Baldwin’s Resistance (ours too)

Last night, my friend was talking to me about struggling to take care of herself. She is a passionate, critical, and involved human who always challenges me to be a better ally, revolutionary, and person. Her critical gaze allows her to hold her community, her friends, and herself morally accountable. This helps her make an actual difference everywhere she goes. She knows that the world can be kinder and expresses that with an urgency. I’m always so deeply impressed and touched by her passion. However, she also holds herself to high standards and struggles with acknowledging the state of her mental health. Almost automatically, I started sharing some things I’ve learned about James Baldwin.

In this class, we have truly challenged and interrogated Baldwin’s canon. By beginning with Richard Wright and discussing the throwaway treatment of the two rape scenes, we familiarized ourselves with the limits of the tradition which jumpstarts and undercuts Baldwin’s career. In Baldwin’s own fiction, we examined the female characters, like Hella, who receive underwhelming, and occasionally misogynistic, depictions. In Baldwin’s essays about France, we discussed his potential responsibility to address France’s racism and ongoing colonization in the context of the Algerian War. Several of us were disheartened by the lack of nuance and attention that the situation received. We resolved this partially by a comparison to King’s backlash at speaking up about the Vietnam War, as well as emphasizing his mental health struggles and suicide attempts. Finally, in the Civil Rights section, we acknowledged yet another limit to Baldwin’s canon. In his lively conversation with Audre Lorde, Baldwin has a frustrating commitment to his distinct perspective as a man. This was yet another challenging subject for our class, as we were once again forced to confront Baldwin’s personal limits. Even though he attempts to hear Lorde out, a disconnect and lack of witness remains in that interview. Ultimately, our class came to the tenuous (I hesitate to say) conclusion that even if Baldwin’s mind wasn’t changed in this interview, it at least must have made him think.

Despite all the ways we encountered frustrations and limits in Baldwin’s canon, I’m primarily left with his radical resistance and transformative message of love. He exposes the spark burning deep within the gilded walls of the Church & of America. He challenges himself and all his readers to enter into the Love we each enflesh in a revolutionary way. It is certainly a prophetic and explosive vision. I feel so blessed to have been able to unpack it right now and with all of you. 

Finally, I’d like to bring this back to the conversation I had with my friend. This powerful and loving person in my life was being so hard on herself for needing a little help to feel ok. So, I tried to tell her about the deep complexity of Baldwin as a person, writer, and revolutionary. Even Baldwin has limits, be they personal or political. And he recognizes them, which allows us to as well! I believe it is a deeply loving act to present those limits unaffectedly and honestly. Accepting his limits resists the totalizing projects of capitalism, authoritarianism, and fascism. Baldwin’s resistance doesn’t seek some neo-liberal consumptive version of success or perfection. He is human and he wants us to be, too. Deeply, radically, and lovingly human. 

History & Justice

“My Dungeon Shook” combines a personal, philosophical, and urgent tone to create a weighty and undeniably moving piece. Particularly, after reading it in light of our discussion regarding effective teaching pedagogies, I was struck by the language surrounding history. Baldwin effectively categorizes the way history functions as a tool for the oppressor, as well as its interaction with whiteness. “History,” though, in this letter is a complex term. For example, Baldwin delineates between different types of histories. Of the crimes of whiteness, Baldwin asserts “neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.” Here, history seems to refer to a neutral, objective force of justice and inertia, that ultimately progresses toward true emancipation for Black Americans. 

Baldwin describes another kind of history, though. He explains, white people “are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.” The entrapping, false history is distinguishable from the previous definition. History, in this context, upholds injustice and opposes motion. It also comes to define whiteness, in its horrific and distorted “innocence” of manipulative and coercive ignorance. It is this type of history that Baldwin tells his nephew “does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity and fear.” The malleable history is forgettable, boring, and whitewashed. It lacks nuance but commands and ensures violence. 

Luckily, Baldwin continues to resist through his letter to his nephew. Once again, he reinterprets the word history. By narrowing in on the particulars that whiteness erases, Baldwin reanimates history. He tells his nephew “It will be hard, James, but you come from sturdy, peasant stock, men who picked cotton and dammed rivers and built railroads, and, in the teeth of 4 the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity.” With his history of dignity and honesty, Baldwin inches society closer to the capital H history which moves indefinitely and unstoppably toward justice.

Canon & Satire

In our readings for Monday, questions of canon and authorization coincided with the interrogation of integration and survival. In “Why James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time Still Matters,” Orlando Edmonds proposes that “the irony of today’s police violence would not have been lost on Baldwin: namely, that all this takes place under the watch of a Black President, whose first term began a little more than forty years later.” Certainly, Baldwin is aware of the hypocrisy of systems in the US, whether that be the morality of the Black church or heterosexuality or the institutionalization of racism. Undoubtably, the hypocrisy of a Black President would be unsurprising. Interestingly, this article distinctly notes Baldwin keen perception on issues of irony. His particular voice, then, is postured to critique and mock America’s hypocrisy with honesty and precision. 

In a similar motion,  Thomas Chatterton Williams in “Equal in Paris” investigates France’s history and canon of satire. His conclusion, is that “it is Baldwin whose words echo loudest in my mind—more than Voltaire or Rushdie or Christopher Hitchens or any other exemplar of satire and blasphemy.” In France’s moment of crisis, more than the relics of old canon, Williams appeals to the scathing words of Baldwin, outside of the hypocrisy of the Enlightenment’s colonizations. Similarly, Williams’ race provides him with the insight to see through France’s performance of satire. He acknowledges the coexistence of France’s “violent, racist, and unexorcised past” as well as their “tradition of anti-authoritarian satiric wit.” This is what leads him to ultimately conclude “a crucial component of any joke or narrative can be found in who exactly is doing the telling.” His work then, in this paper and in his reading of Baldwin, lies is valuing the insightful and productive voices of the oppressed as relevant and canon worthy, if not canon-creating. 

The conclusion for both Williams and Lorde seems to be an ethos opposed to mythologizing thinkers. Rather than promoting a culture that pedestals thinkers, like the Western canon that highlight Descartes, these two challenge us to elevate those forgotten in order to make the possibility of a true canon even thinkable. 

Radical Empathy & Intersectionality

Audre Lorde boldly proposes radical empathy in the work of redefining identity as a liberating form of resistance. This outlook, which grows out of Baldwin’s assertion that love transcends, renews the life force fighting against the intersecting oppressions of white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy. Radical empathy opposes stagnation by emphasizing unity and harmony through difference and understanding.The way forward requires active listening. For example, Lorde challenges white women in the academy to examine “the needs and living contexts of other women” (Lorde). Lorde doesn’t stop by challenging white feminists to a more honest, nuanced, and selfless allyship. She also acknowledges her own personal strivings to witness to her fellow WOC’s pains. She demonstrates how to listen by sharing “If I participate, knowingly or otherwise, in my sister’s oppression and she calls me on it, to answer her anger with my own only blankets the substance of our exchange with reaction. It wastes energy” (Lorde) For Lorde, the stakes of this call to radical empathy are high. They demand an ego death that allows for unity and real witness. It requires a transcendence of paralyzing guilt, which Lorde identifies as “only another form of objectification” (Lorde). Lorde seems to carve space into the civil rights movement for the wisdom and power of Black women with this approach. It is both bold and welcoming in its intersectional embrace. 

This carries on the legacy of Baldwin’s artistic empathy and passion. His gospel of love lays the foundation for the kind of listening that makes Lorde’s intersectionality possible. After the different moments of misogyny in this course, it was striking to hear Lorde call out toxic masculinity, stating “it’s so entrenched in him that it’s part of him as much as his Blackness is” (Baldwin and Lorde). Like in our discussion of Native Son, Lorde points out the way certain conceptions of Black masculinity rage against emasculation and impotence in a way that needlessly kills Black women. It was refreshing to hear our class’ critique validated in this way. Baldwin then shows us how to push forward, beyond guilt, in difficult conversations. The pair practice radical empathy and witness by allowing different experiences of gender to inform and harmonize their insights.

Corrupted Christianity

Jesse’s cruelty is absolutely horrifying and disgusting. Similarly, his absolute delusion and evil persuasion of his own blessedness or security is terrifying. In the very first paragraph, after Grace tells him he has been working too hard, he aggressively spits back ” ‘it’s not my fault.’ ” In this first refusal to take responsibility for the choices that are effecting his soul and community, Jesse hints at his absolute disconnect from reality. A master manipulator, Jesse argues to himself that “he had tried to do his duty all his life.” This doesn’t include thinking critically about the abusive misconception of duty he is working under. Indeed, the narrator claims Jesse “had never thought much about what it meant to be a good person.” There is a deeply disturbing assumption of rightness in Jesse’s character. This allows him to justify all sorts of evil behaviors. 

He blames the kids he manipulates for their innocence, laughing at how “they all liked him, the kids used to smile when he came to the door.” His delusion of complete superiority enables his absolute domination and manipulation. He again harks back to his lack of responsibility, claiming his violence “wasn’t his fault” if his Black neighbors had “taken it into their heads to fight against God and go against the rules laid down in the Bible for everyone to read.” Again, Jesse makes an uninformed, uncritical, and vicious appeal to a greater morality in order to explain away his responsibility. Even in his memories, Jesse tells himself a story of an unchangeable or natural corruption and superiority. He claims his childhood self had “wished that he had been that man,” inflicting violence on the lynched man. 

In all these examples, there is a sense that the greater religious and societal systems are just as corrupted. After the lynching, Jesse feels his father “carried him through a mighty test, had revealed to him a great secret.” In this language, almost like that between God and Abraham, Baldwin hints at the way white Christianity has been so thoroughly perverted, to a satanic point almost. 

This eerie horror does slip into Jesse consciousness, even if he ultimately overcomes it through the his vicious  domination. There is a deep anxiety in Jesse’s character that his Black neighbors are “singing white folks into hell.” When met with a resistant young Black boy, Jesse feels trapped, “perhaps one of the nightmares he himself had dreamed as a child.” He responds to this feeling with cruelty, but the horror of the moment is not lost on him. Similarly, the terror of young Jesse at the lynching, especially regarding his father’s dark joke (“if he don’t come back to haunt you”), precedes his ultimate delusive and perverted moral security or comfort at the end. 

In his haunted evil, Jesse portrays the way America’s white patriarchy has passed down and institutionalized a delusion of superiority, premised on violent Black death.

(sorry no page numbers, using a PDF!!!)

Reinterpreting the Myth

In our discussion with Professor Garibaldi, I was especially struck by the reinterpretation of Renaissance art, which we discussed in relation to the Lil Nas X video. In my PLS seminar, we are covering the Renaissance period through history, theology, and literature. Sometimes, those texts can feel so dead to me, especially in light of the fruitful conversations I am able to have about race and gender in my English classes. However, the “Montero” music video perfectly shows the way a canon can be passed down and reimagined to make space for the traditionally marginalized voice or artist. Interestingly, I am also struck by the ways this reinterpretation transcends the boundaries of time and brings a piece of art from centuries ago into the modern consciousness so dramatically. Last week, I wrote on the sort of queer temporality that Baldwin sketches out. I’m curious whether Baldwin’s subversive mixing of the sacred and the profane in his reinterpretation of biblical myths could relate to the question of temporality. To me, it seems that, for the characters, homosexuality allows an escape from the oppressive constraints of time. For Baldwin, though, the work of reinterpreting provides a further escape from the bounds of time. Ultimately, this transcendence more effectively allows for a resistance to the domination of a heteronormative world.

Lots of folks have discussed the Eden image is a great place to look on the question of biblical reinterpretation in this text. The idea that “nobody stays in the garden of Eden” precedes the claim that “everybody has a garden” (239). This parallels with David’s American proposition that we are not fish in the common, plain water of time waiting to be eaten, but rather “you can choose to be eaten and also not to eat” (248). In both the conception of Eden and the discussion of time, there is a distinction made between an oppressive, inevitable constraint and a moment of blissful, individualized freedom. This ultimately points back to the struggle of homosexuality in a hetero-world. In this way, Baldwin is also able, like Lil Nas X, to use biblical language to create an understanding of one dimension his intersectional exclusion.

Utopia and Queer Temporality

In this first section of Giovanni’s Room, I was interested in the question of queer temporality. The work starts at dusk before “the night which is leading me to the most terrible morning of my life” (221). The depiction of night as a transitory darkness emphasizes the churning, oppressive nature of time. From this nefarious first moment, the narrator enters into the darker past. Two timelines unfold for the reader almost simultaneously, as David dreads his constant, oppressive present movement and walks with the reader in a darker, more erotic, yet somehow unrelated, past. 

The first time a different conception of temporality arises coincides with David’s experience of homosexuality. When he sleeps with Joey, the narrator claims “a lifetime would not be long enough for me to act with Joey the act of love” (225). Unfortunately, this utopic, expansive feeling of infinity crashes back into “that night” which bounds it (225). Again later, as Giovanni and David banter shamelessly, of the age of Paris and the future of New York, a feeling of time as freeing blooms. David vulnerably proposes that ” ‘Time’s not water and we’re not fish and you can choose to be eaten and also not to eat’ ” (248). This sentiment seems to work in opposition to the trickling and bullying conception of time as common, passing, and oppressive. In it, there is a hopeful image of a moment of freedom. Giovanni, too, images this freeing temporality when he mocks David’s hesitancy, stating “We can become friends then” (250). Giovanni doesn’t seem to care when they officially become friends. He doesn’t believe in waiting for certainty. There is a consuming and alluring permanent presentness to their flirtations, which Giovanni’s statement reveals. 

This conception of time as a freeing presentness of pleasure is intimately connected with homosexual relationships. In fact, it seems to contrast with the oppressive futurism of heterosexuality. The old woman at the end of this section, who David compares to Giovanni’s mother, speaks unnervingly of her grandson, with the same name as her husband. This child, the only joy to a painful old age, instead of bringing hope to the scene, seems foolish and distasteful in this moment of loss and intrusion. This emphasizes the crash of the utopian queer temporality into an oppressive realism. 

Music & Transcendence

Throughout the transition from Native Son to Go Tell It, I have been struck by the nuance that opens up a hope for redemption and union in Baldwin’s text. Both texts engage with the gritty realities of Black life in America, yet Baldwin seems intent on rediscovering some hope for transcendence. Douglas Field, in his article “PENTECOSTALISM AND ALL THAT JAZZ: TRACING JAMES BALDWIN’S RELIGION,” makes a case for this transformative vision of hope. He claims “Baldwin’s most radical rewriting of Christian—or at least spiritual identity—is to place emphasis on salvation and redemption, not through God, but through a love that is founded on the sharing of pain” (Field). Even in our readings from last week, this impulse toward radical empathy is manifest. One specific example of this could be in the woman on the screen during the movie John watches. Baldwin writes that “all of John’s sympathy was given to this violent and unhappy woman” (36). It seems that art allows John to practice a radical empathy and acceptance that his church experience denies him. This radical and nuanced empathy also provides an insight into why Baldwin incorporates so much Job imagery. Like Job in the bible, Baldwin’s text holds space for nuance, suffering, and redemption in the protest novel tradition. 

After reading the Pentecostalism article, I was also particularly interested in the role music plays. Field claims that “In Baldwin’s writing transcendence or ecstasy frequently occurs outside of religious worship and is most likely to be found in the communion of friends and lovers through playing or listening to music or making love” (Field). It seems, then, that the unity of song provides an access point to transcendence. Again, Baldwin’s text seems to emphasize the important role of art. Given our discussion of Dante in class recently, I couldn’t help but think of Purgatorio. In Purgatory, art is a motive and unitive force. The songs and chants linger over the scene of striving and comfort the souls, stuck in their climb toward transcendence. This music is a shocking transition from the isolation of Dante’s hell, so the music also emphasizes a sort of participatory God, located in communion between souls. It seems perhaps that Baldwin is using music in a similar way. John shares that “their singing caused him to believe in the presence of the Lord” (12). In this way, art holds an especial chance to discover god and one another. 

Relationship, Nuance, Art

One of the most striking differences between the first book of Go Tell It on the Mountain and Native Son for me was the rich relationships and side characters Baldwin offered. In “Many Thousands Gone,” Baldwin claims that “Bigger has no discernible relationship to himself, to his own life, to his own people, nor to any other people.” Certainly, as a reader, after 400 pages of Bigger’s isolated experience of the world, I found myself, while not put off, thoroughly fatigued. That fatigue sets in early, though. From the beginning, there is a feeling that everything in Wright’s world reflects back onto his main character. The shameful undertones of Vera and her mother as they change furtively and quickly in the opening of the first scene seems to somehow be more about Bigger’s shame and isolation. The competitive egos and insecurities of Bigger’s friends feels more indicative of Bigger’s issues than of an honest, nuanced depiction of community, friendship, or Black men. For me, this related back to the question of artistry that came up during Ahana’s presentation. This impulse, to create a main character with such overwhelming and isolating gravitas, was a bold choice. It was not always very relatable or efficient, and I believe some of the poetics, artistry, or connection was lost as a result. 

Going into Go Tell It on the Mountain, I was curious to see if these same issues might come up or how they might be addressed differently. I think looking at the depiction of the mother in Baldwin’s book could be an excellent access point, especially as gender was such a gripping and obvious issue in the last text. At least for starters, I believe Baldwin explains the relationship between John and John’s mother much more effectively, artistically, and honestly. For example, as John thinks about old pictures of his mom in comparison with her current battered appearance, he finds that “between the two faces there stretched a darkness and a mystery that John feared, and that sometimes cause him to hate her” (20). This line beautifully conveys the ominous, mystical, and confusing feelings that John must wrestle with in his relationship with his mom. It is far more discernible, relatable, and redemptive almost. 

Wright, Baldwin, and Afro-pessimism

I’m interested in the question of redemption for Bigger Thomas. He performs some pretty ghastly acts throughout the texts and, equally as poignantly, experiences deep pain and exclusion. The coexistence of these two realities, Bigger as victim and perpetrator, offers a unique nuance to the question of redemption. What could redemption look like for Bigger? In my mind, it would be a combination of remorse, inclusion, and a resounding affirmation of life. This, unfortunately, never occurs. Frank Wilderson and James Baldwin perhaps offer two opposing access points to get at this question of redemption for Bigger Thomas.

The concept of “social death,” for Orlando Patterson, denotes the extreme exclusion and violence of slavery, specifically the enslavement of Black people in America. Frank Wilderson, however, in his essay “Afro-Pessimism and the End of Redemption,” proposes Afro-Pessimism “which is premised on an iconoclastic claim: that Blackness is coterminous with Slaveness. Blackness is social death.” Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas’ saturating exclusion from sociality, language, and institutions of power in this novel seems to provide an example of the Black man who’s Blackness is Slaveness is social death. Indeed, Wright writes of Bigger: “had he not taken fully upon himself the crime of being black?” (296). And as Max later states, “His very existence is a crime against the state” (400). The state, which holds the power, sees Bigger’s life as oppositional to its own. Beyond this, even the concepts and language which are supposed to protect people are contaminated by anti-Blackness. As Max states, “injustice which lasts for three long centuries and which exists among millions of people over thousand of square miles of territory, is injustice no longer; it is an accomplished fact of life” (391). The very definition of justice left Bigger behind. This seems similar to Wilderson’s ideas that the Humanist discourse is premised on Black people’s death and oppression. Furthermore, there is something to be said about the fact that Bigger cannot even defend himself to his jury or his reader. Wright gives the longest and most potentially redeeming words to a white lawyer, who is able to deal in the systems of the oppressor. This only further emphasizes Bigger’s experience of social death. Wright ultimately calls this social death, through Max’s words, a “new form of life,” one that white America does not understand and wants to crush out of guilt (391).

How does social death in Native Son help us understand the arc of redemption? Wright tells us Bigger “had lived outside of the lives of men… their modes of communication, their symbols and images, had been denied him.” After Max’s limited witness and justification of his pain, Bigger hinges his redemption of a certain sense of closure, relation, and understanding with Max. This never comes. In the final scene, “Bigger’s voice was full of frenzied anguish” and “Max’s eyes were full of terror” (429). There is a blindness to Max, the intellectual who negotiates with the system in the language of the system, who “did not turn around” (429). This whole scene leaves Bigger, alone, misunderstood, and angry. He sees himself more fully perhaps, but it does not appear to be a redemption. An Afro-Pessimistic lens might give some insight as to why. WIlderson claims that “social death is aporetic with respect to narrative writ large (and, by extension, to redemption, writ large).” Wilderson’s idea of “redemption as an anti-Black modality” is rooted in the idea that for the Black person in America, social death constitutes a lack of spatiality, reciprocity, and futurity. Wilderson basically claims that there is a whole different temporality that cannot allow for redemption as defined by the current humanist language and discourse. So (I think) for Wilderson, the final scene of Native Son would not be a redemption, but rather an accurate depiction of the temporality of Blackness (as coterminous with Slaveness and social death).

Baldwin, though, offers some contrary thoughts. In “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” Baldwin criticizes Native Son for how “below the surface of this novel, there lies, as it seems to me, a continuation, a complement of that monstrous legend it was written to destroy.” (22) His issue with the book seems to be that it works in the systems and stories that White America uses to exclude Black Americans and enforce social death. On a wider scale, Baldwin offers two lines of reasoning in his general critique of the genre. One that the protest novel is zealous and reductive and another that the protest novel is a mirror of life, rather than accomplishing its lofty goals. He states “the failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended” (23). Interestingly, this critique resembles Jesse McCarthy’s take in “On Afropessimism,” which critiques the reductive nature of Wilderson’s lens. McCarthy contrasts Wilderson’s swooping assumptions about Blackness with more nuanced examples, before ultimately critiquing the isolating and unproductive impulse of the philosophy. Sounds familiar. Does Wilderson then inherit Wright’s legacy? Is Wilderson’s critical work a sort of continuation of the Protest Novel genre which Baldwin critiques? What is the utility of works that so boldly and provocatively hold space for the pain of Black people in America, while still upholding the current system and mythology through negation? Is there any?