Thank you, James Baldwin

I had not read any James Baldwin prior to taking this class, and it was a gift to be able to take a deep dive into his work this semester. From exploring religious themes in Go Tell It On the Mountain,to discussing queer identity through Giovanni’s Room, to connecting Baldwin’s incredible essays with contemporary issues of racial justice, our class’s conversations have been a great way to discuss some of the major themes and questions raised in Baldwin’s work. I was surprised to discover how proximate and alive Baldwin’s work felt, and it was a privilege to read him especially in 2021. I think I would agree with his description of himself as a prophet— his work seems ahead of his time in many ways, and it’s overwhelmingly clear that there is still so much we can learn from his work.  

As I’ve been editing my final paper, looking into themes of exile and flight in Baldwin’s writing, I have been thinking about our final class discussion sitting outside last week. I remember that Maria brought up the idea of strangerhood that we have discussed throughout the course, and how Baldwin often described himself as a stranger. Maria brought up an interesting question about how Baldwin’s identity as a stranger is imposed in some ways and chosen in others. I think that this is a really valuable lesson that I want to carry with me moving forward from this class. Seeing how Baldwin is deeply relevant to America today, I think that his convictions about love and community are especially meaningful. Over and over, our class has discussed the emphasis that Baldwin placed on love. With the expressions of hate that we have seen all too much in America, even in the few months of this class, Baldwin’s imperative of love and his call to connect with one another is a message that matters for America today— one that I hope will make me a better American, having been influenced by Baldwin. 

Empathy and Breaking Down Binaries

After listening to the group presentations on Wednesday, I was really interested in Maria’s discussion of how binaries are used in literature, and in the group’s discussion question of how our conversation about civil rights relates to education.

Like many of my classmates, in some regards I’ve been critical of Baldwin’s limitations, especially surrounding gender. It’s frustrating to see how easily Baldwin’s female characters can be categorized into five tropes, as Faith mentioned. But I agree with what folks have pointed out in discussion: it’s not fair to expect Baldwin to do everything, tackle every civil rights issue. Placing him in his social and historical context is important as well, to take into account how Baldwin was shaped by his family life, experiences in France, and worldview as someone coming of age in the 1940s. 

That being said, I wonder if there might be some points of connection here with the points that Ryan brought up about education and empathy. I certainly agree with Ryan that more voices need to be included in American education. I also think that maybe teachers have a particular opportunity to break down the problematic binaries that we’ve been discussing, including disrupting the idea that power is a clear-cut binary. Our class conversations about intersectionality underscore the point that agency is rarely as straightforward as we sometimes portray it to be; rather, it depends on the particular circumstances of any person’s life, and it is not the same in every situation. Paying attention to nuance, especially recognizing the contingencies of agency, could perhaps be one way to begin to undo overly simplistic binaries of Black and white, oppressed and oppressor, female and male, and so on.

By fostering conversations that focus on intersectionality and look critically at the binaries we’ve all been taught, we can participate productively in Baldwin’s legacy of civil rights work. If we can honor the complexity of each other’s lives, then perhaps we will be quicker to have empathy for one another—the focus on love that Baldwin called for. Just as Baldwin invited Americans to move into new ways of thinking, so too are we called to the same work, which hopefully moves us to greater empathy.

Writers Who Bear Witness

As I read the essays this week, I was really moved by Jacqueline Woodson’s reflection on how much James Baldwin meant to her. It is especially meaningful to read the end of her essay where Woodson recalls thinking, “But we were supposed to meet one day,” when she learns of Baldwin’s death. Her description of feeling close to Baldwin and looking to him as “a source of strength and light” is a testament that Baldwin truly was the prophet he believed himself to be. 

Woodson says that she and many of her fellow writers of color “believe that we’re writing because Baldwin wrote, that history repeats itself and continues to need its witnesses.” I think that Woodson’s reflection parallels “My Dungeon Shook” in how both authors regard the importance of memory and the relationship with history through multiple generations. For Baldwin, writing was a profoundly important way of bearing witness to race relations in the United States, as well as America’s broken relationship with history. 

“My Dungeon Shook,” a letter Baldwin wrote to his nephew James, reveals how Baldwin saw the importance of passing on his memories to the next generation, so that the younger James could know his roots and not be trapped in white constructs. Baldwin tells his nephew that white Americans are “trapped in a history which they do not understand” (294). But as Woodson’s testimony reveals, in voices like Baldwin’s lie the hope that the U.S. can at last learn from its history. Woodson discusses all of the different social movements that she has witnessed, seeing activism by ACT UP and Black Lives Matter and trans rights advocates over the years. Throughout her life, Baldwin was always present as someone from whose “fearlessness” she could learn. Woodson articulates that Baldwin’s witness shaped how she saw writers and activists passing on what they saw and intervening in American history to create a better future. 

Baldwin’s letter is not just to his nephew, but to all of us, just as Woodson’s story now bears witness. Only by listening to and learning from prophetic voices like Baldwin and Woodson can Americans, as Baldwin puts it, “make America what America must become” (294).

Calling In & Radical Hope

In “Uses of Anger,” Audre Lorde offers a really productive definition of anger: “Anger is a grief of distortions between peers, and its object is change” (p. 129 in my edition of Sister Outsider). Lorde invites everyone into her project of transforming these distortions and instead recognizing the creative power of difference. She asserts that if she fails to recognize the oppressions faced by other queer women and Black women, “then I am contributing not only to each of their oppressions but also to my own” (132).

I love that Lorde foregrounds her belief that honoring differences is what will ultimately enable us to defeat racism, misogyny, homophobia, and other oppressions. She talks about this in the context of her identity as a Black lesbian in both “Uses of Anger” and “Revolutionary Hope.” 

In her conversation with James Baldwin, Lorde calls Baldwin in. Throughout this semester, our class has noted Baldwin’s failure to attend to Black women’s lived experiences. Baldwin’s writing is largely self-reflective, dwelling on his understanding of what it means to be a Black, queer man in the U.S. In this conversation, Lorde listens to Baldwin but also challenges him to gain a deeper understanding of her experience of moving through the world as Black, queer, and female. She does not let him get away with minimizing her experiences: when he says that “in this republic the only real crime is to be a Black man,” she replies, “No, I don’t realize that…. I realize the only crime is to be Black, and that includes me too.” Lorde asks Baldwin to see her—to really see Black women and queer women—to more effectively dismantle racism, sexism, and heterosexism. (I would love to learn more about the relationship between Baldwin and Lorde and how they shaped each other’s views and work.) 

I think this conversation is really powerful because even when Lorde expresses a disagreement with Baldwin, she does so in a way that moves both of them forward and helps them better understand each other. This aspect of their conversation makes the title “Revolutionary Hope” fitting. The power of centering hope is so profound. Elsewhere in Sister Outsider, Lorde talks about how she has learned to speak up even when she is afraid; progress can only be made when oppressive silences are shattered. Lorde’s radically hopeful perspective, by focusing on accountability and reaching across difference, only strengthens Baldwin’s work speaking out about civil rights.

No Grace

When I read “Going to Meet the Man,” I honestly found Jesse’s character so disturbing that I didn’t really want to think about why Baldwin chose to use the name “Grace” for the character of Jesse’s wife. However, when Prof. Kinyon brought it up in class, it was helpful to start to think through some of the symbolism and consider what commentary Baldwin might be making. It was also helpful to try to make sense of why this story, which is primarily about racial violence, is in the unit about queer identity. Baldwin never chooses names carelessly, and there’s a lot of meaning behind Grace’s name in this story. 

In my research for my senior thesis, I’m reading a lot by theologian Mark Jordan, who studies sexuality, silence, and violence in Christianity. One of his insights is that the erotic is a privileged form of speech in how we talk about human relationships with God—that is, it’s some of the best language we have for describing intimacy between God and humans, as art like “The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa” illustrates. Without a way of being honest about sexuality, of course our relationships with God and one another will be distorted, which all too often leads to violence. 

Jordan’s insight helped me make a bit more sense of “Going to Meet the Man.” With a distorted understanding of sexuality, one based around violence and racism rather than love, how could Jesse possibly attain grace? As we started to discuss in class, Baldwin’s work always circles back to trying to reclaim the Christian message of love. Viewing the story through this lens helps me understand how Grace’s character might fit into the broader themes about love, sexuality, violence, and redemption that run through Baldwin’s work. 

One question I still have after reading this story is, why would Baldwin choose Jesse as the main character’s name? In the Bible, Jesse is an important part of Jesus’ ancestry, the father of King David. It’s safe to assume that Baldwin was well aware of Jesse’s role in Christianity, so why would he give this name to such a despicable character? 

Outside the Garden

This week, I’m struck by imagery of the Garden of Eden in our class texts. In Part I of Giovanni’s Room, as David is worrying about Giovanni’s sentence, Jacques comments to David, “Nobody can stay in the garden of Eden.” David reflects that people “have scarcely seen their garden before they see the flaming sword,” a reference to Adam and Eve being banished from the garden (239). I’m trying to think through a couple different ways of interpreting this motif, so I’d love to hear any of your insights if you’ve noticed this theme as well. 

On one level, it’s easy to connect this Bible story of being banished from the garden simply to Baldwin’s religious upbringing and/or David’s internalized homophobia, in which homosexuality is a sin. In particular, the Fall is associated with shame about the naked body, and especially queer shame in this context, so it would make sense that references to Eden in Giovanni’s Room are meant to evoke a backdrop of religious homophobia.

I also wonder if this idea of leaving the garden could connect to the literal geography of David’s and Baldwin’s lives. Both Baldwin and his character are in exile in France. For Baldwin, a Black, queer man, America has never been an Eden; and David is running from his identity. Leaving America for France is a sort of journey out of the garden. David reflects that “life only offers the choice of remembering the garden or forgetting it” (239). He connects leaving the garden to losing innocence—a pain he must either remember or deny. Both he and Baldwin are faced with living “outside the garden,” working out how to move through a world that does not protect those with non-normative identities. In this light, Paris seems to be a neutral space outside the garden for both Baldwin and David to negotiate their identities.

Of course, I’d be remiss not to mention Lil Nas X’s reclamation of Garden of Eden imagery in “Call Me By Your Name.” Lil Nas X gives us an unapologetically queer reread of the Eden myth in the imagery and lyrics. I’m curious if the rest of Giovanni’s Room will offer any hints of David and/or Baldwin similarly reclaiming the Garden of Eden in some way. 

Strangerhood & Exile

After the thought-provoking presentations on Wednesday, Rae’vonne’s presentation about the idea of strangerhood in Go Tell It On the Mountain struck me. Her discussion of John’s and Baldwin’s experiences of strangerhood was a really powerful way of framing the themes of religion that run through these novels, particularly her insight that the church often creates strangerhood, rather than providing experiences of belonging. 

Kiera linked this idea to Jesus’s comment in the Gospels that no prophet is accepted in their own hometown. To this point, I think there’s a connection between strangerhood and exile. This is a theme throughout the Christian Bible. As we see in the book of Exodus, God’s chosen people are not those in power. Rather, God’s preferential option for revelation of Godself is to the dispossessed, the marginalized, the stranger. 

In Go Tell It On the Mountain, John’s otherness in his communities makes him feel like a stranger, but he is also cast as a prophetic character. These two traits are directly linked. John’s experience of being a stranger causes him to question his surroundings and try to understand where he fits. His transformation at the end of the novel describes God’s grace acting on John, and perhaps John can have this religious experience precisely because of—not in spite of—his identity as a stranger. 

Similarly, it’s not a coincidence that Baldwin writes this novel when he himself is in a time of exile: living in Paris, experiencing a fraught relationship with his family, and feeling othered by his race and his sexuality. Is it his very experience of exile that shapes his self-understanding as a prophet? Baldwin could see the fractures in Christianity and in the church with clearer eyes than those around him, because these institutions never provided him with a place of true belonging. In that exile, he found a prophetic voice. If neither the church nor America saved Baldwin from strangerhood, his stranger status may well have equipped him to be a prophet. 

The sin is shame

In Go Tell It On the Mountain, James Baldwin mingles Scriptural references and queer-coding to portray John wrestling with his emergent sexuality. While John’s transformation is the focal point of the novel, Baldwin accomplishes a more complex portrait of how the characters relate to sexuality and religion. 

John grows up in an environment in which the body and nakedness are seen as sinful. He is ashamed of his baby photo in the living room that shows him naked (26), and he associates sex with sin and shame (10). However, Baldwin portrays many of the characters, not just John, struggling with shame about their sexuality. The church environment shames Elisha and Ella Mae for “walking disorderly” (14). Gabriel has troubled relationships with Deborah, Esther, and Elizabeth and has deep hatred and fear of his sexuality. John’s anxiety about his homosexuality being sinful is especially potent because he is raised in an environment that constantly reinforces that “sin was in the flesh” (15). When sexuality and desire are seen as sinful, disordered, and shameful, it prevents the characters from having healthy or holy relationships with themselves and one another.

Although the Bible is commonly used to hurt queer people and/or reinforce the association of the body and desire with shame, Baldwin’s choice to permeate the novel with Scriptural references serves a different purpose. Baldwin’s use of the Bible underscores the centrality of love in Christianity—not sin or shame. By foregrounding love in a novel about a suffocatingly Christian environment, Baldwin invites new uses of Scripture that break the cycle of shame about (homo)sexuality. Just beside the photo in the parlor that embarrasses John, for example, is John 3:16— “For God so loved the world…” (26). For Baldwin, use of the Bible is meant to foreground love above all. 

Language evocative of the Song of Songs intertwines John’s homosexuality with the Bible’s most beautiful love poetry. When John is on the threshing floor, he looks around for Elisha and Roy and realizes that love alone can save him from death, for “[l]ove is as strong as death, as deep as the grave” (193-194; Songs 8:6-7). It’s this realization about love that helps him through his transformation. At the end of the novel, when John and Elisha exchange a “holy kiss,” its mark on John’s face is “like a seal ineffaceable forever” (215). Their gesture of holy love again evokes the Bible’s love poetry: “Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death” (Songs 8:6). Baldwin inseparably entangles the novel’s queer-coding with its religious influences.

Baldwin’s use of Scripture in this novel hints that gay and Christian identities—indeed, sexuality and sanctity—do not have to be polar opposites, as John is just beginning to understand. It’s love, not shame, that will bring the characters closer to God.

Baldwin, Christianity, & new voices

Class discussion on Wednesday made me think more about how Baldwin uses speech, voice, and silence in Go Tell It On the Mountain. David pointed out how Baldwin plays with changing voice in Florence’s chapter in particular, and I think that this aspect of the novel is a unique way in which Baldwin draws on the Christian religious tradition: although he is critical of Christianity in many regards, he also seems to participate in the prophetic tradition of the scriptures by foregrounding voices that are silenced elsewhere.

With the Lucan references, James Baldwin both contributes to and subverts the Christian tradition. In particular, Baldwin’s use of speech and silence critiques the religious environment he grew up in, while hinting at a more liberative vision of Christianity. Baldwin invites us to attend to different voices than those we normally hear, and to pay closer attention to the silences that persist in our communities and in ourselves.

In a feminist & multicultural theologies class that I took, we discussed liberative readings of scriptural texts that have historically been used to oppress. Although Christian scripture and teaching have often been used negatively against BIPOC, female, and queer people (among others), that’s counter to God’s will. Noticing whose voices are (un)heard is a significant part of the work of reclaiming scripture, and I think Go Tell It On the Mountain has this project in common with liberation theologies’ work of retrieval and reclaiming. 

Revisiting the beginning of the Gospel of Luke which we read on Wednesday, I’m struck by Zechariah. His is the voice we would expect to hear in a religious tradition dominated by male voices, but Luke’s Gospel surprises us by letting us hear the voices of women. Likewise, Baldwin’s work “surprises” by disrupting the norms of whose perspectives we see. For instance, although there is much that John cannot say (p. 16), Baldwin makes sure that John’s perspective is the voice we hear. Because of his family relationships, race, and sexuality—not to mention his doubt, for which Zechariah was silenced by Gabriel—there are multiple silences imposed on John. Similarly, there are limits to what Florence can say aloud, but by writing a chapter from her perspective, Baldwin gives her more of a voice in the novel. 

Baldwin is mindful of ensuring that there are multiple voices participating in Go Tell It On the Mountain, taking a new approach to the religious influences we see—and using his own voice in a new way in this debut novel. Even if John is not able to speak in his home or church, in Baldwin’s novel, he is able to break his silence. The same goes for Baldwin—in the act of writing this novel, he shatters the silences in his own life.

Breaking the Silence

Listening to Wednesday’s presentations pushed me to think more about the role of memory and history in the texts we’ve read so far. The presenters did a great job of pointing out the silences in the texts and in the writers’ lives—the characters in Native Son who remain voiceless, the identities that must remain hidden, and the emotions that the authors struggle to express. This is such a compelling way of approaching these readings. Interrogating the silences makes it possible to tell a more complete story and expand the world we encounter through Baldwin’s eyes. I noticed Baldwin to be preoccupied with the past and the role of memory in his essays. I would argue that this attention to memory and storytelling is a way of confronting parts of the past that have been painful or silenced.

In “Alas, Poor Richard,” Baldwin asks, “Which of us has overcome his past?” and states, “If we do not know this, …we know nothing about ourselves, nothing about each other; to have accepted this is also to have found a source of strength” (CE 266-267). It seems that for Baldwin, reckoning with the past and finding a way to speak about it is an essential part of his project as an author. Both for Baldwin’s individual memory, confronting his place in his family and in America, and for shared, intergenerational memory of race and identity, being able to find the words for his experiences is crucial. I think that Wright’s and Baldwin’s differing approaches to how they talk about fear, anger, and masculinity, for example, reflect both the silences that remain in their lives and the silences they seek to break.  

As we move into some of Baldwin’s novels, I am interested to see how or if he will continue to engage individual and collective memory in his writing. I’m curious if others have noticed the role of the past in these texts, and whether you think that literature can help break the silences of American history in a meaningful way.