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.
In the presentations this week, I came across a quote from a Rhonda Lois Blumberg’s Women in the Civil Rights Revolution: Reform or Revolution? that was referenced. It read, “[d]espite the active participation of women in revolutionary movements, feminist impulses that surface are usually considered secondary to the ‘main’ battle and are not allowed to interfere with it. The stirrings of feminism, within the civil rights movement were considered divisive.” (Blumberg 137) This really made me think beyond the civil rights movement in America over to any struggle or movement, by the oppressed, that I have heard of. Women are always last. It is always a fight for independence that the said oppressed – men and women – work together towards achieving this goal. After overcoming multiple hardships, when independence from the oppressor is achieved, men get all the rights, but women need to continue their struggle to further achieve the rights that they helped the men achieve. This sad truth seems to be a pattern. In India, when the country gained independence from the British Raj, after two hundred years of struggle, the men could have some respite, but the women had to continue their struggle. The British, took the convenient and non-controversial route and did not take a decision on female suffrage. It is after the Montagu – Chelmsford reforms that women were granted the right to vote. These discussions took place before India formally became independent, which meant that the time period for women to achieve this goal was relatively shorter to that in other countries. In the US, it took nearly a hundred years for women to achieve this feat. The fact that women, in so many culturally and geographically different situations are ignored to a point where their rights are seen as a secondary issue is a problem I fail to understand the root of. How did the phenomenon of male superiority come about at different times across the world, in vastly different contexts? And why was it ever okay?
Reading Baldwin’s conversation with Audrey Lorde really changed my perception of him. As a girl from New Delhi, India, now deemed the rape capital of the world, I have grown up in an environment where I was taught to subconsciously watch each step I take. I was taught to take the longer route and go around a car standing on the street so no one could pull me inside, or to walk with my elbows sticking out in a crowded market so that no man could brush past me. This is why women’s safety and women’s rights hold a very significant place in my mind. In his conversation with Audrey Lorde, there comes a point where Baldwin questions, “you don’t realize that in this republic the only real crime is to be a black man?” To which Lorde responds saying, “[n]o, I don’t realize that. I realize the only crime is to be black, and that includes me too.” In this moment, my perception of Baldwin changed. How can someone, who has been marginalized his entire life, written about the evils of marginalizing others be so ignorant? Before reading this text, I thought of Baldwin as a civil rights advocate for equality. After reading this exchange, I do not think he ever understood the need for equality among all genders. The fact that he forgot about the only other gender more marginalized than him shows his ignorance. As a man, though queer, Baldwin still has more agency than a woman of the same race as his. He is not bound to anyone for economic reasons and is financially independent. He does not have to live in the additional fear of being raped or sexually harassed in any way by a white or a black man, inside or outside his house. The fact that Baldwin needs a reminder of the existence of black women and their status in society, after seeing everything his mother had to go through in his formative years as she gave birth to one child after another, speaks volumes about the superiority of a black man versus a black woman in society at the time. Sadly, even now, women have to say the words “me too” to get their grievances across.
Megan, in her presentation last week, spoke about Foucault and power in Giovanni’s Room. She mentions that “the power that David holds and does employ actually works towards his own oppression. Thus, it is not in spite of his power but because of his power that David experiences a sort of ‘death’ in Giovanni’s Room.” Before this presentation, I was unaware of Foucault’s idea of power not being autocratic or liberating, but being another form of oppression. I saw this in Baldwin’s Going to Meet the Man as well. Jesse’s power is derived from his memory of the castration of a black man, which is an incident that makes him think of himself, a white man, as superior to a black man. This power is bestowed upon Jessie by this incident and through society that believes a white man is superior to a black man. Power really becomes a form of oppression for Jessie, because without thinking about it, he cannot do something as simple as make love to his wife. He is a slave to this power which oppresses him. When a black man in jail is singing to him, disobeying Jessie’s command, Jessie cannot help but beat the man up, to retain his mental superiority. Additionally, this power consumes his life to the extent that he cannot stop thinking about it even when he is trying to fall sleep. It is only after recalling a hate crime against a black man that Jessie can get an erection. Baldwin writes that Jessie “thought of the morning and grabbed her, laughing and crying, crying and laughing, and he whispered, as he stroked her, as he took her, ‘Come on, sugar, I’m going to do you like a nigger, just like a nigger, come on, sugar, and love me just like you’d love a nigger.’” (Baldwin 348) Jessie is oppressed by his power over black people because it consumes his life, in the day and in the night.
ThroughoutGoing to Meet the Man, there is a certain contrast between love and hate. I found it interesting that Baldwin chooses to tell this tale of horrifying hatred during the act of lovemaking was performed. Jessie is unable to get an erection, which is when he recounts an incidence of extreme hatred towards a black man. This gruesome tale of a black man getting mutated and lynched by the white public is told without paying much attention to what action the man did to deserve this inhumane treatment. Baldwin writes that Jessie “beg[ins] to feel a joy he had never felt before. He watche[s] the hanging, gleaming body, the most beautiful and terrible object he had ever seen till then.” (Baldwin 335) The joy is contrasted with the hatred which has caused the “hanging” body. This contrast allows the reader to really feel disgusted at the white man who is turned on by this hate. It makes the story more impactful for me because Jessie does not find anything wrong with the joy he is receiving after seeing such heinous treatment. It makes me despise this white man, who represents the general white male population at that time. Baldwin also contrasts love and hate when he points out that “at that moment Jesse loved his father more than he had ever loved him.” (Baldwin 336) Jessie’s love for his father stems from his father introducing him to the hatred which he carries with him in his adulthood.
In his adulthood, when Jessie cannot get an erection, he finally gets one by recounting the story of a black man getting lynched. Jessie “[thinks] of the morning and grab[s] her, laughing and crying, crying and laughing, and he whisper[s], as he stroke[s] her, as he [takes] her, [and says] “Come on, sugar, I’m going to do you like a nigger, just like a nigger, come on, sugar, and love me just like you’d love a nigger.” (Baldwin 338) He is turned on by hate and then makes love to his wife. Yet, he only thinks about a white mob lynching a black man. Not only is the act of lovemaking made possible because of hate towards the black population, but even during the act of lovemaking Jessie does not think about his wife, and thinks about the lynching. He is literally in love with hate.
The contrast between love and hate makes the readers despise Jessie as it reveals his personality which involves only unreasonable hatred to his core, even while lovemaking.
Baldwin published Giovanni’s Roomin 1956. However, the society that I grew up in seems to have barely progressed since then. A lot of what Baldwin mentions in Giovanni’s Room, I feel, is still valid for the Indian society today. I will not really touch upon American society in this blog post, since I feel that I have a very narrow and surface level view of it which stems from merely watching or reading the news or living in the “Notre Dame bubble.” The men in Guillaume’s Bar are not very fond of David. Baldwin writes that the men at the bar “could not, somehow, speak to us as they spoke to one another, and they resented the strain we imposed on them of speaking in any other way. And it made them furious that the dead center of their lives was, in this instance, none of their business.” (Baldwin 119) Sadly, this reminds me of the country I grew up in, and the people I grew up around. A famous comedian once described India as the country of the white people of the brown people. In South-East Asia, India is touted to be the most developed and progressive country in general. It was among the first to decriminalize gay couples and people of the same gender having sex (yes, there was an old law against it which the British had created.) However, the country I grew up in now seems very homophobic to me. Just like the people at the bar in Giovanni’s Room, my teachers shamed a boy in my class. They told him that he was “too effeminate” and my family members made sure to pass a demeaning comment towards anyone on the TV that remotely fit the gay stereotype. The attitude of the people at the Bar in Baldwin’s novel highlights how the Indian society is still stuck where Paris was in 1956. People are still uncomfortable around same sex couples and make the couples feel like they are different in a negative way as they do not conform. Same sex couples in India, are sadly made to feel like they are separate and the “other” part of society which must not be spoken about positively. This makes Giovanni’s Room still relevant towards the Indian society. However, the question is when will such a novel become irrelevant to current times?
I found all the presentations this week interesting, but I particularly enjoyed the one on strangerhood the most. Strangerhood presents the idea of always feeling a sense of not belonging in one’s environment, and just being a stranger. I found this concept being related to Go Tell it on the Mountain interesting because it was something we had discussed during Native Son, and I did not think of the concept of strangerhood in John’s life before the presentations. Seeing the presentation made the connection of John constantly being aware of his strangerhood very obvious. I do wish I had also connected the dots and thought about this earlier. Now, when I think about Go Tell it on the Mountain in light of John’s strangerhood, I think John strangerhood is first clearly stated when Baldwin writes that “the darkness of his sin was in the hardheartedness with which he resisted God’s power.” (Baldwin 31) Here, John feels guilty for not fully taking part in the church and following what he has been told are the church’s teachings. At the same time, he is resistant to accept God’s power, which he has been told, can save him. John has been brought up around the church and its teachings. If he feels guilty for not accepting what he has been taught all his life, by the institution which is supposed to represent the almighty which he must pray to, then he is a stranger to the environment in which he has been raised. Like Bigger, no one in his house really understands him and his thought process. Clearly, John’s strangerhood is a representation of Baldwin’s, which was touched upon in the presentation. Baldwin left everything, including his family, behind in America and moved to France because he was a stranger in the country in which he was brought up. He felt unsafe, from the white folks that he had seen all his life, in his motherland. Since he moved to France, with barely any acquaintances there, he was a stranger there as well.
The only thing that I ever managed to retain from my mandatory Theology class at Notre Dame, is, somehow, Genesis I. I do not know why this is what I remember after four months of learning about the Bible, but on further thought, I feel it is the most universal thing in the Bible that I could relate to. The idea of creation is something each individual belonging to any religion has pondered upon at some point. As human beings, we are created by our parents. Each religion talks about a different God or power that created the Earth and all its wonders. Even an atheist has a scientific or another theory of how the world he or she has come to live in was created. It is because of this universality of the idea of creation that Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountainis relatable. I found John’s story in Go Tell It on the Mountainvery similar to Genesis I. Genesis I states that
“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And, God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.” (Genesis 1:1)
John’s tale is of the creation or the building of his faith. Earlier, he had a void which contained information about faith, given to him by his father. Later, he processes that information and realizes he must discover the reality of faith himself. The darkness of his father’s thoughts and behavior covered John’s life. However, A wind, or understanding of God, swept over him, towards the end of the book, which illuminated his mind and freed him from his darkness. The darkness was no longer a concern since he had been enlightened about faith. John says that “no matter what happens to me, where I go, what folks say about me, no matter what anybody says, you remember—please remember—I was saved. I was there.” (Baldwin 356) In this moment, John is has a wind that sweeps his dark thoughts away and he is illuminated about God and saved from making the darkness in his life his main concern.
After Julian’s presentation this week, I spent some time thinking about the expression of fear and its relation to the expression of anger in James Baldwin and Richard Wright’s work. Julian spoke about the quote from Baldwin on Native Son, where he points out that “[a]ll of Bigger’s life is controlled, defined by his hatred and fear. And later, his fear drives him to murder and his hatred to rape” (Baldwin, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” 18). I do not think that it is hatred that drives Bigger to rape. I think it is the sense of freedom, mixed with anger which is instilled within him out of fear, drives Bigger to rape. Bigger is taught since childhood to live in fear of the white men who control his life through their decisions. He is afraid of robbing the white man’s store, but not of robbing a black man. This fear creates anger within him, which has been built up all his life. Suddenly, Bigger experiences a sense of freedom which he has never felt before. After killing Mary, he thinks that he cannot be caught. He has never really made a choice in his life, they have always been made by the white people for him. He wanted to be a pilot, but the white men would not allow a person of his color to get admission in flying school. If he cannot get the job which he wants, he is reduced to resort to stealing from other black men. And, he is made to live on a certain side of Chicago, because the white men have decided that it is where the African American people can live. Over time, there is anger against the world which is built up in Bigger. Not only against the white men, but all the blacks that follow the white men’s lead and allow the white men to make decisions for themselves. Murdering Mary is Bigger’s first self-made decision. The new-found freedom and anger against the world make him think he can do whatever he wishes to. He likes the rush he gets from making his own decisions. I believe, that is why he rapes and murders Bessie.
Society puts Bigger through a lot of hardships simply because of the color of his skin. He is restricted from applying to flying school because it is meant for the white folks. He must live on a certain side of Chicago, which is separate from where the lighter skinned people live. And, he has to listen to his mother’s constant bickering about how useless he is. It seems like Bigger is stuck in a trap created for him. He begins his journey as a small-time crook who steals from stores with his friends, because he has been told all his life that his opportunities are restricted due to the color of his skin. He tries to get out of this trap and create a better life for himself, and his family, by taking a job he is qualified for and serving white people. Yet, he ends up worse off and becomes a murderer and a rapist. It seems that Wright is trying to argue that the criminal Bigger is a creation of society which has undermined his race and forced him to become someone who ends up in jail. However, I think it is not just society, but Bigger’s dramatic nature which turned him into a criminal.
Bigger seems to be a man who loves drama. Native Son begins with a dramatic scene where everyone in the apartment is trying to catch a rat. All the people in that scene are of the same color, they belong to the same family, and have the same financial problems. Yet, it is Bigger who sees himself as the rat being chased around by society just trying to run away. Not move forward, but away. Bigger is the rat with “black beady eyes glittering, [his] tiny forefeet pawing the air restlessly.” It is because he sees a reflection of himself, that Bigger’s swing of the skillet is a tad late and he first misses the rat. No one else in that room identifies themselves as the rat. He is also rude to his mother who only wants what is best for him – a job. Even if Bigger does not want the job, he can say so politely or just hear what she has to say and not reply while continuing to do his own thing. But, he replies to every insult and advice with arrogance, and even his little sister has to intervene at times. His love for drama is also evident when he creates a plan to rob a store, gets afraid of doing so, and then blames Gus for being afraid to rob it. His treatment of Gus is unnecessary, but Bigger likes to create a scene. He humiliates Gus, instead of just letting him go. If Bigger wanted, he could have ended the drama there. Yet, he “slashed [Doc’s] table and dared him to use his gun.” His love for drama in his life pushes him to become the worst possible version of himself.
It is because of Bigger’s love for drama around him that he constantly creates it, and then becomes a victim of his own creation. He does not need to drop Mary to her room, or kill her. Bigger’s a man with a flair for drama. He takes one dramatic step after the other, and eventually spirals down to becoming a murderer.