Baldwin Enters the 313 Common Room: Final Reflections

One of the best things about having friends who all study their different passions is having nightly debriefing sessions about the day’s revelations. It became our routine while doing homework in the evenings to listen to what each other learned during the day and share what is currently fascinating us in our studies. We each listen attentively as the Pre-Med explains the structure of a liver, ask the Mendoza for updates about the newest brand management theory, and tune in to the latest detailed lecture on beer fermentation from the Bio-Chem. I don’t know if any other English Majors have attempted to explain gender constructions, queer theory, or racial politics to STEM friends…but it’s an interesting conversation, to say the least. Since they aren’t used to having scholarly, liberal arts-based discussions on social justice issues, they were initially hesitant to join in because they felt they lacked the right words to talk about issues of race, gender, class, etc.

Enter James Baldwin. I’ve always felt that fiction can help us make sense of the world around us and give us the opportunity to have hard conversations rooted in storytelling. I found myself giving my friends brief summaries of the novels we read in class and used them as a starting place to ask them questions we brought up in class. I read them the movie theatre scene from Native Son, and this evolved into a very heated rant about the absurdity of strip clubs, followed by a discussion on homosociality. I practiced my group presentation in front of them and we had a really honest conversation about biblical arguments against homosexuality that we’ve either heard used against ourselves or were taught in Catholic school. We had a great talk about the word “queer,” how some of us identified or did not identify with the term, and the general liberation we’ve found with the removal of labels on our identities. Reading them an excerpt from The Price of the Ticket resulted in my friend in Irish Studies and I having a great debate on what it means to be white and how the historical persecution of Irish people resulted in the adoption of whiteness in America. I also asked my Colombian roommate about her experiences with binary Black and white racial categories. She told me stories about having to ask her parents if she was white or Black, all the times she’s changed her answer on census questions over the years, and her decision in recent years to switch to the “Other” box.

This course allowed me to have amazing classroom discussions and foster personal growth. However, Baldwin also helped me connect with my friends in ways I hadn’t felt able to before and gave me the confidence to start initiating challenging conversations with those around me. I’ll certainly be taking Baldwin’s message of love and the confidence to speak his truth with me in the years to come.

James Baldwin and Progress

I found myself looking back at Baldwin’s writing in light of the recent conviction of Derek Chauvin. There have been several discussions in the media about the unprecedented nature of the trial, the verdict, and the general activism shown in the height of the Black Lives Matter movement over the summer. Chauvin was the first white Minnesota police officer to be convicted of murdering a black person and his guilty verdict stands out in a legacy of acquittals in the cases of Rodney King, Antwon Rose Jr., Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, and so many others. This exceptionalism creates tension between seeing hopeful, new instances of progress and asking the never-ending question: Why is this still happening?

Baldwin’s writing is still needed today to help us frame progress and question success in modern social justice movements. Baldwin pushes against the idea of linear progress and reminds readers of on-going hardships that continue even with social advancement. In “The Price of the Ticket,” Baldwin writes, “Yes: we have lived through avalanches of tokens and concessions but white power remains white. And what is appears to surrender with one hand it obsessively clutches in the other” (839). This becomes especially complicated when white people believe we have achieved peak racial progress and have entered a “post-racial utopia,” completed with the first Black president and Notre Dame’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee.

Baldwin cautions against this early celebration writing, “They congratulate themselves and expect to be congratulated… not only that my burden is (slowly, but it takes time) being made lighter but my joy that white people are improving…My black burden has not, however, been made lighter in the sixty years since my birth or the nearly forty years since the first essay in this collection was published and my joy, therefore, as concerns the immense strides made by white people is, to say the least, restrained” (839). Baldwin understands that although these victories deserve to be celebrated and used as a model for further activism, they cannot be used to ignore problems that remain. Baldwin’s work should not be by present-day readers just to compare how much better off we are today, but rather used to also acknowledge how history repeats itself, how humanity jumps from one convoluted web of issues to another, and how things may look very different, but underneath hatred can stay largely the same. In a letter to his nephew, Baldwin attempts to convey this reality and prepare his nephew for the fight that is far from over. He writes that, “your countrymen have caused you to be born under conditions that are not far removed from those described for us by Charles Dickens in the London of more than a hundred years ago (I hear the chorus of the innocents screaming, “No! This is not true! How bitter you are!” – but I am writing this letter to you, to try to tell you something about how to handle them, for most of them do not yet really know that you exist” (292).

While this reality seems bleak, Baldwin once again centers his message in the hope for love and growth for his country. He offers words of resilience saying, “I know how black it looks today, for you. It looked bad that day too, yes, we were trembling. We have not stopped trembling yet, but if we had not loved each other none of us would have survived…great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become” (293-294).

Woke White Liberals

Our conversation surrounding The Handmaid’s Tale and its appeal to the martyr complexes of white women has caused me to reexamine the role of white liberals in social justice and their reception of Baldwin’s writing. Audre Lorde draws attention to the passivity found in white women in issues of racism and discrimination in “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism” saying, “I have seen situations where white women hear a racist remark, resent what has been said, become filled with fury, and remain silent because they are afraid.” We continued this discussion in class and considered how the largest perpetrators of social racism are white liberals that adopt “polite racism” and excuse their own racial prejudices while denouncing systemic discrimination. I think comedian Bill Burr’s opening joke for SNL about white women and woke culture sums it up nicely: “Somehow, white women swung their Gucci-booted feet over the fence of oppression and stuck themselves at the front of the line.” The issue of white women using sexism to refuse to accept their white privilege undermines racial progress and intersectional feminism. Also, performative activism executed by white liberals over the summer during the public surge of the BLM movement undermined effective change that the movement was trying to bring about.

Civil rights activists like Baldwin and King have both had to deal with the backlash from white audiences and must have considered whether or not to adapt their messages to gain the support of white liberals. In “Why James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time Still Matters” Edmonds calls attention to the shift in Baldwin’s writing and his growing dismissal of the white gaze’s influence. He writes, “Lyne’s article narrates the history of Baldwin’s writing in conjunction with the development of his politics, that is, from being ‘the darling of the white liberal establishment” to developing a politics that “pushed him beyond the boundaries of canonization.” Baldwin’s later work is described as becoming more bitter, but also more radical as it shifts away from cold war liberalism. Edmonds expands on this saying, “Written during the middle period of his career, The Fire Next Time bridges these categories. Although it doesn’t reflect the “Black Marxism” Lyne finds in Baldwin’s later works, it isn’t interested in liberal integrationism either.” However, after this work’s immediate publication, it was criticized by white audiences for trying to goad white people into action and Kenneth Rexroth in the San Francisco Examiner wrote, “The Fire Next Time is designed to make white liberals feel terribly guilty and to scare white reactionaries into running and barking fits.”

Considering this context, I wasn’t sure what to make of this line in “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew” where Baldwin asks his nephew to find a level of forgiveness for white people. “The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand” (294). I thought Baldwin was being rather generous here and I struggle to see his view of white innocence in a history they “do not understand,” yet created and continue to repeat.

Violence Versus Motherhood

The interview between James Baldwin and Audre Lorde invites readers to investigate if all of Baldwin’s material is applicable to women or if some of his messages only apply to Black men. Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room specifically looks at issues found in same-sex relationships between men and the shame of male homosexuality. I felt limited in my essay on Giovanni’s Room and Baldwin’s queer politics because the passages from his novel and various Bible passages only applied to male homosexuality. Naturally, Baldwin’s overall message of love in queer relationships can be beneficial to queer women; however, centering the plot around Black men’s experiences in male-dominant circles creates distinctions on the issues experienced by Black men and women.

These distinctions continue in Baldwin’s essays as he focuses on highlighting the physical violence suffered by Black men while addressing sexual violence and early teen pregnancy Black women experience. In “A Fly in Buttermilk,” Baldwin writes about the negative experiences Black students suffer at low-income schools. He writes, “G. is just about at the age when boys begin dropping out of school. Perhaps they get a girl into trouble; she also drops out; the boy gets work for a time or gets into trouble for a long time. I was told that forty-five girls had left school for maternity ward the year before. A week or ten days before I arrived in the city eighteen boys from G.’s former high school had been sentenced to the chain gang” (191). Although studies show that Black and Latina girls are more than twice as likely as white girls to become pregnant before they leave adolescence, I wondered about the impact of placing emphasis on Black women’s fertility as their struggle while emphasizing the physical violence and assault Black boys suffered.

In her interview with Baldwin, Lorde also addresses Black girls getting pregnant early, but identifies this as a struggle for Black boys as well. She says, “There are little Black girl children having babies. But this is not an immaculate conception, so we’ve got little Black boys who are making babies, too. We have little Black children making little Black children.” Baldwin and Lorde discuss distinctions between typical experiences of Black men and women. Baldwins speaks of the male experience saying, “Do you know what happens to a man when he’s ashamed of himself when he can’t find a job?… When he can’t protect anybody? When he can’t do anything?” Audre Lorde responds, “Do you know what happens to a woman who gives birth, who puts that child out there and has to go out and hook to feed it? Do you know what happens to a woman who goes crazy and beats her kids across the room because she’s so full of frustration and anger?” However, Lorde also addresses that Black women suffer physical violence in the same ways Black men do, “Do you know what happens to a lesbian who sees her woman and her child beaten on the street while six other guys are holding her?” In our conversations about intersectionality, it is important to examine distinctions between the adversity Black men and women experience and the portrayals of these distinctions.

Sex, Violence, and Power

Robert Gnuse’s article argues that the seven biblical passages condemning homosexuality are not referring to relationships between two free, adult, and loving individuals, but abuses of power and control. With this frame of thinking, it is clear that Christians should use their faith to condemn sex that is pedophilic, describes rape or attempted rape, or is done with hatred in the heart. Instead, the scripture is used to attack the LGBTQ+ community and equate all same-sex relationships with subjugation and immorality. To undermine this mindset, in Going to Meet the Man Baldwin depicts a relationship that, from an outsider’s perspective, is the model for virtuous and ethical sexuality. There is a heterosexual union between a man and a woman that Christians would openly support more than the union of a same-sex couple.

However, we uncover that Jesse’s sexual perversions fit into the biblical descriptions of immoral sexuality as compared to homoeroticism. Jesse rapes Black women, gets aroused from assaulting young boys with a cattle prod, and finally gets off on the memory of the murder and subjugation of a Black man from the power of white men. The Biblical condemnation of homosexuality serves to protect young boys and men from being violated or penetrated by another man trying to hold mastery over them. Baldwin directly connects Jesse’s sexuality with violence and control when Jesse feels himself “violently stiffen” as he sees the effect of his brutality on the beaten young man in the jail cell. In his attempt to describe raping Black women to the boy, Jesse slips and says to him “You lucky we pump some white blood into you every once in a while—your women” referring first to the man before correcting himself to say his women–creating homoerotic tension (938). Jesse also fits into the predatory stereotype commonly assigned to gay men as he attempts to charm little Black boys with candy and gum only to assault them as they get older.

Despite all of this, Jesse still believes he is acting out his life and sexuality in a pure and honorable manner. Jesse thinks, “And he was a good man, a God-fearing man, he had tried to do his duty all his life” (934). Here we see the conflict with what Jesse has been raised to believe is good and moral, and the horrendous nature of his thoughts and actions. He believes he is charged to destroy those who “fight against God and go against the rules laid down in the Bible for everyone to read” (939). This shows the tension between the finer rules laid out in the Bible and Christians’ execution of these laws with violence and hatred. Jesse completely neglects the overall mission of Christ which is to love others.

Why is David white? The Entwinement of Race and Sexuality

We have had discussions in class on Baldwin’s decision to write this novel from the perspective of a white man. One aspect we discussed was the difficulty Baldwin would have of unpacking the weight of racial and homosexual discrimination. However, there are a lot of layers to this decision and the disapproval that came from the literary community. Since Baldwin’s earlier fiction had largely centered around “the Negro problem,” his publisher Knopf rejected Giovanni’s room because he wasn’t “writing about the same things in the same manner as [he] was before” (Jordison). Baldwin suffered a lot of criticism for writing a novel with a white protagonist living in France because it did not address the racial disparities in American society as his earlier works did. Other of Giovanni’s Room wrote that he hoped Baldwin would return to more American themes. The literary community that appreciated Go Tell it On the Mountain responded with backlash to Baldwin’s shift away from writing about homosexuality from a white perspective. However, in an interview, Baldwin said “The sexual question and the racial question have always been entwined. If Americans can mature on the level of racism, then they have to mature on the level of sexuality” (Armengol). This could also cause friction with Black homophobic writers at the time who disapproved of Baldwin connecting homosexuality with their racial identity. Yet Baldwin portrays the “othering” of gay men and their desire to find love within their community that connects to intersectional issues that Black men experience.

Additionally, the novel does not completely neglect racial issues. There was prejudice against Italians during this time that resulted in assaults and lynchings. This comes across in David’s treatment of Giovanni. Giovanni says that if David “You would not have liked me if I had stayed” and “You will have no idea of the life there, dripping and bursting and beautiful, and terrible, as you have no idea of my life now (334). David is incapable of understanding Giovanni’s background and this could contribute to the repulsion he sometimes feels towards Giovanni. I argue that just because Baldwin does not focus on the American Black experience in this novel, he is still addressing racism and should not be considered a white narrative.

Queer Guilt and the Corruption of Innocence

The two protagonists in Go Tell It on the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room struggle with their queer identity and experience shame over their attraction to men. However, John’s anxiety is focused on his own moral salvation, while David’s sexuality impacts the men he interacts with and is culpable for any loss of their innocence. The Church portrays homosexuality as a temptation and fears gay individuals will lead the young and naïve into a life of wickedness. However, despite John’s feelings toward Elisha, we don’t see any signs that he fears he will corrupt Elisha. Elisha is older, bigger, and stronger than John, and could never be considered vulnerable to John in any way. Elisha is put in a position of high authority and is described as steadfast in his faith and incorruptible. John does not worry about his impact on Elisha’s holiness and only “wonders if he would ever be holy like Elisha was holy” (11).

John sees Elisha’s religious determination when he is reprimanded for walking with Ella Mae and John wonders, “Had he sinned? Had he been tempted?” as if such a notion was impossible (15). After the physical interaction between the pair, Elisha asks “I didn’t hurt you none did I?” showing that John is the weaker of the two and Elisha does not have to fear him physically (51). The sin John wrestles with is masturbation– an independent act that leaves only his salvation at risk.

This changes in Giovanni’s Room and we are introduced to themes of corruption and the queer guilt of hurting someone else. While John only masturbates to the images of men, David engages in sexual acts and we see the impact this has on his struggle with homosexuality. After his first sexual encounter with a man, he only feels shame when he sees “[Joey] looked like a baby” (225). While John holds no power over Elisha, David is very aware of the power he has over Joey: “I was suddenly afraid. Perhaps it was because he looked so innocent lying there, with such perfect trust; perhaps it was because he was so much smaller than me; my own body suddenly seemed gross and crushing” (225).

David feels his sexuality is monstrous, not specifically because he fears going to hell as John does, but because he fears the power and the mystery of his body and Joey’s. Baldwin opens his novel up to many queer spaces and many queer characters; some are described as wicked and some are seen as innocent. David reflects on this innocence and says, “It’s true that nobody stays in the garden of Eden” (239). I’m curious to see this theme of innocence continues with the rich older men that take advantage of the younger men and their financial vulnerability and the crime Giovanni will eventually be found guilty of.

The Shame of a Father and the Curse of Slavery

In Go Tell it on the Mountain, Baldwin includes the biblical allusion Noah cursing Ham’s descendants into a life a servitude. In the King James version, the story goes that Noah slept drunk and uncovered in a tent, and “Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without” (Gen 9: 22). This resulted in Noah waking up and disowning his son that Baldwin describes: “Ah, that son of Noah’s had been cursed, down to the present groaning generation: A servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren” (191). This story became the foundational text for justifying slavery on biblical grounds as historians racialized Ham as Black and his descendants were deemed to be Africans. This story returns to our initial question of what it means to be Black and explores the origins of the concept of race. Ham’s racialization as a Black figure links a divine proclamation of ancestral slavery to the present-day racial hierarchy.

Baldwin connects the biblical story to John seeing his father exposed. “Sometimes leaning over the cracked, ‘tattle-tale’ gray bathtub, he scrubbed his father’s back; and looked, as the accursed son of Noah had looked, in his father’s hideous nakedness.” John saw his father naked and connected an intimate moment of family privacy with the sin of indecent sexuality. This shows how Black men are sexualized and are held to a high standard of acting honorably within the family. John is held to a high, almost impossible moral standard by his father, but is still punished for viewing the shame of his father. The vagueness of the sin of John seeing his father naked connects to the lack of clarity in the Bible on what transgression Ham is committing. Many interpretations view Ham as a sexual offender and voyeur while others think he castrated his father or had relations with his mother while Noah was drunk. Regardless, Ham’s transgression was a crime against family honor and slavery was the proper punishment of life without honor. These biblical interpretations serve as a projection of white sexual fear and codes of honor. Baldwin sees himself and other Black men suffering from the legacy of the curse saying, “How could John be cursed for having seen in a bathtub what another man—if that other man had ever lived—had seen ten thousand years ago, lying in an open tent?” This also builds John’s shame in his sexuality towards men if he cannot even view his naked father without being reminded of the curse of Ham.

Heterosexual Hypervisibility and Depravity

Baldwin creates conflict between spirituality and sexuality as he shows the church’s suppression of homosexuality visibility next to the hyper-visible, yet brutal, indecency of heterosexuality. The story is framed around John’s struggles with homosexuality and the church’s narrative of homosexuality as an indecent and obscene sin saying, “in spite of the saints, his mother and his father, the warnings he heard from his earliest beginnings, he had sinned with his hands a sin that was hard to forgive” (16). The visibility of same-sex attraction has been universally suppressed under the guise that it was too vulgar for children to see. However, Baldwin pushes back against this and opens Go Tell it on the Mountain with young John and Roy witnessing crude and violent instances of heterosexuality, with the couple that, “did it standing up. The woman had wanted fifty cents, and the man had flashed a razor” (10). John also describes the intimacy of his parents with equally dirty descriptions as they did it, “over the sound of rats’ feet, and rat screams, and the music and cursing from the harlot’s house downstairs” (10).

The critique of homosexuality being hyper-visible and “flamboyant” is challenged as heteroerotic displays are prevalent everywhere for children, while John’s sexuality is deeply hidden and manifests in more pure displays like wrestling with Elisha. Not only are the displays of heterosexuality made visible for children but the expectation of their fulfillment is placed on them far too early in life, as Florence tells Elizabeth that “when [John] get big enough to really go after the ladies you going to have your hands full” (173). Even chaste displays of heterosexuality singled out as Elisha and Ella Mae are chastised for simply “walking disorderly” together (14). There is also the physical visibility of female sexuality seen in pregnancy that allows men to hide from their guilt, like Gabriel refusing to claim Royal, while women have to admit to their actions.

Heterosexual sex is also consistently used to oppress and enslave women. This is most evident in the white men’s assault of Deborah followed by the continued assault of Black men that degrade her with this memory. Baldwin writes, “when men looked at Deborah, they saw no further than her unlovely and violated body. In their eyes lived perpetually a lewd, uneasy wonder…lust that could not be endured because it was so impersonal” (69). Even Frank who loves Florence has an expectation for sex as something that he can demand as a husband from his wife and does not listen to her refusal. Even when men are not assaulting women during sex, they are passing judgment on their sexuality in a degrading manner. Gabriel demeans Deborah’s sexuality as “he thought of the joyless groaning of their marriage bed; and he hated her” (113). There is the double standard of Gabriel hating Deborah for not being sexually attractive enough and hating Esther for being sexually promiscuous. This adds to the hypocrisy of Gabriel for shaming John’s sexuality and finding the devil in him when Gabriel has sinned and cheated on his own wife with Esther.

What does it mean to be white?

This question came up the first day of class and I wanted to consider it again through the context of the Wright and Baldwin material. We have had a lot of discussion about how Blackness is viewed by the white gaze, but we can also consider whiteness as it is viewed by Black writers and characters. There can be shifting perspectives in talking about white people as they are perceived as a group, as individuals, and even as an ideal. Wright encapsulates whiteness as an ideology in Native Son: “To Bigger and his kind white people were not really people; they were a sort of great natural force, like a stormy sky looming overhead, or like a deep swirling river stretching suddenly at one’s feet in the dark” (114).

Bigger’s understanding of white people connects to our discussion of whiteness as a price that is ultimately commodified with privilege in society. Bigger reflects on this awareness when talking about the leaders of the community that, “they are almost like the white people when it comes to guys like me.” He understands that these members of the community can’t fully buy the ticket of whiteness, but can benefit from certain privileges by conforming to the aims of white people. Professor Cheryl Harris at UCLA builds a similar argument in her article “Whiteness as Property” about whiteness has historically evolved into a form of wealth written into law. She demonstrates how even “passing” as white can be viewed as a form of property. Whiteness was also something Bigger felt he had to learn and grow in understanding of as he got older–like a taboo topic saying, “he had even heard it said that white people felt it was good when one Negro killed another.” Baldwin similarly writes in Notes of a Native Son that, “in that year I had had time to become aware of the meaning of all my father’s bitter warnings…I had discovered the weight of white people in the world.” Baldwin further describes this series of realizations about white people as a loss of innocence.

In this discovery, Baldwin had to wrestle with his previous notions of white people in contrast to new experiences and warnings that “I would see, when I was older, how white people would do anything to keep a Negro down.” We begin to see this in Go Tell it on the Mountain with John’s understanding of whiteness when “his father said that all white people were wicked and that God was going to bring them low.” I’m curious to see how the opinion of John’s father compares to the rhetoric in the 60’s and 70’s of the white man as the Devil.