Problems with Integration

During the Civil Rights era, and still today, most Americans were taught that integration was the solution to racism. Growing up I constantly heard that racism no longer existed, and was educated to believe that the civil rights movement gave Black people equality. Soon I realized that it was silly to even suggest to kids that you should have to fight to be treated fairly, and that racism was still prevalent. Though I grew up privileged, hardly exposed to the harshest realities of what it was like to be Black in America, I was not very old before I started seeing it. I remember crying at 13 when Trayvon Martin’s murderer was acquitted because I simply could not understand how the system could fail. I watched far too much Law and Order and wanted to become an attorney, so I had faith in the justice system; until I started seeing more. Soon my experiences with racism were not just hearing about Trayvon Martin, or being left out by my white classmates, I began experiencing micro-aggressions, long before I could even register them as such. Countless videos of Black death flooded my social media feed all throughout my youth; all with the same hashtag: #BlackLivesMatter. This has been my reality for as long as I can remember, but after the events of last summer, including the murder of George Floyd, and the following protests in defense of Black lives, it seems everyone has started seeing racism like I did. I think the Black Lives Matter movement has more allies than ever before and it seems like everyone has finally realized that racism has not been defeated, and thus, integration did not solve America’s biggest problem. 

The article “Why James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time Still Matters” displays Baldwin’s grasp of complex racial issues that affected Black people of his time and remain prevalent  today. He does not spew out hatred for the nation, create monstrous characters to make his point, or simply critique systems of power; rather Baldwin discusses his experiences with systemic racism, and by tying in history and  his lived reality, articulates concepts many other civil rights activists failed to grasp. Long before Gen-Z was on Twitter berating the Democratic party for its lack of action towards racial justice, Baldwin knew integration into white society would not save Black Lives. As written in the article “Simply integrating oneself into white society was, in his mind, neither a sufficient nor sustainable goal.” Like me and every other person of color, Baldwin had experiences coming to terms with the realities of racism in America, and he understood something that many are just coming to terms with today- integration does not solve racial problems. 

I can’t think of any oppressed group in history that was liberated by its oppressors, so like the author of the article, I believe radical change is the only thing that can transform our society. Reforms and integration have not eliminated violence against Black people and a lot of it remains state-sanctioned violence. I think Black people should reject respectability politics and rethink how we perceive integration, to understand why it has not and won’t fix systemic issues plaguing the community. Most of all I think it is important to focus on how we are teaching history. Part of the reason Baldwin resonates with me so deeply is because of his ability to articulate the the struggles of human existence in a deeply personal matter. Though he writes about human struggles, his literature evokes feelings of compassion and empathy; even when people suffer at the hands of societal structures people generally defend. As stated in the article Baldwin knew “the ‘Negro problem’ of today would be addressed by targeting the laws and practices of state-sanctioned violence, not by being accepted to join the executors.” Baldwin discussions of his experiences with systemic racism in his literature  articulates concepts many other civil rights activists in the past and allies and people in the movement now have failed to grasp.

Did Baldwin understand intersectionality?

  Revolutionary Hope dramatically shifted my perspective of Baldwin. I was excited that the conversation was featured in Essence Magazine, one of the most prolific Black magazines, especially because Essence centers the stories and experiences of Black women. Right before I read the conversation, I finished writing my Baldwin and Queer Identity essay. My essay focused on Baldwin’s rejection of gender norms and roles within his literature and his realizations that norms are societal constructs and do not speak to the entirety of the human experience. I utilized Baldwin’s analysis of gender norms and hypermasculinity in The Male Prison and Giovanni’s Room to display how his personal experiences contributed to his rejection of norms that confine sexuality and gender. From these texts, it seemed Baldwin understood that constructs limit individuality and that oppression comes in many forms based on gender, race, and countless other constructs. However, in his conversation with Audre Lorde (goat), it seemed Baldwin could not understand the implications of male privilege and benefits that stem from being a male. In Revolutionary Hope, Baldwin was hesitant to accept his male privilege and to understand that men can and must help liberate women; specifically, Black men have to help liberate Black women in the fight to end Black oppression.

    Intersectionality is a relatively new concept. Coined by Kimberle Crenshaw, intersectionality refers to the various identities one has and their societal implications. Intersectionality often is used to describe the double bind of living through both racial and gender prejudice. Lorde and Baldwin’s conversation began with the topic of the general Black American experience. Soon Lorde wanted to emphasize that race and gender were intertwined and that Black women deal with oppression from both sides. When Lorde brought up Black men’s violence towards Black women, Baldwin wanted to explain that various factors contribute to the struggles of certain Black men that may contribute to feelings of anger and violence. He attempts to attribute the negative actions of certain men to the oppression they face, which is when Lorde tries to get him to understand that men are not the only ones oppressed. Lorde speaks to the experiences of young Black women and explains that Black men should not ignore the plight of Black women. It seemed as though Baldwin was defensive of his experiences with hypermasculinity and was inclined to defend the actions of some Black men in an attempt to show that external forces contributed to these negative actions. Lorde wants Baldwin to see beyond the gender binary and see that the binary reinforces the oppression of Black women. She doesn’t neglect the plight of Black men, but rather than be concerned with blame, she wants Black people to acknowledge their experiences and redefine how they understand each other and themselves.

The conversation illustrated that gender roles and constructs influenced Baldwin himself. He was not immediately receptive to the idea of Black men helping to liberate Black women because he could not see past the Black masculine plight to understand the double bind. I had suspicions that Baldwin may have been more influenced by norms than I thought with his writing decisions in Giovanni’s Room. Reading this conversation showed me that one of the biggest contentions in the struggle for Black liberation is not just race but gender. I advocate for Lorde’s vision of redefining conceptions of gender to be more fluid and for understandings to be focused not on policing what’s not understood but redefining what is understood to uplift those in the struggle. 

Art Imitating Life

Upon reflection, I realized I am not entirely sure that Baldwin’s message of love and self-acceptance is the answer to all the problems the novel presents. After reading Go Tell It On The Mountain, I concluded that Baldwin’s message was that the perseverance of one’s own faith, despite external judgment, is the path to salvation. At his funeral, Baldwin played Amazing Grace, declaring his own faith and salvation. Giovanni’s Room however, ends tragically, in a way that almost makes it hard to see how love and acceptance could solve the character’s issues in such a heteronormative society. It leaves me wondering if Baldwin’s inability to find love and acceptance in his own life is the reason these issues are not solved by them in the novel.

Baldwin related to his characters in Giovanni’s Room; like David he had difficulty accepting his sexual identity, like Giovanni he felt like an outsider, and a foreigner, and it can be assumed that he interacted with men like Jacques and Guillaume. In the Male Prison, and a variety of other texts Baldwin argues that to be truly happy people must reject the call to conform to heteronormativity, and live their truth. In Giovanni’s Room, David and Giovanni were both doomed due to their inability to leave the room, or “the closet,” symbolizing that self acceptance and the perseverance of love may have saved them. That being said, it is extremely probable that David and Giovanni would have struggled even if they “came out”  because of how heavily sexuality is/was regulated. Though they may have been free from internal dismay, the external difficulties of coming out are not something that love and self acceptance necessarily resolve. The tragic fate of the main characters leaves me questioning whether Baldwin wanted readers to conclude that love and acceptance would solve these issues, or if he was suggesting that there was not a solution because he himself could not find one. 

With Baldwin’s lived experiences heavily influencing the novel, I think he should have personalized the story more. It would have illuminated whether he thought there was a real solution. I think that Baldwin’s inability to find comfort in his own identity due to external factors, led to this fate for his characters. Though he declares that love and acceptance are to be the ultimate answers, I think Baldwin struggled to find these answers himself. I think the tragic fate in the novel and Baldwin’s own struggles speaks to the fact that societal norms must shift for love and self-acceptance to persevere.  My presentation touched on the effect gender norms had on Baldwin’s conception of sexuality and understanding of his own identity.  Ultimately my analysis will explain how Baldwin’s interpretation of the effects of these norms  and the effect they had on him were instrumental in his writing of the novel. I’ll find that the only real solution is a shift in societal perspective and that broader society has to want to promote love and acceptance for it really to prevail and save people like David, Giovanni, and Baldwin, himself.

Norms leave no room for love

For my presentation and paper, I have decided to focus on the power gender norms, and roles have on influencing societal interpretations of sexuality and how these interpretations affected James Baldwin. Throughout Baldwin’s writing and his interpretations of other texts, such as the Bible, we have seen that he prioritized love and self-acceptance as the ultimate goal in life. Baldwin’s Biblical interpretations are inclusive, and he embraces Christs’ message of love as the greatest act of faith and fulfillment. Despite this, we have seen the toll gender roles and sexuality norms took on the characters of Giovanni’s Room and how they impacted Baldwin’s understanding of his sexuality. In attempting to understand Baldwin’s perception of gender norms and roles, I reread “The Male Prison,” which beautifully articulates the disastrous nature of hypermasculinity and heteronormativity. Baldwin rejects notions of naturalism associated with sexuality and instead argues that human impulses are far beyond the constraints set by normative behavior. He argues that norms are reinforced to protect people’s conceptions of what is natural and normal, “And one of the reasons for this is that it would rob the nor­mal -who are simply the many – of their very necessary sense of security and order” ( The Male Prison, Collected Essays). Baldwin understands that norms are not inherent and can be abandoned but are not because the majority prefers to protect their sense of order.

Similarly, gender theorist Michel Foucault articulates rejections of norms as inherent and argues that this conception of gender and sexuality as science or fact is a strategy for state observation. Like Baldwin, Foucault acknowledges that human impulses exceed the norms and acknowledges that sexuality is about desire and pleasure and cannot be structured scientifically or generalized. Foucault takes Baldwin’s argument about norms only being in place to establish and protect order a step further by declaring that science was only ever associated with sexuality as a justification to promote heterosexuality which furthered state population reproduction goals. In essence, the state encourages society to perpetuate these gender norms to observe the population better and exert order and force. Baldwin is such a talented writer because of his ability to explain deep theoretical issues in a manner that illuminates the human perspective; he likens these restrictive forces to “The Male Prison” and arguably to “Giovanni’s Room.” In Giovanni’s Room, David and Giovanni are trapped, unable to go out and express their desire or true love for one another. Baldwin wants to show that the perpetuation of gender norms and roles is so pervasive that people struggle to accept themselves and ultimately have miserable fates as a result. It is evident that gender norms are constructed and intentionally restrictive. I believe that Baldwin rejected these norms so heavily not only because they limited his own sexual identity but because his faith calls for a message of love, acceptance, and understanding. Gender norms and roles do not prioritize the love and connection Baldwin repeatedly submits that all humans need.

Norms: How they get Us, How to Protest

Our discussion on whether the more masculine David constructed by Michaelangelo was an accurate representation of his progression into young adulthood, or imposed to be consistent with gender norms, led me to want to explore further the effects of other impositions of sexuality and gender norms surrounding the novel. Korey Garibaldi’s lecture featured pictures of a younger, more androgynous presenting David created by Donatello and an older, more masculine-presenting David constructed by Michelangelo. This transition between how David is represented is consistent with the historical context of the time. Because societies began embracing the female, male gender binary and other heteronormative standards, it would be easy to see how this transition exemplifies fitting into these norms and bounds. It is plausible that this artistic transition led Baldwin to name his main character in Giovanni’s Room “David” in protest to the shift to conform to gender norms and imposed masculine standards.

As the presentation was focused on exploring the historical context behind Giovanni’s Room, it also illuminated various other examples of people from writers, to monarchs, to actors who struggled to conform to heteronormativity and other imposed societal standards on sexuality and gender. While Giovanni’s Room encompasses many elements of Baldwin’s own life and is arguably semi-autobiographical, it features two white main characters. David is a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant man, and Giovanni is an Italian, Catholic man. It is plausible that Baldwin chose to create characters with those identities to represent his history with love in a way that did not directly implicate him. While Italians were discriminated against similarly to Black people, they were white and could be in a book about queerness, whereas Baldwin himself could not. Because prejudice against Black people was so prevalent, it is probable that Baldwin acknowledged Giovanni’s Room would not have been well-received because of the double-bind of racism and homophobia. Though Baldwin is a critique of these imposed sexuality norms, it is possible that his intersectional identity as a Black, queer man contributed to his decision to center the novel on two white main characters. His experiences may have led to his conformity to this racial norm.

Because both Go Tell it On the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room explore the common human struggle of fitting into societal norms and ensuring one’s identity is consistent with these norms, it is evident that Baldwin intended for his writing to serve as a subtle backlash to these norms. The references to historical art and cultural references explored by Garibaldi displayed a long history of those from writers, to monarchs, to actors and more struggling to conform to heteronormativity and other imposed societal standards on sexuality and gender. Baldwin clearly disagreed with these norms and focused his career on creating work that subtly critiques these norms while promoting a message of love and acceptance. Lil Nas X’s MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name) Video is a blatant protest to imposed societal norms on sexuality and is a clear evolution of the work Baldwin was doing to show us how to protest.

Can we declare our own salvation?

This has been a recurring question throughout my reading of Go Tell It on the Mountain, Down At the Cross, and more generally in reality. While the Bible articulates that God will be the final judge of all humanity and all individuals, most people have unanswered questions and predictions about their own fate and others’ fate. A capacity for judgment exists in all humans, and Christians believe that the Bible provides moral guidelines to inform one’s judgment. Commandments are the first guidelines that come to mind, but also included in the Bible are stories about consequences humans face for not following God’s word. Humans have expanded upon the judgment terms offered in the Bible and instituted their norms, behavioral expectations, laws, and moral codes, many of whichChristianity and countless other religions heavily influence. These guidelines for human behavior result in consequences for those who do not meet them, such as discrimination, prejudice, and oppression, to name a few.

In Go Tell it Own the Mountain, which is a semi-biographical account of James Baldwin’s life and struggle with his identity and religion, John wrestles with questions regarding his fate because he did not fit within the confinements of the norms for his faith and society. Because Christian views on non-heterosexuality have always been divided and prejudicial, like his characters John, Baldwin struggled to meet his family and society’s expectations as a Black, gay man. His identity as a gay man did not align with common Christian religious teachings about morality and salvation. As a result, Baldwin not only faced judgment and questions about his access to salvation from broader society, but he also had many internalized fears about his fate throughout his life. In Down At the Cross, Baldwin writes of the contention between the Christian message of love and notions of judgment “And the passion with which we loved the Lord was a measure of how deeply we feared and distrusted and, in the end, hated almost all strangers, always, and avoided and despised ourselves (310).” Baldwin resented the religious confinements common Christian teachings impose. He considered these teachings to promote hate, and self-resentment, all problems that deeply affected him.

I was very moved to learn that Baldwin had Amazing Grace played at his funeral. It represents an acceptance of himself and his declaration of his own salvation and determination of his fate. While the Bible teaches that God is the final judge, it is clear that humans can make their own determinations about their fate despite ultimately not knowing the result. Baldwin pushed against narratives of prejudice, discrimination, and overall societal oppression that often stem from going against societal norms. His refusal to allow others’ judgments to determine his final judgment of himself is most inspiring.

Divine Covenant

In Christianity, the principle of living out your faith and practicing the tenets of religion in one’s daily life is highly emphasized. Even in my theology courses at ND, I have learned about the divine covenant – or the promise God made to the ancient Israelites and all of humanity to protect them as long as they kept His law and were faithful to him. This promise is a condition and relies on the premise that people remain in line with Scripture and God’s teachings to receive his salvation and grace. According to many passages of the Bible, one must carry out one religion successfully to guarantee salvation. Matthew 7:24-27 says:

“Therefore, everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, yet it did not fall because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” ~ Matthew 7:24-27

 One can interpret this to meant that if one does not “live out their faith” and put the principles of their faith in practice, they are foolish and are thought not to be guaranteed salvation. The scene in Go Tell it on The Mountain that depicts John’s hallucination and interaction with Gabriel exemplifies the importance of living out one’s faith in Christianity. Also, it may allude to Baldwin’s struggles with the divine covenant. 

When John sees his father in his hallucination, Gabriel did not show him any affection and did not respond to John’s profession of being saved. Baldwin writes, “He did not move to touch him, did not kiss him, did not smile,” and that Gabriel was non-responsive to John’s initial profession of salvation. Gabriel then goes on to only say, “‘It comes from your mouth… I want to see you live it. It’s more than a notion.” This articulation of wanting to see John’s faith in the way he lived goes back to the divine covenant agreement of living out your faith, and its inclusion in this passage displays how important a tenet this is in Christianity. Baldwin writes that John preceded to weep upon his father’s response, which I think represents the struggle Baldwin had with the pressure he felt to live out his faith. James Baldwin spent his whole life thinking he was a sinner because of his sexuality. As a result, he may have constantly struggled with the idea that he would never be able “to live his faith” or gain salvation (as his dad demanded of him in his hallucination). Throughout GTIOTM, John struggles to maintain his faith because he feels like a sinner and a disappointment. I think this speaks to the larger narrative in Baldwin’s life of the constant feeling of being an outsider and not being able to find a home in his family, or faith. A perspective that is reflected in his work.

Parental Influence

After our class discussion on how John and Gabriels’ relationship may have mirrored James and David Baldwin’s, I considered how parental relationships play a significant role in shaping who people grow up to become. Go Tell It on the Mountain encompasses many intersectional themes, including narratives on a coming of age, religious identity, sexual identity. It is evident that growing up in a racist and homophobic society outcasted Baldwin; perhaps not as evident is how the way people are raised can impact their perception and identity just as much as these other factors. We discussed how turbulent James and David Baldwin’s relationship was, noting that David Baldwin resented James and made it very clear that he wished James’s mother never had him. We often talk about how Baldwin’s racial, sexual, and religious identities ostracized him from general society, but not much about how this initial rejection from someone who was so impactful to him may have affected James Baldwin. Most of Baldwin’s work intersectionally approaches issues to observe how societal issues affect individuals. I think it is possible that neglectful, abusive parenting is a large issue at play in shaping Baldwin’s life perspective and work. Baldwin faced a lot of prejudice and oppression due to his intelligence, and identity. It is clear that those experiences affected his work; I think it is also plausible to suggest that his relationship with David Baldwin shaped James’ identity. Facing societal prejudice as a black, queer person is a painful experience that shaped Baldwin as a writer. It is helpful to understand how his personal experiences impacted his work and led him to write semi-autobiographical novels such as GTIOTM. Before Baldwin was even fully aware of all life’s burdens and troubles, he had a rough childhood. His perception of love was warped because his family displayed their love for him in manners that were sometimes violent and detrimental to him. While David Baldwin may have seen his behavior towards James doing what was necessary to get him to conform to survive as a Black man in America, I think it probably played a role in traumatizing Baldwin, thus impacting his perceptions on love, forgiveness, and relationships. I think this could be why we see those issues as recurring themes in our class so far. I submit that this parental issue is just as impactful on James Baldwin’s life and writing as the other social issues that are considered major themes in his pieces.

Yes, but no.

The presentations last week illuminated some remaining questions I have on the effects of Native Son. In Notes on Native Son, I thought James Baldwin accurately articulated one of the most significant issues with Native Son as the lack of humanity in Bigger and in the story in general. Though Wright intended to highlight the brutal realities of being Black in America, I did not feel his novel accurately depicted most Black people’s experiences. Bigger was murderous, violent, and unable to process his own identity. Despite the racist structures present in America, Black people do not just resort to this behavior. The anti-Blackness and classism prevalent in American society during the early 20th century certainly had countless detrimental effects on African Americans’ lives. There are prejudicial structures that arguably plague every institution that rules our society, and laws are codified to defend and promote these systems. Reading about these realities is one thing, but the lived experiences are often indescribable; Wright’s attempt to describe these realities was undoubtedly impactful but not reflective of the true Black American experience. 

After last week’s final discussions on Native Son, it became clear to me that many readers of the novel are compelled to believe that societal oppression can lead Black men to commit the acts that Bigger did. I do not identify with this novel. It is not because I don’t identify with the difficulties of being Black in America, but rather because, despite the societal oppression that I and other Black Americans face, we as humans are more motivated by a respect for and in the preservation of humanity than we are by violence and anger. Contrary to the story told in Native Son, Black Americans–specifically Black men–constantly must look past the difficulties posed by racial prejudice in order to maintain their humanity. I argue that Wright’s novel portrays a man who loses control rather than what most Black Americans experience. 

Additionally, the title of Native Son implies a sort of deterministic reality for Black American men. It almost suggests that they have rage, anger, and hate that may or may not lead them to resort to violent actions because they are oppressed. This is not consistent with my lived reality of interacting with Black men who look past the prejudice they face because it is innate to maintain humanity rather than commit violent acts. While structures in American society do disproportionately affect Black men, Bigger is not an accurate portrayal of what is “native” in any humans. I agree with Baldwin that humanity lacked in this novel and argue that it did not accurately represent Black men in America. 

Wright’s failed protest (novel)

I have found Native Son off-putting since we began reading. However, besides the heinous violence, I found it challenging to articulate what exactly I did not like about Wright’s novel. In our class discussion about why “Biggers” exist, I finally understood the title, Native Son. Still, I strongly disagreed that Bigger’s behavior represented anything innate or native to a person. Baldwin’s critique of “Native Son” as “a failed protest novel, that rejects life and fails to accept humanity” articulates how this novel is unnecessarily dark, twisted, and brutal. Baldwin explains that Bigger’s biggest problem was not his race or class but that his feelings of constraint caused him to reject his humanity and others’. The most heinous elements of the novel reflect a complete lack of understanding or empathy for humanity on Bigger’s part, and arguably Wright in some instances. While it’s clear that the structural and systemic oppression Bigger faced is native and institutionalized in American society, Wright’s creation of Bigger seemingly reveals more about his psyche and perception of people than about the reality of being a “native son.”

This may sound strong, especially considering Wright’s extended defense of this character in “How Bigger was Created,” however, Wright himself admits that Bigger was a product of his imagination and thought process. He writes,

 “So, with this much knowledge of myself and the world gained and known, why should I not try to work out on paper the problem of what will happen to Bigger? Why should I not, like a scientist in a laboratory, use my imagination and invent test-tube situations, place Bigger in them, and, following the guidance of my own hopes and fears, what I had learned and remembered, work out in fictional form an emotional statement and resolution of this problem?”

I understand that Wright is passionate about revealing the consequences or results of systemic oppression; still, the book’s extremity, violence, and sexual nature may have been influenced by his own emotional state. In this quote, Wright seemingly embraces his creation of Bigger and defends it by crediting his imagination. The sexual violence, murder, misogyny, and racism depicted in the novel often appear senseless and the brutality unnecessary. I agree that American society has these issues, but not every person who faces Bigger’s conditions exhibits the same behavior. The creation of this monstrous character and this tragic story do little to aid the effects of this oppression. Instead, it emphasizes a lack of humanity and attempts to explain unjustifiable violence. 

Baldwin’s notion of Native Son as a failed protest novel led me to consider the novel a failed protest from Richard Wright. The structures that create conditions of inequity are, if anything, promoted in this novel. Wright perpetuates the same lack of humanity these structures do in his creation of Bigger. I agree with Baldwin that valuing humanity is innate, so Native Son missed the mark.