Final Reflection

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

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

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

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

James Baldwin and James Baldwin

In My Dungeon Shook, we glimpse a highly personal piece of Baldwin’s writing. Unlike fiction such as Giovanni’s Room or many of his essays, this letter is directed simply to Baldwin’s nephew, though it undoubtedly considers other audiences. Take the following line, for example: “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” (CE 292). Perhaps what makes this letter all the more personal is Baldwin’s repeated invocation of his nephew’s name: “Now, my dear namesake…Big James, named for me” (292). In writing to his nephew, James Baldwin, James Baldwin draws on a semantic kinship between himself and his kin. This special semantic  connection between the two Jameses reiterates the importance of the individual as they are derivative of their ancestors. 

Of course, all humans have a special connection to their ancestors. We are all “descendent” in a particular and unique way, the embodiment of generations of struggles, chance happenings, etc. As Rae’Vonne pointed out at the beginning of the semester, our ancestor’s trauma is often encoded into our very DNA via epigenetics (our environment can turn certain genes “on” and “off”). These are important facts of the human condition and individuality. 

Baldwin, whether deliberately or unintentionally, amplifies the interface between an individual and their ancestors by repeatedly focusing on the trauma, identities, and circumstances that he shares with his nephew. He writes, for example, “I know your countrymen do not agree with me about this, and I hear them saying, ‘You exaggerate.’ They do not know Harlem, and I do. So do you” (CE 293). This line is one of many instances in My Dungeon Shook in which Baldwin reiterates the particular connection between himself and his nephew. Still, Baldwin does not believe that the semantic and experiential congruity between his life and his nephew’s will necessarily lead his nephew James down the same path as he went. Baldwin has hope for his nephew’s future, writing “If you know [from] whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go” (CE 293). Hence, even as Baldwin demonstrates the importance of the individual as descendent––as he writes that he and his nephew “come from” the same “sturdy peasant stock” (CE 294)––he conveys the possibility of breaking free from intergenerational sameness and from one’s descent.

When is Language Violent?

A famous adage is “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me.” Of course, we all know such a claim is utter and complete bullshit. Words can do profound psychological and physical harm to humans, contributing to real, biologically verifiable trauma. 

I was reading a NYT article the other day which focused on Professor Loretta J. Ross of Smith College. Described as a “radical Black feminist who has been doing human rights work for four decades,” Professor Ross is an outspoken opponent of cancel culture and reportedly said, “Every time somebody disagrees with me it’s not ‘verbal violence’…Overstatement of harm is not helpful when you’re trying to create a culture of compassion.” To be clear, Professor Ross does think that call-outs, or public demands for accountability, are valuable in certain circumstances (such as politics). And she does believe that language can cause “harm, slight or damage.” Still, Professor Ross complicates the notion of language as violence, and she often pushes back against youth activists, who allegedly use toxic strategies and overstate the violence inherent in language. 

But who gets to quantify how “violent” specific language is? Who decides when harm is “overstated”? In our reading for this week, we read many troubling anecdotes about language as violence, and we read about the discrepancy between how a white educator and Baldwin view the violence of language. In Nobody Knows My Name, G. claims that, “[white students] just––call me names. I don’t let it bother me” (CE 190). But we know due to numerous studies that such an environment did bother G., as verbal abuse can submit the body to chronic stress and cause a number of long and short term ailments, going as far as causing “meaningful alterations in brain structure.” Baldwin recognizes the danger that G. is in, noting that his family is risking “G.’s present well-being and his future psychological and mental health” (195). The white principal doesn’t see it this way, though. The principle claims that the racist incidents G. is subjected to are “nothing at all––‘It was a gesture more than anything else’” (194). 

G. himself draws a line between verbal and physical abuse. He reportedly says, “It’s hard enough…to keep quiet and keep walking when they call you nigger. But if anybody spits on me, I know I’ll have to fight” (193). Of course, there is a difference between verbal and physical violence, as G. notes. But this difference has no bearing on the degree of harm caused by each. It is easy to condemn the language G. was subjected to as violence. It is easy to see how such an environment would cause profound trauma and chronic stress. But today, as young people are accused of being “snowflakes,” we face new challenges. As progressive activists like Professor Ross indict our conflation of language and violence, we have to draw the line somewhere. For example, Professor Ross does not believe misgendering a transgender student is grounds for a “call-out.” But studies have shown that misgendering causes real, physical harm. We must be wary of our language and the harm it can cause, while also recognizing that it is nearly impossible to know how specific language will affect a specific person.

Race and Sexuality as Social Constructions

Reading ahead in the syllabus, I was interested to see that Going to Meet the Man was included in our unit on James Baldwin’s queerness. Of course, this attuned my reading to queer motifs in the short story. Going to Meet the Man is undoubtedly a story about systemic white supremacy, anti-Black police brutality, and a horrific lynching. The white family literally enjoys a picnic at the lynching, reminding the reader that Baldwin is speaking, first and foremost, about race. But there are also important passages relating to sexuality. For example, the short story opens with Jesse’s inability to achieve an erection with his wife. Although “[e]xcitement filled him like a toothache…it refused to enter his flesh.” It is only at the end, when Jesse thinks about the brutalized Black male body that he is able to achieve an erection: “He thought of the boy in the cell; he thought of the man in the fire; he thought of the knife and grabbed himself and stroked himself and a terrible sound…came out of him.” It is notable, then, that Baldwin depicts Jesse as both sexually perverse and horrifically racist. 

I don’t think that Baldwin is claiming that Jesse is “gay.” As a queer man himself, it is hard to believe he would write a story in which part of Jesse’s perversion is his homosexuality. Still, I am reminded of how the United States itself constructed sexuality along similar lines as it constructed race, an idea which I first learned about after reading Siobhan B. Somerville’s Queering the Color Line: Race and the Invention of Homosexuality in American Culture. In the monograph, Somerville argues that “it was not merely a historical coincidence that the classification of bodies as either “homosexual” or “heterosexual” emerged at the same time that the United States was aggressively constructing and policing the boundary between “black” and “white” bodies” (3). 

An example that Somerville offers is the year 1892 –– the year that Plessy v. Ferguson was decided by an all white, all male Supreme Court. This case was the most dramatic pronouncement of how American culture was fundamentally racialized along Black/white lines, according to Somerville. That same year, another court case entered the national limelight: the case of Alice Mitchell, who murdered her female lover because she believed there was no reason for the two to live if they could not get married. This case, widely sensationalized by national American media sources, hardened the distinction between homosexuality/heterosexuality, resulting in the widespread criminalization of sexual “inverts” (queer people). 

I bring up this reading because Going to Meet the Man attunes the reader to topics of both race and sexuality as they are constructed in America. Baldwin centers white sexualization of the Black body, such as when Jesse sees the Black man’s “privates…huge, huge, much bigger than his father’s, flaccid, hairless, the largest thing he had ever seen till then, and the blackest.” It is notable that Baldwin is voicing these fetishizing thoughts, with an attention to skin tone, through a white narrator. Hence, in Going to Meet the Man, Baldwin intertwines the themes of race and sexuality, especially as the two are constructed by anti-Black hegemonies. 

The Reproductive Imperative in Giovanni’s Room

In Giovanni’s Room, there is a constant tug-of-war between David’s desire for Giovanni and David’s desire to “be inside again, with the light and safety, with my manhood unquestioned” (Baldwin 305). This “insider status,” which Giovanni’s calls “la vie pratique” (287), is tied up with something that queer theoriests call “the reproductive imperative,” or society’s implicit mandate that individuals enter into a heterosexual marriage and have children. It is children that are the core of David’s tension, a motif which embodies Lee Edelman’s concept of “reproductive futurism.” All of this to say: Giovanni’s Room anticipated important conversations about how queer people fit into a society that holds children to be “the telos of the social order” (Edelman, No Future 11).

First, an explanation of some terms: reproductive futurism describes society’s obsession with procreation, resulting in political orders that hold the Child (or rather, the image of the Child) to be all-important, a moral trump card over everything else. This is why queer people are deemed “unnatural” and are villainized by society: because we (often) do not procreate, we represent “the side of those not ‘fighting for the children’” (No Future 3). Of course, I can talk about this for ages, and Edelman’s theories, deemed the “antisocial thesis” by some, are not universally accepted; still, the point remains that this tension between the queer person and procreation is a critical component of Giovanni’s Room. 

We see a tension between queer men and reproductive futures in multiple chapters. For example, Giovani notes that Guillaume, another gay man, “is a member of one of the best and oldest families in France. But maybe, then, he remembers that his name is going to die with him” (Baldwin 306). Implicit in this passage is the fact that Guillame, due to his sexuality, will never reproduce. He represents the end of his bloodline, a travesty in a society that values children over all-else. David himself sees women only for their value as bearers of children, precisely because he recognizes that society demands that he reproduce. He says things like “I wanted a woman to be for me a steady ground, like the earth itself, where I could always be renewed” (305). This ‘renewal’ is undoubtedly procreation itself, and the woman is nothing more than a field to be plowed. It makes sense, then, that when Hella says “I want to start having babies,” David replies “I’ve always wanted that” (321). It is notable that Giovanni himself respects women “for their inside life,” a phrase which refers both to women as having different emotional lives and as having the ability to bear children (285). In short, Baldwin’s astute eye to society and the queer experience enabled him to anticipate conversations that are ongoing today, about how queer people fit into a global hegemony that not only demands heterosexual, biological reproduction, but literally murders those who do not comply with the reproductive imperative.

“The Most Segregated Hour”

One of the recurring topics of our class has been the fact that the Christian Church in America is a tool that reinforces segregation. We first saw this in I Am Not Your Negro, in which Baldwin, in an interview with Dick Cavett, exclaims: “I don’t know if white Christians hate Negroes or not, but I know we have a Christian Church which is white and a Christian Church which is Black. I know, as Malcolm X once put it, the most segregated hour in American life is high noon on Sunday. That says a great deal for me about a Christian nation. It means I can’t afford to trust most white Christians and I certainly cannot trust the Christian Church.” I was interested in this quote, as we discussed the misattribution of it in class on Wednesday. For that reason, I did a little bit of research about the quote as well as the topic of racial segregation in Christian churches. 

Although Baldwin attributes the quote to Malcolm X, I was only able to find a similar quote from Martin Luther King Jr., who said, “I think it is one of the tragedies –– one of the shameful tragedies –– that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours, if not the most segregated hour, in Christian America” (King). Baldwin reiterates King’s point in later works such as “Down at the Cross,” in which he writes “In the same way that we, for white people, were the descendants of Ham, and were cursed forever, white people were, for us, the descendants of Cain” (Collected Essays 310). 

This begs the question: has anything changed? Are churches today more integrated than they were fifty years ago? Well, the answer is complicated. According to a 2001 article, up to 87% of Christian churches were racially homogenous, with 69% of congregations being almost entirely white and 18% of congregations almost entirely Black (Vischer). But of course, such a statistic is suspect, as the study only considered Black and white Americans, without noting if a church was attended by Asian, latinx, or Indigenous populations. More recently, the Pew research center noted that “[m]any U.S. congregations are still racially segregated, but things are changing” (Lipka). According to their 2014 study, 20% of Americans attend a church in which no single racial group constitutes more than 80% of the congregation. This begs new questions: is a Church that’s 80% white, but say, 20% latinx no longer a tool of anti-Black segregation? Likewise, just because 20% of Americans attend such churches, that doesn’t mean that anything has changed. Maybe those individuals just attend a handful of “Megachurches” with huge populations. Regardless, the fact remains that Christian churches, on average, are largely racially homogenous. Until things seriously change, Baldwin’s statements reflect a vital and highly disconcerting critique that Christians of all denominations should reflect upon.

Who is Esther?

One of the most important female characters by the end of the book, in my opinion, is Esther. Gabriel and Esther engage in an affair that “lasted only nine days,” yet by the end of the novel this affair threatens not only Gabriel’s credibility but his very chance at salvation. Esther’s legacy is critical to the plot of the story, even if she is no longer alive to speak out against Gabriel herself. For that reason, I wanted to do a close reading of both Esther and her biblical namesake to draw out some of Baldwin’s messaging. 

From Part Two onwards, the language that surrounds Esther is associated with salvation (or a lack thereof). Gabriel describes his first sexual encounter with her as a “fall,” with the narrator explaining “so he had fallen: for the first time since his conversion, for the last time in his life. Fallen” (121). But it wasn’t the last time in his life by any means. We learn that Esther “contained in her narrow body all mystery and all passion” –– “sin, death, Hell, the judgement were blotted out” in her presence (121). It is clear that Gabriel views Esther as a seductress, and her beauty is vital to her character. When Esther flees North to Chicago, she flees with money “stole[n]” by Gabriel from Deborah (129). 

Esther’s flight offers an important parallel to her namesake, the biblical Esther. In the Bible, Esther is “a young Jewish woman living in exile in the Persian diaspora” (Crawford). According to Bible scholars, Esther’s story is important as an example for all those living in exile. The biblical Esther is beautiful (like Baldwin’s character), and she ultimately becomes the queen of the Persian Empire. There are notable similarities between the two women, but there are also notable differences. For example, both women are highly sexualized, they both flee from their home, and they are descended from enslaved peoples. The most marked difference between the two Esthers, then, would seem to be their success. The biblical Esther successfully saves the Jewish people from genocide by currying favor with the King of Persia. 

It might seem, on first glance, that Baldwin’s Esther is “unsuccessful” in her quest to live a happy life up North. Yet at the end of Go Tell It On The Mountain, her story offers a sort of salvation to Florence and all those harmed by Gabriel. Florence boldly declares, with Esther’s legacy as her witness, that Gabriel “done made enough folks pay for sin, it’s time you started paying” (208). Florence explains that she is “going to find some way –– some way, I don’t know how –– to rise up and tell it, tell everybody, about the blood the Lord’s anointed got on his hands” (208). In this way, Baldwin’s Esther offers salvation to Elizabeth, John, the congregation, and anyone who Gabriel claims to have power over. Esther’s tragic death and Gabriel’s abandonment of Roy is evidence that Gabriel is no prophet or anointed one. Hence, like the biblical Esther, Baldwin’s Esther is ultimately a woman who saves her people.

What is Homosociality?

Quick note: I apologize if none of this makes sense. I’m trying to explain a theory that Sedgwick wrote two whole books about, so I may have failed dramatically. 

In class on Monday, I mentioned that I noticed an intertwining of queer coding and religious imagery in Part 1 of Go Tell It On The Mountain. I’d like to expand on this observation considering our extensive in class discussions of the topic. Specifically, we discussed the “holy kiss” between Gabriel and Elisha (Baldwin 53). On a related note, we discussed the fact that Bigger Thomas masturbates alongside his male friend, an action which is only “ok” because the object of desire is, allegedly, a woman (Mary Dalton). All of these scenes invoke homosociality, a word which is actually a technical term in queer theory. 

I hear people use the word “homosocial” quite a bit. Many people assume the word merely refers to same-sex socialization, describing a space that is exclusively male or exclusively female. In academia, though, homosociality is a term popularized by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, a literary scholar of queer theory and feminism. Attention to homosociality notes the intense male-male (or female-female) desire which is “at once compulsory and the most prohibited of social bonds” (Epistemology of the Closet 187). In wikipedia’s words, homosociality “connote[s] a form of male bonding often accompanied by a fear or hatred of homosexuality.” It is “a form of male bonding with a characteristic triangular structure. In this triangle, men have intense but nonsexual bonds with other men, and women serve as the conduits through which those bonds are expressed.” According to Sedgwick, same-sex spaces are structured around anti-queerness, using their hegemony to exclude and deny queer people. For example, players on a basketball team often grope and spank each other. Such behavior is socially obligated to some extent as a form of camaraderie and validation (e.g. “compulsory” same-sex desire). Yet such behavior is only “ok” as long as it is not explicitly “gay.” The basketball team itself will go to extreme lengths to exclude and bully queer men precisely to ensure that the team’s own manifestation of same-sex affection is not perceived as queer. They grope each other because they’re not gay, a paradoxical phenomenon. 

This definition of homosociality is in line with how we have been using it in class. After all, Baldwin pays special attention to the ways that same-sex religious spaces in Go Tell It On The Mountain are “gay” but also “not gay.” Men and women may kiss each other, as long as it is a “holy kiss” between straight men/women. Elisha and John can wrestle, as long as they do so in a (heterosexual) “manly” way. When Elisha and John wrestle in the back room of the Church, Baldwin writes, “Elisha let fall the stiff gay mop and rushed at John” (53). The paragraph is filled with phrases like “stiff,” “thrust,” and Elisha’s “damp fists, joined at the small of John’s back” (Baldwin 50). The language of the scene emphasizes that which, in almost any other context, would be queer. This same analysis can be applied to Bigger in the movie theatre, when he does a “gay thing” (masturbating with a man) because he is “not gay.” This, in essence, is homosociality: same-sex spaces that demand same-sex desire while categorically denying the rights of a person who desires the same-sex.

Black Radicalism

In the presentations on Wednesday, we received multiple lenses through which to compare James Baldwin and Richard Wright. One in particular stood out to me: the lens of Black Radicalism. Susan’s presentation on this topic reminded me of the relationship between white communists and Bigger Thomas in Native Son, especially when she explained that the Black Radical ideology necessitates the rejection of “bourgeois ideology,” which is inherently white. 

One lingering question after reading Native Son is whether or not the white communists redeem themselves. Early in the novel, it is clear that they cause trauma for Bigger. For example, Mary asks Bigger if he is in a union in front of Mr. Dalton, and she proceeds to ask, “isn’t he a capitalist, Bigger?” Such a question puts Bigger, an economically vulnerable individual, in an impossible position. Throughout Part 1 of Native Son, Mary and Jan ask Bigger to cross professional boundaries, purchased alcohol and drank with him, etc. Any kindness they show him is the bare minimum, as their “bourgeois ideology” and costly protests do little to create meaningful change. 

Ultimately, even Max’s deep empathy for Bigger and his wholehearted efforts to defend Bigger from racially-biased, mob justice fail. As Susan pointed out, Wright moved towards a Black Radical Marxism later in life. His portrayal of white Communists in Native Son might be seen as an indicator of this ideology. 

Above all, our readings this week indicated the conflicts between Wright and Richard, with Irving Howe noting in “Black Boys and Native Sons” that “now, precisely because Wright had prepared the way for the Negro writers to come, he, Baldwin, would go further, transcending the sterile categories of “Negro-ness,” whether those enforced by the white world or those defensively erected by the Negroes themselves.” I am excited to see if Baldwin is able to do this, and how he will further expand on the Black Radical ideology that is already present in Wright’s work.

Misc. Thoughts on Realism and Empathy

For class on Wednesday, we read two duelling essays about Native Son. In “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” James Baldwin decries Wright’s depiction of Bigger as disconnected from the true human condition. Baldwin claims that all protest novels “are fantasies, connecting nowhere with reality.” Wright’s retort, in “How Bigger Was Born,” claims just the opposite. According to Wright, there have been many true “Biggers” in his life, and Wright drew on these acquaintances to create the main character. In class, I felt the need to ‘choose a side’ –– to choose whether or not I believe in a “real” Bigger. This is a pressing question, with implications for how one interprets Native Son. But upon further reflection, I am inclined to ask a different question entirely: regardless of whether Bigger “exists,” did Wright have deep empathy for the character? Did Wright try to create a complex character with the same humanity as himself? 

The reason I ask this question is because of an article I read on a tangentially related topic. In “White Writer,” Sarah Schulman investigates the ethics of white writers who depict characters of color (typically they do so very poorly). The article focuses primarily on one author, a contemporary of Wright and Baldwin: Carson McCullers. A white writer assigned female at birth (though McCullers’ gender identity is hotly contested today), McCullers wrote extensively about the South and racial politics in America. Many critics applaud McCullers thoughtful portrayal of characters of color, and I, too, consider McCullers to have been far ahead of their time. Consider the following passage, which even includes a quote from Richard Wright:

“For almost twenty years, I have tried to understand how McCullers embodied what Richard Wright called “an attitude towards life” that “cannot be accounted for stylistically or politically”—one that enabled her to imagine and create consciousness that was not her own, and also one that was not widely available in other novels or movies.”

I do think that Wright, like McCullers, had deep empathy for Bigger. After all, this is the true focus of “How Bigger Was Born” –– Wright’s own relationship to Bigger; his attempt to bring to life Bigger’s “peculiar type of being and consciousness.” At the end of the day, Bigger is nothing more than a creation of Wright’s imagination, regardless of whether Wright claims to have had realistic source material. Still, Wright attempted to imbue the character with tremendous complexity and humanity. 

I am curious if you all agree. Does it matter whether Bigger “exists”? Did Wright successfully enable us, as readers, to feel the same empathy for Bigger that he did as the author?