A Baldwin Catholic: A Final Personal Reflection on Baldwin and Religion

Over the course of the semester, my friend and I have had a number of conversations about what it means to be a Catholic. Does Catholicism require a belief in every Church teaching, even those that are not said ex cathedra (from the throne of Saint Peter)? Does Catholicism require belief and acquiescence toward everything in the Bible from Genesis through Revelation? Is Joe Biden really a Catholic? It has been interesting to ponder these questions alongside Baldwin who also questions religion and his faith. I think these issues have been a central theme in my blog posts and I want to spend this last post fleshing them out further.

I am Catholic. I entered this course as a Catholic and I will leave this course as a Catholic as well. Yet, in thinking about these questions, I find myself aligning much closer with the Pentecostal-raised but ultimately distant-from-religion Baldwin. In stating my disagreement with some Church approaches to modern issues and defending Joe Biden as a Catholic (a ludicrous claim according to my friend who sees absolute opposition to abortion as a requirement for real Catholicism), I find myself approaching faith the same way as Baldwin—with love at the center. I understand Baldwin’s frustration with organized religion, which uses the Bible for its own means and too often chooses a policy of hate, discrimination, and division rather than love.

I continue to be struck by the scene Baldwin creates on the mantelpiece of the Grimes home in Go Tell It on the Mountain. On one side, the mantelpiece features a flowered motto, which quotes John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” Meanwhile, another part of the mantelpiece features a “malevolent” green metal serpent, its head raised “proudly in the midst of these trophies, biding the time to strike” (Baldwin, 26). This juxtaposition is the heart of Baldwin’s critique of religion. He sees Christ as a symbol of love, ultimate love that offers eternal life. Yet Christianity seems overly focused on the snake compared to the Word. In Baldwin’s time, the Black Church focused too much on the need to renounce the flesh for the sake of the spirit, emphasizing that the body is bad without highlighting what is good. Baldwin also thought about his father, a man whose understanding of love required keeping his children away from the serpent. Yet such love as this underemphasized the love of Christ by withholding true, active love from his children. If Baldwin makes anything clear about religion in his works, it is that Christianity should be about love not fear. Thus, isn’t love all it really takes to follow Christ? I said I am a Catholic and I reaffirm that statement; yet my Catholicity is not about blindly following teaching but centering the Word of Christ, the word of love. In this way, I guess I am a Baldwin Catholic.

James Baldwin and the Little Rock Nine

In his essays on the Civil Rights Movement, Baldwin routinely comments on scenes from the era such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott (“The Dangerous Road Before MLK”) or Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination (“Take Me to the Water”). However, one of the scenes he continues to employ is the integration of schools in the South. In his presentation on Wednesday, David provided a helpful description of Baldwin’s rhetoric on the child and the effects of such an approach. For this blog post, I want to look specifically at Baldwin’s comments on the integration of Little Rock Central High School by the Little Rock Nine in “Take Me to the Water.”

Prior to describing the scenes at Little Rock, Baldwin refers to Little Rock’s Southern identity, saying “It was Southern, therefore, to put it brutally, because of the history of America–the United States of America: and small black boys and girls were now paying for this holocaust” (Baldwin 389). Baldwin would have associated the word “holocaust” with the events of Nazi Germany; he compares the Little Rock Nine again to Jewish boys and girls in Hitler’s Germany just a few lines later. However, his use of the word here is different. Seemingly, the holocaust in this instance has already occurred although its results still effect Black students. Baldwin, here, seems to refer to “holocaust” in its older sense where it means “a complete sacrifice.” The white residents of Little Rock, in choosing to be Southern, i.e. white, completely sacrifice their humanity. The destruction was not physical but more spiritual. Black students are not victims of the holocaust directly but rather indirectly. In light of his use of this word, Baldwin’s analogies for the situation come into focus.

First, Baldwin evokes Nazi Germany to describe the Little Rock Nine, saying, “It was rather as though small Jewish boys and girls, in Hitler’s Germany, insisted on getting a German education in order to overthrow the Third Reich” (Baldwin 389). On one hand, Baldwin critiques a “national” education as a solution to oppression. He questions the ability of challenging a system with the system’s tools. On the other hand, Baldwin uses this image to show the impossibility of the task placed on the shoulders of these students. Already targeted, the young students want to dismantle a group whose existence rests on their destruction. In each of the analogies, Baldwin emphasizes the magnitude of the task facing the Little Rock Nine.

In his second analogy, Baldwin describes the Little Rock Nine as “small soldiers, armed with stiff, white dresses, and long or short dark blue pants, entering a leper colony, and young enough to believe that the colony could be healed, and saved” (Baldwin 390). By describing Little Rock as a leper colony, Baldwin emphasizes that the white people in the South are ill due to their decision to be white. Yet, unlike other diseases, they will not be healed: Baldwin associates the hope for their healing and salvation with childlike idealism. He lacks this hope because he understands these people as having endured a sacrificial holocaust in choosing to be white. The Black students cannot heal their white oppressors on their own; rather, the white oppressors must choose to reject “the South” and their whiteness in order to cure themselves of this illness and regain their humanity.

Little Rock Nine: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oodolEmUg2g

A Comment on Integration

In “Nobody Knows My Name,” James Baldwin recounts a quote from a “very light Negro” in Alabama who says that “Integration has always worked very well in the South, after the sun goes down” (Baldwin 207). He records another African-American who says, “It’s not miscegenation unless a black man’s involved” (Baldwin 207). In recounting these quotes, Baldwin makes a distinct claim about the societal outrage over integration. Society in general, and Southern society in particular, did not feel the same discomfort with the association of African-Americans and white people in all situations. Rather, Baldwin seems to assert that the issue with integration is specifically the association between African-American men and white women. Of course, as Baldwin’s first quote claims, associations between Black women and white men could happen at night with little to no comment, even if the Black woman was sexually assaulted. By framing integration in this manner, Baldwin makes integration an issue for the Black man. Strikingly, his framing matches the historical approach to the civil rights movement, which predominately highlights men like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Huey P. Newton, and Bobby Seale. 

Yet this alluring framing threatens to deemphasize Black women’s voices in the South, the country, and the Civil Rights Movement. If we view integration as principally concerning Black men, we align with Baldwin’s male-centric understanding of racial and gender dynamics in the middle of the twentieth century. Audrey Lorde, on the other hand, provides an important, different perspective on the civil rights movement that works against this bias toward male-centric political action. By forcing Baldwin to dissect his close association between Blackness and manhood, Lorde shows that any conversation around integration is more than simply a Black man’s argument. Underlying these conversations is a history of Black women raped by white man seemingly without concern of or even principally because of the color of their skin. The challenge in Lorde’s conversation with Baldwin is to recognize this history and think how the hypocrisy around interactions between races affects Black women in addition to Black men. Baldwin seems reluctant to make this connection but understanding the racial dynamics in the South requires such an investigation.

Infinite Hope

In James Baldwin’s recollection of Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermon, he notes that King implored his Black audience to fix problems in the Black world in addition to critiquing the constraints of the white world. King tells the crowd to save money, stop committing crimes, and tell the white man that segregation is wrong. Baldwin writes that, though King’s directions elicited a wave of laughter, “he had meant every word he said, and he expected his hearers to act on them” (Baldwin, 644). Further, “they also expected this of themselves, which is not the usual effect of a sermon; and that they are living up to their expectations no white man in Montgomery will deny” (Baldwin, 643). At first reading, I felt reluctant to agree with King’s directives despite his audience’s willingness to act on them. He seems to understate how the white world still impacts these problems in the Black world. Whites restricted African-American access to good-paying jobs that would allow them to save money. The crime rate is a direct result of poverty and racism that African-Americans dealt with much more than their fellow Americans. Further, standing up to a white man risked all sorts of consequences, especially in the hierarchical world of the South. Thus, I first felt that King was somewhat harsh to his Black parishioners.

However, after more reflection, I feel that King’s sermon delivers a necessary ingredient for energizing the civil rights movement: hope. In his directives, King seemingly rejects the outlook on the world that plagues Bigger Thomas in Native Son. The white world crushes Bigger and seemingly robs him of his agency and, thus, his humanity. This idea is the central point of Baldwin’s critique to Native Son. Driven by forces outside his control, Bigger does not have the power to control his own fate. However, in King’s directives, he stresses to the faithful that they can do something to change their reality. They are not locked into a world of pain and suffering that plagues Bigger. Even if saving money, preventing crime, and speaking up to white men about segregation do not end racism or gain political rights, the ability to act empowers people and gives them a sense of humanity that Bigger never fully claims. By fighting against their reality, African-Americans in King’s church gain agency in their future. Thus, King’s directions to his audience give them hope that they themselves have the power to change the world, rebuking the force-driven reality of Bigger Thomas.

“They had taught him what it meant to be a man”

In “Going to Meet the Man” and Giovanni’s Room, the father figures of the main characters undertake the responsibility of showing their sons what it means to be a man. In “Going to Meet the Man,” the narrator recounts the way Jesse remembers his father and his father’s friends, saying, “They were his models…and they had taught him what it meant to be a man” (939). Jesse’s memory of a lynching in his childhood shows exactly how his father taught him his understanding of manhood. Rather than simply allowing Jesse to tag along to the murder, Jesse’s father ensures that the murder becomes formative for his young son’s conception of manhood, hoisting Jesse up on his shoulders to witness the murder and repeating that Jesse was “never gonna forget this picnic” (949). In Jesse’s father’s mind, manhood was intimately related to white supremacy and power.

Similarly, in Giovanni’s Room, David’s father attempts to impose his conception of manhood on his son. In the heat of a drunken argument with his sister, David’s father says, “All I want for David is that he grow up to be a man. And when I say a man, Ellen, I don’t mean a Sunday school teacher” (231). Through this line, David’s father seems to imply that a man is not a beacon of purity; prior to this conversation, David’s father was “interfering” with a woman, one of his nightly activities. Ellen responds, saying, “A man is not the same thing as a bull.” In other words, his depiction of man is lacks humanity and love.

Strikingly, these two descriptions of manhood precede opposite reactions by the main characters. As the murder ends in “Going to Meet the Man,” Jesse describes loving his father more than ever (949). However, after David hears Ellen and his father’s conversation, he recounts despising his father and hating Ellen (231). Yet, despite these polar opposite reactions, each of the principal characters adopts their father’s understanding of manhood, showing that the father’s example either influences this opinion of manhood or serves as an example their sons are fated to repeat. Jesse associates manhood with power—just as his father has sex with his mother only on the eve of this expression of white power, Jesse cannot achieve an erection and fulfill his manly duty of making love to his wife unless he too thinks about power and domination over others. 

More surprisingly, David also adopts the mistaken depiction of manhood presented his father. Unwilling to fully love Giovanni, David has loveless intercourse that he does not allow to mean anything. Though not to the same extent as his father, David is a bull in the sense that his affairs are loveless and meaningless. Just as David’s father runs around with women without looking for commitment, David is unwilling to commit to a relationship filled with real love. In each of these texts, the father figures show their son’s that manhood does not entail love—the Sunday school teacher, in David’s father opinion, shows too much love and not enough manhood and the white supremacist can only love in a limited way. Though each of the characters responds differently to this message, David and Jesse ultimately repeat the loveless lives of their fathers, reinforcing the ineptitude of a live without love.

Self-Acceptance, Milton’s Satan, and Lil Nas X

When I first saw Lil Nas X’s shoes on Twitter last Saturday evening (and then watched his music video in class on Monday), the first thing I thought of was John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Famously, William Blake, a Romantic poet, wrote that Milton was “of the Devil’s Party without knowing it.” The Romantics, and, according to Blake, Milton himself, had a particular fascination and even admiration for Milton’s depiction of Satan in PL. In Paradise Lost, Satan, the character first introduced in the epic, is appealing, attractive, and interesting in the opening books of the work. Milton gives the fallen angel some of the best lines in the epic, including the saying “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heav’n.” In this quote, Satan attempts to accept his reality rather than lament his fall from heaven. This attempt resonates with Lil Nas X’s approach to the music video of “Call Me By Your Name.” Seemingly, Lil Nas X accepts his reality and his identity in this music video, coming to terms with the notion that he is not “heaven-bound” from the perspective of many Christian denominations.

In James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin emphasizes this same acceptance of reality and identity as Satan and Lil Nas X. Though Baldwin would never willingly associate homosexuality and sinfulness, he shows through Jacques that the acceptance of identity, even an identity that may be condemned by society, is a necessary step toward self-love and love of others. As David considers what do with his initial attraction to Giovanni, Jacques advises him to “Love him and let him love you” (267). He continues by asking, “Do you think anything else under heaven really matters?” (267). Like Milton’s Satan, Jacques tempts David to eat the apple; he convinces David to commit the “unholy” act. Yet the rest of the text shows that it is not the act that is unholy but David’s unwillingness to love Giovanni fully and allow Giovanni to love him back. In Baldwin’s mind, the sin is trying to maintain a false sense of identity that prohibits loving anyone fully. In other words, David attempts to bite the apple and then put it back on the tree rather than accepting his identity. Baldwin poses the argument that homosexuality cannot be unholy if denying it and trying to hide it causes such destruction as when David denies it. If it is in fact better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven, the worst situation is trying to live in heaven when you can only find love in hell. Just like Baldwin’s critique of religion, his central argument in Giovanni’s Room is love. Even if others view that love as Satanic or worthy of the fires of hell, the love of self and, from that, love of others gained through accepting one’s identity is the only path to heaven anyway. Love is the only thing under heaven that really matters.

A Final Thought on Baldwin and Religion and A Look Ahead

In “Down at the Cross,” James Baldwin describes his experience preaching to children, saying, “When I watched all the children, their copper, brown, and beige faces staring up at me as I taught Sunday school, I felt that I was committing a crime in talking about the gentle Jesus, in telling them to reconcile themselves to their misery on earth in order to gain the crown of eternal life. Were only Negroes to gain this crown? Was Heaven, then, to be merely another ghetto?” (309). In this quote, Baldwin criticizes acceptance of present suffering in the hope of reward in the next life. His critique appears to hint at the way white Christians used this same tactic to discourage slave insurrection and revolt in the antebellum South (Field, 445). However, Douglass Field writes that Baldwin felt a similar disdain toward the black church, which fostered “a tendency towards passivity” (446). 

Over the past week, I have thought a lot about Martin Luther King Jr. and his call for love of white people, a call Baldwin similarly emphasizes in his relationships with religion. King seems to emphasize the love of Christ, rather than the fear of eternal damnation in his speeches, living out the kind of Christianity Baldwin appreciates. Yet, eventually, King’s emphasis on love, which is both active in its confrontational nature and passive in its disdain for violence, falls out of favor in the civil rights movement, replaced by a more militant approach to equality. I wonder how Baldwin views this shift. If love is the right path toward civil rights and equality, it seemingly requires a reciprocal reaction from the oppressing group, which could take a long time if it ever comes at all. Thus, the turn away from love, or at least from unconditional love, makes sense since African-Americans should not have to wait to receive the rights that fundamentally belong to them. To me, unconditional love and the fight for civil rights remain in an uneasy union and I look forward to seeing how Baldwin’s writings on the civil rights movement accept or nuance his emphasis on love shown here.

Gabriel, David Baldwin, and Saul

In Gabriel’s first meeting with baby John, the child is enthralled by the music he hears and Gabriel says, “Got a man in the Bible, son, who liked music, too. He used to play on his harp before the king, and he got to dancing one day before the Lord. You reckon you going to dance for the Lord one of these days?” (Baldwin 177). In these phrases, Gabriel refers to David who played his harp for King Saul (1 Sam 16:19-23) and later danced before God (2 Sam 6:14-16). The introduction of David and Saul into Go Tell It on the Mountain is exceptionally fruitful as it connects both to the text and Baldwin’s life. Though the connections between the biblical David, John, and Baldwin are equally rich, I want to focus here on the link between Saul, Gabriel, and David Baldwin and the way Saul adds to our reading of the text. In the Bible, David plays his harp for Saul because the king is “troubled by an evil spirit from God” (1 Sam 16:15). This description implies some mental trouble for Saul, presumably a mental illness. Undoubtedly, Baldwin recognized parallels between Saul’s evil spirit and his father’s mental illness. The shift from serving as God’s messenger to having a mental illness that impairs thought is startling but, as Saul’s example shows, it is not unprecedented nor is it disconnected from God’s larger plan. In the Bible, the evil spirit troubles Saul once the spirit of God leaves him and fills David instead. The spirit of God leaves Saul because he disobeys the Lord in battle. God commanded Saul to “go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass” (1 Sam 15:3). Though Saul follows through on killing women and children and fails by not killing the leader of Amalek, God’s command here is worth pondering. God’s instructions illustrate the difference between the Old Testament God and the New Testament Christ; the lack of mercy on anything and anyone seems antithetical to Christ’s message. For Christians, these instructions represent a rift in the faith: is Christianity about love (as Baldwin would assert) or about follow God’s commands on the path to heaven? Ideally, these options are the same but Saul’s case shows that is not always the case. Baldwin favors the Christianity of love and forgiveness, but Gabriel, and presumably David Baldwin, seem to follow a Christianity that features an angry God and a constant serpent in the grass, looking to provoke his ire. In Go Tell It on the Mountain,Baldwin repeats Saul’s internal battle between following God, doing the right thing, and keeping up appearances in the story of Gabriel’s life. In trying to balance these impulses, Gabriel fails; the Bible shows that Saul also falls short. Strikingly, the punishment for that failure is also the same. Saul not only receives an evil spirit from the Lord but also loses the right to keep the kingship and spirit of Lord within his lineage; he cannot choose his heir. Gabriel experiences the same reality. By naming their son “Royal,” Esther forces her imperfect child to serve as Gabriel’s heir. Furthermore, Gabriel hopes that he can pass on the spirit of the Lord to Roy, but he seems to have only passed on the “evil spirit from God.” Rather, God chooses Baldwin, the unlikeliest of heirs like David, to continue his work on Earth, spurning Gabriel’s desires. By looking at Saul in comparison to Gabriel and David Baldwin, Baldwin illustrates how God’s control over the world, both real and perceived, affects the characters in the text.

Everybody Plays the “Fool”

As we approach the end of Go Tell It on The Mountain, I want to think further about two disputes that Baldwin considers in the text, both which can be represented by the word “fool.” First, in his rant to Elizabeth about his father, Roy scoffs at his mother’s claim that the children are lucky to have a father like Gabriel, saying, “Yeah, we don’t know how lucky we is to have a father what don’t want you to go to movies, and don’t want you to play in the streets, and don’t want you to have no friends…We so lucky to have a father who wants us to go church and read the Bible and beller like a fool in front of the altar” (Baldwin 22). When Roy uses the word “fool,” he critiques churchgoing people who praise God energetically. Though this critique seems directed at religion, or at least Pentecostalism, generally, it is embedded in a generational dispute. Repeatedly in Go Tell It on The Mountain, children want different things for their lives than their parents do; for example, Florence rebels against her mother’s wishes and Elizabeth hides her life from her family. The relationship between the parent and child around goals for the child’s future is an interesting trope in this book and it will be interesting to see where Baldwin falls on this dispute.

However, Gabriel is not the only “fool” in the novel. Later in the text, John uses the word when he remembers that “the fool has said in his heart, There is no God” (Baldwin 77). This use of fool here refers to religion. As the saying goes, the disbeliever is foolish. Yet Roy’s earlier quote seems to assert the opposite, claiming that the believer is the foolish one. One can easily recognize fools among both religious and non-religious circles, but the central question deriving from these two uses of the word “fool” is whether Baldwin sees religion itself as foolish. Though he seemingly has a more nuanced belief about religion, his positioning on this issue is unclear at this point in the text.

The Shame of the Family

We have spent considerable time over the past few weeks discussing sexual assault in Native Son and rightfully so; the sexual assault in the novel overshadows some of the claims Wright attempts to make about race in America. Yet, while this discussion is important, we have not spent as much time discussing the effects of racialized sexual assault throughout history on the Black family. At the beginning of Native Son, Wright describes the Thomas family as they dress for the day, saying, “The two boys kept their faces averted while their mother and sister put on enough clothes to keep them from feeling ashamed; and the mother and sister did the same while the boys dressed” (Wright, 4). The Black body elicits shame within the family, seemingly tearing the bonds between its members apart. The Black female body, victimized by rape especially in the antebellum South, and the Black male body, oversexualized and marked by castration, become shameful even on a familial level. Bigger’s relationship to his family is marked by shame, from the opening scenes in the Thomas home to their visitation in his cell toward the end of the novel. Interestingly, Baldwin’s description of Native Sonas an opposite extreme to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (through the main characters, Bigger and Uncle Tom) holds for this example; Uncle Tom’s Cabin attempts to reveal the immorality of slavery due to physical breaking of familial bonds in the slave trade whereas Native Son showcases these frayed bonds without the physical separation.

Though the Thomas family dynamics remain in the background of the text, it is hard to imagine that Bigger’s familial upbringing does not impact his decision-making. However, to Wright’s ultimate point, that familial upbringing was likely impacted by an oppressive society that crushed Bigger’s parents as much as it crushes him. Though I ultimately am not quite sure what to make of the family dynamics in Native Son other than seeing the remnants of slavery in the shame of the Black body, I think this will be an important theme to track over the course of the semester. Considering that Baldwin was raised by a stepfather who hated him and trampled on his aspirations, I will be interested to see whether his background is reflected onto the family dynamics of his characters or if he attempts to make a claim about the Black family through his fiction writing.