I am still continuing to try to understand the social and historical context in which Baldwin was living and writing. There are parts of me that understand that he was choosing his words carefully in order to appeal to those of the time, and who he was writing for. And there are the other parts of me that think back to our discussion of revolution and how we cannot change the way America was built if we do not burn everything down, and how there were so many opportunities for Baldwin to do this. I think back to him constantly referring to himself as “strange” or the “stranger” in Paris and how if he would have spoken out about Algeria he might have faced the same backlash that Martin Luther King did when speaking out about the Vietnam War. However, Paris was not his country. As you can see the back and forth that my mind is struggling with on this topic. The issues of the treatment of Black Women was in his country and most of the time a part of the same struggles that he was fighting for, yet the acknowledgement was not there. 

As Professor Kinyon stated last class, it is important that when one is refuting something or making claims, it needs to be based in fact and I am not an expert by any means, I acknowledge that. However, there is some truth in the way that Baldwin’s conversation and his portrayal of Black women has made me feel. I also understand the idea of representation and that the women he was writing about were products of their time, but given the freedom of artistic choice when writing your own novels, I begin to question one’s true intention. Again, I am not an expert in the slightest and am being affected by the power of hindsight and I fully acknowledge that. I will continue to do the research I had started for my paper and presentation and will continue to keep an open mind and understand that one never stops learning.

Insanity and Privilege

There are many ideas and subjects that one could discuss on this section of James Baldwin because many of them are still relevant today. Per last class, the idea of mental health and insanity had risen as a topic. Like Baldwin had stated in his conversation with Audre Lord, to be Black is to be schizophrenic. Looking up the definition of schizophrenia and what it actually is, I began to wonder why so many Black men have been diagnosed with this illness. Although there is no cause for schizophrenia, according to the American Psychiatric Association, living a life as traumatic as a Black person’s it makes sense that many Black men and women would have breakdowns between thoughts, emotions, and behavior. However, as we were discussing in class, the ideas of delusion and hallucination made me wonder about the white people who believe that our country is the greatest place on Earth, or in the words of a delusional “leader,” a place that was once great. I agree with Professor Kinyon in stating that the white (moderate) liberal is the biggest problem to our country because of their passivity. There is no recognition for the problem of the oppressor and yet, there is confusion when Black people are disproportionately affected by mental illness, police brutality, poverty, etc. The privilege that they hold is unearned, yet at the costly expense of other people’s sanity. Baldwin writes about white children being “educated” and growing up to run this country saying “but at least they are white. They are under the illusion, which, since they are so badly educated, sometimes has a fatal tenacity-that they can do whatever they want to do. Perhaps that is exactly what they are doing…” (Nobody Knows My Name, 201). Again, it begs the question, as it has so many times before, what is the role of Black Americans in society?

Clouded Adoration

After learning about Baldwin’s history with the church, we can see that he is heavily influenced by religion through his writings and even throughout his life as a queer man. One could say that he had a complicated history because of what the Bible says about homosexuality, and his complicated relationship with his Father who was a preacher. However, in “The Dangerous Road Before Martin Luther King,” we can clearly see the adoration of Baldwin towards Martin Luther King Jr. and we also see the way Baldwin’s view of the church changed being in King’s presence. It says a great deal about King’s influence on individuals, but his influence on the Black community, as well. In a way, if King could have Baldwin see churches in a new light, he surely could lead the community to a new future. 

Reading Baldwin’s works, it is prominent that he writes about love: loving oneself, loving thy neighbor, and searching for loving relationships. It is clear in this essay that Baldwin is writing his love for King and the way he could garner hope and love from, and for, Black people. Baldwin writes that the newfound joy and power in the church was because King was not creating a space of protest and condemnation but of hope and love. The very thing that Baldwin, one might argue, was always looking for in the church, other people were looking for, as well, and they found it in King. He was a great speaker and a figure that people looked up to, but what distinguished him from others was that “he suffered with them and, thus, he helped them to suffer,” (Baldwin 643). Now, was Martin Luther King Jr. perfect, no, and Baldwin writes of this and we know of these things now. However, it cannot be disputed that King affected change in Baldwin as he did for the rest of the country. One question I ask is, although Baldwin saw the new change in the church and many others did, as well: would it have been the same if they were not looking for it? Baldwin was always searching for love, in everything, but what if he had already found it, would King have had the same effect on him. Would Baldwin be judging more of his actions instead of his words?

Revolving Doors

Throughout the novel, I have been interested in the presence of women, or lack thereof. In “The Male Prison,” Baldwin discusses Gide’s use of a woman named Madeleine and her relationship with a homosexual man. In some ways, from Baldwin’s writing on Gide’s work, I see a similarity to David and Hella’s relationship in the novel. Baldwin writes, “Madeleine kept open for him a kind of door of hope, of possibility, the possibility of entering into communion with another sex. This door, which is the door to life and air and freedom from the tyranny of one’s own personality, must be kept open…” (Baldwin 235). He then goes on to say that those who feel that their door is going to close, or already has, need these relationships. 

This reflects the beginning of part two in Giovanni’s Room, when David is preparing for the return of Hella, and how his talk with Giovanni about it, made him question his life. Giovanni tries to understand David’s relationship with Hella and I think David is trying to understand it, as well. In some ways, David is afraid of the life he may live, or how different his world would be if he cut ties with Hella, and actually lived the life he wants to. Hella is holding his door open to an easier life; she is his tie to what he believes to be masculinity, and the normal life as the man that his Father wants him to be. We then see David go through the tyranny of his own personality and life in Chapter Two of Part Two, he says “I was in a terrible confusion. Sometimes I thought, but this is your life. Stop fighting it. Stop fighting,” (Baldwin 162, E-Book). This is where I find confusion with Baldwin’s two writings. I think we can see that David having a relationship with Hella would make his life easier, but it is not the life that he wants to or needs to live. I think Baldwin is saying that, yes, women and men may need each other to live, in the way that it would give them freedom to an easier life. However, the societal pressures often lead them to lives of misery, so in that sense, there is no freedom?

The American Condition (and Lil Nas X?)

Reading “Other(ed) Americans in Paris: Henry James, James Baldwin, and the Subversion of Identity” by Eric Savoy, although it was focused primarily on Giovanni’s Room, many connections can be found in Baldwin’s novel Go Tell it on the Mountain, and with new discussions of otherness in pop culture. Baldwin argues that Americans lost the history that they set out to find, that “our history…is the history of the total, and willing, alienation of entire peoples from their forebears.” He says that his Black ancestors had no desire to come to America, but neither did the ancestors of those who became white (Savoy 340). This recognition of the past, or the privilege to refuse it, is something I see in the characters of Gabriel and Florence. For Florence, she claims that she did not want to become white, but she wanted to run from the history her mother shared with her and the “common niggers” she found she lived around. The otherness she was refusing in herself and those around her is what Jacques and Savoy call the American Condition: “the despicableness of the inability to perceive the reality of otherness,” (Savoy 344). 

The American Condition is also reflected in Gabriel, as he cannot love anyone for who they truly are, their otherness, especially John. However, Gabriel’s rejection of otherness goes further because it is based in fear. Baldwin says that Americans failures to accept the lessons of history result in the dangerous disrespect for other people’s personalities, and the consequences of this disrespect is the inability to sympathize or to love one’s own otherness (Savoy 343). This is present in Gabriel, as he continues to try to create a “royal” line of children that continues to fail. Instead of facing his own mistakes and accepting his failed history, his own inability to love his otherness is projected onto John and many other family members around him.  

I think we continue to see the disrespect and lack of self-love on individuals’ otherness in the modern day. Not just in the obvious racism that this country is built on, but also through many other forms of otherness, including homosexuality. Although one could see this as completely unrelated, I find the recent conversations surrounding Lil Nas X, and his otherness to fit into this topic. Pop artist, Lil Nas X just released a song that highlights his homosexuality and the condemnation gay people have always experienced, and he is a black man, so conversations of race have inevitably risen, as well. Many arguments have involved the topic of his music video influencing children to a life of sin, but I argue that the American Condition has already done that. The fear of the wrath of God has allowed those that believe in religion to become the judges, the jury, and the executioners who have decided that any hint of otherness requires their own condemnation, on sight. Although the human condition and pop culture could extend back to Michael Jackson, and Prince, I wanted to focus on Lil Nas X, as he is the most recent.

The Absence of Love

During one of our classes, Professor Mouton-Kinyon had brought up the theme of love, or the absence of it, in John’s relationship with his Mother and Father. The absence of love for the child is shown in John’s family, but also in the history recounted by Florence’s mother who had her children taken away from her during slavery. In the Bible, it is written that God is Love, and so for the people in this story, bringing their children to God is, one can argue, loving them or giving them all the love they need. But, before a child can be brought into this world, there are parental relationships that occur first. I am interested in the absence of love in the romantic relationships in the novel, and how these relationships never were allowed to blossom into love because, 1. they occurred outside of the “rules” of their religion or 2. they were using religion as a safety net. 

For example, Elizabeth was never able to love Richard because of his death, but he also was a man who cursed the Lord and religion. Florence, who never connected to religion or the Lord, never understood her husband or really loved herself until she felt that it was almost her time to die. But still she could not find love for her own brother, because in the end she still wanted to show him his hypocritical ways and she seems to say I have come to terms with my faults and lack of love for the Lord, but you have not and it continues to spew hatred not love on those around you. And Gabriel displays this absence of love the most. Gabriel talks about how he hated Deborah after he began to have an affair with Esther, but he has never loved a woman in his life really and I would argue is incapable of love because he has hatred in his heart and the shame he feels that seems to overpower all of his other emotions. He also uses his marriage to Elizabeth as a safety net because he believes she repented to the Lord and is a Godly woman. Using scripture, 1 John 2: 7-11 states: “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.” I think this describes Gabriel directly because he and Elizabeth cannot provide the love their children need, when they have never experienced it themselves, and refuse to acknowledge that. 

The Last Straw

It is often funny to compare the sayings and parenting styles of different parents, especially those from different cultural backgrounds. However, there can be cycles of abuse and negative comparisons that can be harmful more than hurtful. One of the last lingering thoughts I have about Native Son, is Wright giving us two different perspectives of motherhood through the lens of a Black mother and a white mother. We discussed in class the idea of hysteria and how it was “treated” in women who were emotional. We also discussed Wright’s writing of black women being degrading and, in simple terms, horrible, and I believe both of these things play a role into the way he wrote Bigger’s mother, and Mrs. Dalton and the perceived upbringing of Black children. 

There are several instances of Wright showing that Bigger’s mother is what he believes to be a bad mom, and the opposite for Mrs. Dalton. One of the easiest differences to spot is the naming. Bigger’s mother is not given a name by Wright. He calls her “his mother,” “the mother,” and even writes, “The black woman sobbed,” (Wright 302). On the other hand, Mary’s mother is named right when we meet her, Mrs. Dalton. She is painted as all white, and even though she is blind, she is written to see everything and even as a white person who helps Black people see themselves. She is even praying over Mary when she comes home drunk (Wright 86). In the third book, we see Bigger’s mother beg Mrs. Dalton to help her son, even though he killed her daughter and Mrs. Dalton pats her head in a weird pet way. I think this is another thing that has really made me feel negatively towards the novel. I think that Wright has tried very hard to show that he holds white women on a higher pedestal, and even after reading Baldwin’s criticisms, this is the thing that bothers me the most. 

Justitia and Prudentia

I had never heard the term, “justice is blind,” or knew the history behind the Roman Goddess, Justitia. I am not sure if this is because I am living under a rock, or because our justice system does not reflect what Justitia stands for. Her blindfold, balance beam, and sword represents a time not affected by racism. In Native Son, we know that the recurring idea of blindness is meant to show, in the end, how blind Bigger has been throughout his life, all the while thinking everyone around him is blind. I think that Wright was trying to show the blind eye everyone turns towards situations they do not understand or do not want to see.  Wright, himself, turning a blind eye towards the violence and the degradation he projects onto his female characters, especially the black female characters. But, in Book Three: Fate, we see the blindness the justice system turns towards Bigger and not in the way that Justitia would want them to. Unfortunately, even with the impassioned words of Max, Bigger had been judged before receiving his sentence. Although he did commit the crimes, and deserves to face punishment for them, the courtroom narrative that he faced is not an uncommon one. The justice system, the media, and society has pushed their unfair narrative onto yet another black man. 

However, in James Baldwin’s “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” he criticizes Native Son and novels deemed “protest” by saying that blindness has gone too far, and the overall acceptance of protest novels are because people believe what happens in them, has nothing to do with us and our society (Baldwin 15). They are doing nothing to help change the struggles of real people in the real world. Baldwin goes on to say that “they are a mirror of our confusion, dishonesty, panic, trapped and immobilized in the sunlit prison of the American dream” (16). This makes me think of the moment in the novel when Bigger is illuminated by the sun, while in prison, thinking he understands his blindness, and what he really wants. But, of course he would never get the time to do that. Baldwin’s idea of protest novels being “mirrors” had led me to research another Goddess that is often shown as a pair with Justitia, her name is Prudentia. Prudentia carries a mirror and a snake and is meant to represent the ability to govern and discipline oneself through reason. But, what I believe Baldwin is saying is that instead of holding the mirror on ourselves, we are facing it outwards on a broken society and continue to reflect what we see, even when trying not to.

Mob Mentality and the Media

Although there are many troubling themes throughout Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son, the mob mentality and the media’s contributions to incite racist behavior has been prevalent from the time of newspapers to our time today. This theme is touched upon in book two: “Flight” and more heavily acknowledged in the third book: “Fate”. Bigger is on the run in book two, hoping to stay ahead of the police and somewhat enjoying the “fame” that he is getting from the murder of Mary Dalton, he finds himself needing to see the articles written about him in the newspapers. Bigger steals a paper and it tells of the fiery indignation of the town as people learned about Mary’s killing, it also ends with “…they feel that the plan of the murder and kidnapping was too elaborate to be the work of a Negro mind,” (Wright 245). Newspapers being the only source of information during this time had the power to print anything they wanted and also had the power to sway their audience, as do the media outlets of today. It is no surprise that newspapers were run by predominantly white men and women and would print what they deemed to be facts at the time, albeit racist. In the third book, after Bigger faints at the inquest, he reads a paper that quotes a young white girl calling him an “ape” and the writer calling him “a jungle beast,” (Wright 279). These names are then heard again in the mob as well as a call for his lynching and killing. 

Wright does well to highlight the reality of news and widespread media within these articles as he drew inspiration from the case of Robert Nixon, who the media, despite his crimes, degraded to an animal using the exact phrase “jungle beast”, along with the degradation of the black race. They then called the woman who was killed a mother of two, posting photos of her children and using them for a news story. Although it is understandable in the Nixon case, in modern times we often see racist media posting mugshots of innocent black people and the smiling family photos of serial killer white men. These articles and deliberate choices to denigrate black people to the racist stereotypes uphold the mob mentality that white people have when black people are involved in a crime; innocent or not. As James Baldwin writes in “The Price of the Ticket” after saying that a mob of people is bound together by fears, “To destroy a nigger, a kike, a dyke, or a faggot by one’s own act alone is […] to have made a public confession more personal…” (Baldwin 840). But hiding behind a newspaper and a phone screen is the exception.