he was the perpetrator behind the killings of six other people, he was a serial killer, he raped more people, but, as we know, THIS DID NOT OCCUR. Bigger was not the mastermind behind other criminal activity, even though the detective said they had evidence and a witness behind the other offenses. I still believe the killing of Mary was an accident. Bigger did not want to get caught bringing Mary into her room, so he covered her face to minimize the noise without noticing he was suffocating her. After this first homicide, it took Bigger into a spiral. I agree that his further actions have no defense, rape is an atrocious thing, but the point of this novel is to outline the injustices against the Black man and the cruelty of the justice system put against each other.

“No one has ever died of love” (268)

That sentence struck me as particularly interesting, because it seemed counterintuitive to a lot of Baldwin’s thoughts on love. The confusion, hatred, shame, and desperation surrounding love, particularly at a young age, seems to contradict this sentiment, especially as they are expressed in Baldwin’s writing. Most of the conflict in Giovanni’s Room is centered on romantic love, and how it negatively affects the characters and their subsequent misery. After meeting Giovanni, the narrator is “utterly, hopelessly, horribly glad” (pg 254). The shame associated with the narrator’s immediate feelings for Giovanni is evident. Similarly, the narrator says “we simply stared at each other–with dismay, with relief, breathing hard” (pg 273) in describing he and Giovanni’s love and lust. The dual nature of shame and joy are rife in Baldwin’s descriptions of the narrator’s feelings towards Giovanni. Finally, it is heavily implied that love led to the events that caused Giovanni’s death. It seems plenty of people have died because of love, in stories and in real life. Love leaves many people miserable. But the deeper meaning of Jacques’ statement prevails. Feeling love has not killed anyone (generally, I guess exceptions could still be made). Love repressed, unaccepted, persecuted, or unspoken has led to pain, suffering, and death, but unrequited love has not. 

That sentence emphasizes Baldwin’s struggles with acceptance of his sexuality, love, and identity. Ambiguity and uncertainty lead to repression, fear, and shame, and the sense of those feelings pervade part one of Giovanni’s Room. The narrator’s own engagement to Hella, his disgust and reliance on Jacques, Giovanni’s dislike of Guillaume, and even the charade of practiced conversation in the bars all reflect the ambiguous, uncertain, and overbearing sense of fear in the novel. It seems logical therefore that Baldwin’s ultimate conclusion to these feelings is accepting love, not hiding it, repressing it, or fearing it. As Baldwin repeats numerously throughout his writings and interviews, accepting life is imperative to being human. The roots of this conclusion are very clear in Giovanni’s Room alongside Baldwin’s personal experiences with homosexuality and religion, but I think Toibin also makes a good point in referencing Baldwin’s influence from English and Lost Generation writers because a major emphasis of those writers is loss of innocence. Baldwin’s version of loss of innocence takes place a bit later in life and focuses more on the deeper, darker parts of human experience and the shame that accompanies them. For Baldwin, growing up is accompanied by a schism in identity, a battle between how he sees himself and how he feels. This lack of understanding and lack of acceptance leads to shame, guilt, and fear, and the ultimate answer is to, as Baldwin puts it, accept life and accept being human.

“Terrifying Single-Mindedness”

In “Down at the Cross” and in the film I Am Not Your Negro, there is a complex discussion and presentation of what it is like being Black in a predominantly white society. In “Down at the Cross” especially, there is a clearer image of Baldwin’s views and critiques of white supremacy concerning “the Negro Problem.” When Baldwin began to explore the Black and Negro experience and the issues of race and identity in the United States he noticed that Black people were openly weeping about the oppression they faced yet they were “unable to say what it was that oppressed them except that they knew it was ‘the man’ – the white man” (Baldwin p. 298). Baldwin called this a “terrifying single-mindedness” (Baldwin p. 297). I believe using the phrase “terrifying single-mindedness” underscores the depth of Black people’s feelings about their inferiority and what it is like to live in a world that debases them. It suggests that the determination and intense focus of the Black community to combat their white oppressors is frightening and extreme and to Baldwin, very unsettling. 

In this critique of the way Black people navigate white positions and power in America, I found that Baldwin was denouncing the Black experience by suggesting that their intense focus on achieving their goal and liberation was terrifying. The white culture and white superiority that dominates society has and continues to limit opportunities for many Black Americans. Whites reinforce and perpetuate the stereotypes and disadvantages of Black Americans by not only basing their identity on black inferiority but by maintaining their power and superior societal position so that Blacks cannot reach their status and so that they can maintain theirs. There are so many other things related to issues of race in the United States that support this argument. For example, as was shown in the film I Am Not Your Negro, the killings and beatings of Black men, police brutality, intentional discrimination and segregation, and more which all persist today. I feel as though this is more terrifying than the “single-mindedness” of Black people seeking equality and liberation. 

I cannot agree with Baldwin’s view of Black individuals operating on the knowledge that it was the white man who was oppressing them as a “terrifying single-mindedness” (Baldwin p. 297). White people have treated Blacks horribly, and Baldwin has demonstrated this therefore in my eyes, I think Black people are justified in separating themselves from the whites that have separated themselves from them for so long and have the right to be so extreme in their goal to seek liberation and equality from the white oppressors. While the importance of being partial is definitely a great thing for society, which Baldwin appears to be stressing in “Down at the Cross”, promoting the idea to the Black community that what they feel about the white man, their desire to separate, and their unwavering dedication to freeing themselves from their oppressors are single-minded and terrifying, in my opinion, diminishes their experiences and their objective.

America at a Crossroads

As I flip through the Chicago news channels all reporting on the murder of a 6-year-old Palestinian-American boy stabbed 26 times by his landlord amidst the outbreak of war in Israel all while I am sitting on my couch during fall break, I cannot help but be reminded of James Baldwin’s warning to America nearly 50 years ago. While he focused primarily on white and Black race relations, what I perceive to be his greater concern regarding a lack of love in our country closely relates to this horrific event and other hate crimes like it. I believe Baldwin is undoubtedly timeless in his writing style; however, he has also been made timeless (and arguably unfortunately so) by the content of his writing. By this I mean that the issues and goals Baldwin enunciated in his various works are far from achieved, namely his call for some form of national love and brotherhood that transcends all violence and hate. 

I found the parallels between contemporary America and the America Baldwin wrote about to be made most evident by the existentialist theme of “Down at the Cross” and I Am Not Your Negro. In “Down at the Cross,” Baldwin argues, “He [the Black man] is the key figure in his country, and the American future is precisely as bright or dark as his… Hence the question: Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?” (340). In a similar vein, he later writes, “In short, we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation” (342). In both of these statements, Baldwin contextualizes the problem of racial bigotry in a greater conversation about nation-building, contending that the strength and longevity of our country, currently a “burning house,” as a whole hinge upon our ability to end the discrimination and hate towards Black Americans. Relatedly, in I Am Not Your Negro, Baldwin’s efforts to connect the future of our nation with the relationship between Black and white Americans become even clearer. In the film he is quoted saying “No kingdom can maintain itself by force alone.” Though this statement was used in direct reference to police brutality, another issue emerging from America’s problem with race that persists today, Baldwin’s underlying call for love and existentialist concern for the future of his country, said “kingdom,” shine through. That is, the current violent path America is on is not sustainable; something else must be present to save our country– love. In sum, both of these works depict America at a crossroads, one that it has not entirely departed from today. For this reason, and despite this dreary picture of America, Baldwin’s words of hope, “If we do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world,” also still ring true today should we choose to finally heed them (347). 

Esther and Deborah 

Go Tell It on the Mountain and the Bible

Gabriel’s relationship with the women in his past life is representative of how he believes in the lack of agency of women. He resents Esther for embodying his sexual desires in contrast to Deborah who is marginalized for her barrenness. Gabriel views Esther as a symbol of sin and temptation. Although she gives birth to his son, Royal, whom he is a stranger to, Gabriel cannot see Esther other than a woman sent to disrupt his holiness. In the Bible, Esther was living in exile before becoming a queen and Baldwin pulls from this narrative. Esther in Go Tell It on the Mountain is treated nothing like a queen but does live in exile from Gabriel to the point where he doesn’t even know his son. Further, Gabriel does not tell Deborah that Royal is his son, even though she knows. Deborah is depicted in complete contrast to Esther. She is characterized as a godly woman who represents all good parts of the church. In the Bible, Deborah is characterized as a judge and/or prophet. On her deathbed, Deborah conveys to Gabriel that she would’ve taken care of him. It didn’t matter to her that he wasn’t her child. This final judgment is indicative of how much Deborah was watching the people around her, especially Gabriel. While she may not resent Gabriel for his lies, she warns him that God is also watching him and that he should atone for his sins before it gets too late. This sort of prophetic warning is reflective in the way Gabriel treats John. He has not learned that the way he treats his children will have consequences. Esther and Deborah do not let Gabriel control their views on Royal or their life. Although he may condemn Deborah for not being able to have any children or Esther for being a “harlot”, he is judged more for his actions than anyone else in the novel. One can only wonder if Gabriel has limited control over his emotions and actions than he chooses to reveal. His own self hatred might be masked by the way he treats his children, especially John.

Elizabeth & John

I found the Go Tell it on the Mountain connections to the Bible to be interesting. The connection to John and Elizabeth from the Bible proves a similar relationship in that the mother and son share in the Bible is an interesting comparison as well. John was a gift from the angel Gabriel, to Elizabeth who is an older woman and should not be able to have any more children. Yet, in the book, the story is slightly different.

John was born of shame. John, a child who did not ask to be born, was born out of wedlock to a mother who tried her best to raise him. I believe that the decision to marry Gabriel is the last chance she has to live a life of hope. Yet, I also find this interesting because in the Bible, Gabriel is meant to be giving Elizabeth a gift and yet in Go Tell It…, Gabriel is the one who hates John the most. John, who could resemble John the Baptist is seen as the Devil incarnate through Gabriel’s eyes. Yet, John is meant to be this bright star who tells the word of God throughout the Bible, he preaches about Jesus and spreads the Good Word throughout the nation.

I think that the reason Elizabeth and John were named this was because of the stories in the Bible. It is a beautiful story about a gift from God, which is how Elizabeth viewed John at least in the end. Yet, he was not viewed as that by everyone. As well, as the fact that John was reborn at the end of the book. This to me, solidified him with the identity of John the Baptist. He was finally able to be viewed by others as he felt to his core. AS though he was one with God and that is what mattered the most to him.

I Am Not Your Negro

The film I Am Not Your Negro brings to life Baldwin’s thirty page manuscript of what was going to be his work titled, “Remember This House”. Baldwin’s narration of the work throughout the documentary humanizes the text and complements the visuals. There are several noteworthy moments in the film that deserve attention. The first is Baldwin’s commentary on how black people are portrayed in the media in comparison to white people, specifically film. Baldwin describes how white men are portrayed as heroes, whereas black men are depicted as criminals. He states that he “despised and feared those heroes” and that “his countrymen were his enemies.” Another notable moment is when Baldwin separates himself from the Black Panther Party, the church, and the NAACP. His reasons being that he doesn’t think all white people are evil, the church doesn’t practice the commandment of loving thy neighbor, and that the NAACP enforces classism among the black community. By distinguishing himself apart from these groups he establishes himself as a self-fashioning individual that is not easily polarized by the media as Malcolm X or Martin Luther King Jr. were. After reading Go Tell It On the Mountain, it is clear that Baldwin wants to separate himself from hate that is fueling America during the time of the Civil Rights Movement. Despite this being an effect of his moral compass, Baldwin’s desire to not subscribe to any of those groups was a marketable choice. It made him palatable to a white audience, which is why I think we see him in several talk shows. Another significant part of the film is when he describes himself as the “The Great Black Hope of the Great White Father.” His criticism of his role as an influential figure of black hope amongst the assassinations of Malcolm X, King, and Levers, is substantial because it allows the viewer to realize that despite movements for anti-racism, America was still extremely racist. It didn’t matter if Baldwin was “The Great Black Hope of the Great White Father” if countless black people were still being killed.

The Haunting of the Bible

As someone who comes from a ‘spiritual’ (my personal definition of the term is similar to agnostic) but not necessarily religious (which I define as closely observing and practicing one religion) I definitely was able to grasp that there was a religious meaning to Go Tell it on the Mountain, but I wasn’t even able to grasp an ounce of how intertwined this text was with the Bible until our in class activity.

Not only was I shocked to see how nearly every line in the Bible has influence on every line in Go Tell it on the Mountain, but I was shocked to see how it moved and followed our characters. While there are obvious parallels like Esther in the Bible and Esther in the novel both serving as temptresses attempting to ascend to a higher status symbol in their respective communities (for Biblical Esther this is the King, novel Esther this is Gabriel) that doesn’t necessarily mean that the entirety of Gabriel’s character is based off of the King or that Esther solely holds her character in Biblical Esther with her temptation (sex) mirrors the relationship we see with Adam and his eating of the apple. Additionally we also see our characters anxieties, which I identify as conflicts between their Biblical origins being put in contrast with their lived lives. A key component in this idea for me was John, a young person in formation, might not have a direct Biblical figure he parallels consistently throughout the novel which is why his anxieties around a variety of topics including masturbation for example aren’t tied necessarily to a person but rather a teaching, in this case Leviticus 15;4-6 which outlines a man with discharge as “unclean”. And further more obvious parallels with John and his frustration/anxiety/difficulty as he processes his sexuality.

My biggest question for our characters, namely John, is how conscious the impact of church teachings are for him as he navigates life and comes into his own? Does he draw the connection between church life and his own as an active one or because of Gabriel, a man who spearheads both religion and family are they one and the same?