Throughout the course and over the last couple of weeks, we’ve talked about the price that was paid for some to become white, who tells history, how they tell it and why, and who has to do the work to redeem this country. I’ve also been thinking about Rae’Vonne’s post regarding confederate statues and symbols and how those ties in the fabric of what is America. In On Being ‘White’ and Other Lies,” Baldwin states: ” America became white—the people who, as they claim, “settled” the country became white—because of the necessity of denying the Black presence and justifying the Black subjugation.” He continues to assert that the white community is built on a “genocidal” lie. People became white through many crimes against humanity, against Black people. This brings me back to Rae’Vonne’s blog post about the statues. So much brutality has broken out over the past couple of years over symbols and uses of American history. Baldwin did talk about this desire that those who identify with the history of the confederacy, be it because they’re actually racist or (what is the other option? a love of history?), wanting to protect this inhumane foundation at all costs. Why? Because the history of this country is seen as inseparable from the statues and monuments today.
In 2010, a self-proclaimed Neo-Nazi floored his car into a group of protesters in Virginia. Many people were injured and a woman, Heather Heyer, was killed. The protesters were gathered to battle against America’s racist history. In that town, there are still statues of Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jackson. Some people want those statues and those like them to be torn down, while others, who proudly call themselves neo-nazis or nationalists, see it as a representation of their understanding of America where white people are superior. Some, who have rejected these two groups still want the statues because they claim it reminds the country of brilliant military leadership. There will always be, it seems disagreements on the story that is told. In “No Name in the Street,” Baldwin said, “One may see that the history, which is now indivisible from oneself, has been full of errors and excesses; but this is not the same thing as seeing that, for millions of people, this history . . . has been nothing but an intolerable yoke, a stinking prison, a shrieking grave.” If White people and those with power in this country continue to accept this genocidal lie, then no one else can effectively reject it or move forward in true progress. So how do we move forward? I’m not sure, but the way I see it, one of the crucial steps is to educate and teach every facet of history to our children and ourselves.
Summer 2020, I found myself furiously googling “how to talk to child about racism and police brutality + black parents.” My little brother who is 8 years old and the most sheltered child I’ve ever encountered, was getting curious about why my parents always shut off the news when he was within earshot and why his cousins were talking about George Floyd. My google searches led me to many videos, articles, books, and essays and that was the first time I read Baldwin’s “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew.”
I had the opportunity of learning what it means to be black when I came to the United States through many painful experiences. Unlike my brother, I’ve been going to PWI since I began my journey in the American education complex. I also grew up understanding that many of my home country’s issues stemmed from the involvement of the United States. It was hard to not let the bitterness and anger that I felt influence the talk that I needed to have with my brother. I read Baldwin’s essay many times and outlined points to focus on with my brother. In my copy of Baldwin’s essay, I highlighted: “you were born where you were born and faced the future you faced because you were black and for no other reason” and annotated “possible point after talking about history of slavery. make it kid-friendly.”
Though Baldwin’s essay talks a lot about systemic racism and how to approach integration, I focused a lot on “there is no reason for you to try to become like white people” and “these men are your brothers — your lost, younger brothers.” It felt hard saying that to my brother. Especially when I get pangs of worry when my father doesn’t pick up his phone. Especially when I remember family members’ deadly encounters with the police. And especially when I recall the “Black Lives Matter is a terrorist group,” and the “there isn’t any racism in America” from our “innocent and well-meaning” neighbors who would sit and chat in the community park. The same people who came with soup and baked goods after my father had surgery. The same neighbors who took turns babysitting my brother when my grandmother was out of the country.
I’ve been musing on education and the limited space presented to students for social justice and activism. My readings for another class, Critical Pedagogy, and Popular Culture: Transforming Urban Education inform my stream of thoughts on this post. In Nobody Knows my Name, James Baldwin was speaking on the subject of desegregation and stated: “They (the parents) are doing it because they want the child to receive the education which will allow him to defeat, possibly escape, and not impossibly help one abolish the stifling environment in which they see, daily, so many children perish.” Baldwin was lucky, in a way, because his teachers recognized his gifts and saw his brilliance. Just as Baldwin viewed education and his intellect as a “way out,” so did the many parents fighting for their children to receive a better education. However, access to education does not mean access to opportunities. The environment where the learning is taking place has as much an effect as the content of the education being received.
In “Take Me to the Water,” Baldwin speaks a bit to this: ” They [the children] were attempting to get an education, in a country in which education is a synonym for indoctrination if you are white, and subjugation if you are black.” I find his shift in perspective interesting here, especially in light of another point Baldwin made in another essay, “A Talk to Teachers,” where he states, “the paradox of education is precisely this—that as one begins to become conscious, one begins to examine the society in which one is being educated.” I think it’s a positive thing — the ability to perceive the paradox in education. It should be a goal (one of the stops to changing the system of education) to have students completely understand the systems which indoctrinate or attempt to subjugate them. The issue that is being brought to light, however, is that education is failing students in helping them critically assess the content of their education. Schools are (or are supposed to be) places where students are supposed to be molded into active citizens who view justice as liberation from all institutions that oppress anyone. This starts with teachers (and the greater complex of academia) relating to students that the process of schooling is a political process. Schools and education should be examined “both in their historical context and as part of the existing social and political fabric that characterizes the dominant society” (McLaren).
One of the ways in which one can become conscious of the paradox present in education is to spread the understanding of how schools are a microcosm of the world we live in. As students, the first encounter with power dynamics between institutions and people occurs in the classroom. Learning to either subscribe or critically assess those structures also occurs in the classroom.
I can’t get “Going to Meet the Man” out of my head. I think it’s because this short story has been the most brutal one that I’ve read for any class. What I got from the short story is that Baldwin, through some very disturbing scenes, was trying to explain (maybe just theorizing or examining) how Jesse’s (and the other white men’s) sexual insecurity can be seen as a metaphor for understanding racial oppression. Jesse, as a white police officer, was experiencing the turmoil of the Jim Crow era. Black men were seen as a threat to the dominance that white people exercised, so the threats were neutralized through lynchings, beatings, and torture. Not saying that we have this level of brutality today. Still, the pain and shock that I experienced reading this mirror the ones I’ve felt times and times again when I see a video of or read an article of a black body being brutalized today.
One recurring mechanism behind Jesse’s racism is the objectification of the Black body. And it’s a trope/idea that we’ve seen in many other readings in this class. The immediate one that comes to mind is Native Son. In this short story, it seems like, through the White gaze, black bodies are othered and transformed into animals to justify white supremacy and racism. My understanding of Wright’s argument in Native Son points to a similar phenomenon. Wright’s novel attempted to make the case that rather than black people having an innately depraved mentality, it is white objectification and racism that led to the creation of Bigger Thomas, a character that illustrated the formation of black identity through violence.
Yet, at one point, I did feel sorry for Jesse when he was recounting the stories from his childhood. It was interesting to see how this young child could have been raised to become a terrorist.
If Go Tell It on the Mountain was somewhat about James Baldwin and his faith, Giovanni’s Room is about his sexuality and all the complications included when one starts the journey of embracing their sexuality. Having left America, like so many other writers, Baldwin settled in Paris to escape American Society. Even though he didn’t set the novel in America, the American view of homosexuality and the guilt and shame that others attribute to it comes vividly throughout the first couple of chapters.
From the onset, the readers can see David struggling with his masculinity, self-acceptance, guilt, and everything in between with a lot of self-loathing. What was at the forefront was the focus on gendered expectations that David hinted at. After having his first sexual encounter with Joey, David describes being overcome by fear and realizing that Joey was a boy. He then states: “that body suddenly seemed the black opening of a cavern in which I would be tortured till madness came, in which I would lose my manhood” (226). David is internalizing the conventional notions of what it means to be a man (here, one can’t fault him, he was only a child, and this is what he learned), making it difficult for him to come to terms with what occurred, himself and his masculinity. Because he associates manhood with heterosexuality, he feels that his attraction to Joey is wrong and indicates some failure: “how could this have happened in me” (226). From then on, it seems like David was running away from his sexuality — from being mean and cruel to Joey to proposing to Hella and even to him lying to himself when he hangs out with Jacques. Through these relationships, Baldwin is attempting to show how difficult it can be to deviate from stereotypical norms of manhood and womanhood.
I find it interesting that some of the themes that we saw in Go Tell It on the Mountain still continue throughout Giovanni’s Room. The same loneliness that we see in John is apparent in David — though for different reasons. I have a feeling that it also exists in Giovanni but I haven’t read that far along just yet to make that claim.
In Go Tell It on the Mountain, Baldwin sees the possibility of love both within the theological as well as a physical aspect. Love is something that John Grimes struggles to find throughout the novel and I’ve been wrestling with this question — besides his mother, where does he get that love?
Love should have come from Gabriel, John’s step-father and God’s messenger (going off his namesake), but it didn’t. Rather, John receives the minimum and only that — he is fed. clothed, sent to school but he doesn’t receive the love and emotional care that is necessary for one’s growth. What Gabriel presents is a message of sinfulness and eternal punishment in the burning fires of hell. To be saved from the wrath of this fearful God that Gabriel preaches about, one needs to be humble and leave behind all earthly things. Gabriel’s God is not one of love and compassion — may be because Gabriel is projecting himself into the theology. Gabriel projects a lot of hate, fear, and guilt into his theology and it’s impossible to have a loving relationship to arise from such a cancerous atmosphere and heart posture. God, after all, is about love, acceptance, and compassion. One notable point as well is that loving God and one’s neighbor in a Christian point of view requires the relinquishment of the self and power — Gabriel (and John) refuses to give up that power — rather, he is attracted to the pulpit partly because of the power and importance that it would bring him — “he wanted to be master, to speak with that authority which could only come from God.” As a father, husband, and brother, Gabriel’s legacy is one of fear and hatred rather than love.
But there is a bit of hope for the redemptive powers of Love in Go Tell It. I believe that there was real love between Richard and Elizabeth. The cruelty, however, lies in the outside world (the white world), unable to hold love for black people, taking away Richard from Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s relationship with Richard shows that there is a possibility of love but that it lies outside the “normal” and expected avenues. I see this through Elizabeth and Richard because despite the fact that Richard wasn’t “saved,” he and Elizabeth thrived and were happy in the world they created. Whereas, when Elizabeth interacted with those within the church (speaking of men), she got nothing but heartache.
The strongest possibility of love lies in the relationship between John and Elisha. However, that relationship is tense and deals with a kind of sexualized spirituality. This is not yet a fully formed thought and I’m still formulating it — I will continue expanding upon this during our presentation this week.
The theme of racism and its effects hold my interest while reading Go Tell It on the Mountain. Baldwin examines Reconstruction era America and the lasting hold of slavery from different generations, arguing that while people are no longer actively shackled and working on a cotton field, slavery has consequences that continue to resonate in the present and has serious implications for the future.
Though the throughline of slavery started much earlier, Go Tell It on the Mountain begins with Gabriel’s mother, Rachel, who was enslaved for thirty years in the South. Rachel endured many “tribulations,” including beatings and murders, simply because they were black. She was even raped by her white master (a story we see repeated with Deborah) and was denied the child that came out of that savagery. Through the stories of the remaining characters, Baldwin shows that the abolishment of slavery didn’t mean an end to the suffering and tribulations of black people in America.
The deep-seated racism and hatred continued to plague Rachel’s descendants and is reflected deeply in Florence’s relationship with black men. Black women are doubly oppressed — they endure the oppression pf a racist and sexist society. While the racism comes from the hands of the dominant culture, the sexism also comes from black men as well. Women are considered fragile and made to depend on men and the men, hardened by a racist society, are often cruel and abusive — relieving the pressure of their experiences on women. Florence states: “ain’t no woman born that don’t get walked over by some no-count man.” Florence grows to resent black men — especially Gabriel. As he was a “manchild,” she had to sacrifice many of her desires — school, clothes, food. As a result, Florence grew to resent her brother: “I hate him!” she would yell. “Big, black, prancing tomcat of a n—-.” I found Deborah’s response to this exclamation of hatred interesting. She said, “the Word tells us to hate the sun but not the sinner.” While she may have been talking about Gabriel’s actions, I also think that she may be referring to Gabriel’s blackness as a sin. This belief of blackness as a sin reflects how deep the claws of racism are –entrenching itself into the very being of black people to cause them to also internalize it.
One of the most problematized aspects of Native Son was Bigger Thomas’ rage and his lack of foundation in his identity as a person. In trying to speak to too many Bigger Thomas characters that Wright encountered in his life, the Bigger Thomas we encountered became a hollow representation with a lumbering and unfocused rage. Through Bigger Thomas, Wright addressed the daily indignities, humiliations and injustices that black people had (and still have) to suffer in America. In “Many Thousands Gone,” James Baldwin writes against the manner in which Wright depicts Bigger Thomas. He states that “it hastens to confine the Negro to the very tones of violence he has known all his life” because it didn’t show Bigger as a unique person or a member of a community. Another one of James Baldwin’s criticism of Native Son was that it cut out a “necessary dimension … the relationship that Negroes bear to another, that depth of involvement and unspoken recognition of shared experience which creates a way of life.” I find Baldwin’s assessment of Native Son interesting since his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain confronts several of the themes found in Native Son.
From the first part of Go Tell It on the Mountain, I can see the themes of faith, religion, morality, race/racism, gender, hatred and identity. All of which were present in Native Son. However, from the beginning of Baldwin’s novel, I can see that rage/anger is going to operate in a different and more controlled manner; maybe through a more internalized way rather than the externalized violence that Bigger exhibited in Native Son. Both the anger that John and Bigger Thomas live with are strong, overwhelming and understandable. I’m curious to see how Baldwin is going to use that rage in a way that doesn’t “confine” John to the same fate as Bigger Thomas.
In Wright’s novel, one point of interest was the differences in the violence against white and black women. I found it interesting that Wright seemed to be expressing that Native Son and Bigger are the natural result of what happens when attempted black resistance is called “rape.” After violating Mary’s body, Bigger claimed that “rape was not what one did to women. He committed rape every time he looked into a white face … But it was rape when he cried out in hate deep in his heart as he felt the strain of living day by day.” Here, as I understand it, Wright is in some ways equating rape of woman’s body to the suppression of black resistance and the bodies of black men. This comparison does not work for me due to the violence against women that actually occurs in the novel. This would have been a better comparison if Bigger was only falsely accused of rape. Bigger’s claim of rape not being an act against women turns this violence done to Mary and later Bessie, into a racial battlefield against the powers that be. Even if one argues that Bigger didn’t rape Mary in the “traditional” sense, it is impossible to deny the sexual tension and imagery in Mary’s death. When Bigger forces her body down, he feels “tight and full, as though about to explode” as he presses “all his weight” onto Mary’s body.
Mary’s lack of boundaries excited Bigger to action while Bessie’s reluctance to offer her body to him stirred Bigger’s desires at multiple points in the novel. When Bigger first visits Bessie, he becomes aroused by her cold and standoffish attitude: “he really did not mind her standing off from him; it made him hunger more keenly for her.” As he rapes her in that cold tenement house, he is unconscious to her pleas and protests and even seems to enjoy Bessie’s resignation and the “surrender of something more than her body.” Throughout that entire night, while Bessie’s “no’s” and pleas were ignored or faded away from Bigger, Wright allowed the readers to hear them and recognize what was happening to Bessie. The manner in which Bigger treated his rape and disposal of both women were also points of interest. After killing Mary, Bigger feels “strange … as if he were acting upon a stage in front of a crowd of people.” However, with Bessie, Bigger is aware that no one is watching. Subconsciously, Bigger is aware that those in power don’t care about the rape of a black woman, so he feels free to commit the crime to relieve himself of the pressure he feels. Bessie’s treatment in Native Son can be seen through historical lenses of black women’s devaluation in American society.