The Black Story

One of the themes I’ve noticed in the last few weeks of discussion and of blog posts is that of history. Prof. Kinyon asked us how we tell our history, specifically America’s story. I would like to use this framework when investigating how Baldwin might respond to this question. The past placed Baldwin in his present – one filled with racism, oppression, and injustice. Black folk have been sites of contention and victims of violence for many centuries. Racism has come in different forms, to varying degrees of visibility, but it has continued to exist. Baldwin wrestles with these ideas when crafting his identity as a black man during the Civil Rights era. He dislikes the way that history writes him and refuses “to bow down before that history” as it means “accept[ing] that history’s arrogant and unjust judgment of him” (Williams). Just as Baldwin re-writes himself in the cultural landscape of identity, he re-writes history to be a recipient of his opinion. He does this most explicitly in his letter to his nephew, which Elizabeth touched on within her blog entry. 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 the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity” (Baldwin, “A Letter to My Nephew”). He re-understands history for his nephew: it is not one prescriptive of shame, indignity, or disgrace. Although history has placed black people in a specific position, Baldwin refuses it take anything else. He will not succumb to the self-loathing and misfortune that white history would have him believe of himself. He reclaims the notion of history as Black when contextualizing his and his nephew’s present. He says, “We have not stopped trembling yet, but if we had not loved each other, none of us would have survived, and now you must survive because we love you and for the sake of your children and your children’s children” (Baldwin, “A Letter to My Nephew”). This is a form of empowering truth. Baldwin answers: we tell America’s story by telling the black story.

Baldwin’s Escape

Upon reading last week’s blog entries and participating in this week’s discussion, it seems as if our collective admiration of James Baldwin is complicated by his lack of advocacy for Algerians living in France and his lack of understanding of double jeopardy for black women. We questioned whether Baldwin should be forgiven for his disregard of the marginalized while in France in addition to whether his blindspot for a black woman’s lived experience should in any way lessen the legitimacy of his message. I think these are perhaps the most significant discussions we’ve had all semester. For weeks, we’ve put Baldwin on a pedestal: his command of language, his profound delivery, his thorough understanding of a black man’s “cage of reality bequeathed at birth”. These are hard-earned principles that Baldwin must be applauded for. His negligence in other areas interrupts his message but doesn’t destroy it. He is worthy of admiration. Yet is also worthy of critique. It is something Prof. Kinyon has made clear: Baldwin was human. He was fallible, imperfect, ignorant. Even the most “perfect” and morally adept Civil Rights leader, namely Martin Luther King Jr., was imperfect. 

Something I’ve also had to remind myself most recently is Baldwin’s severe struggles with mental illness. The expectation we hold him to often disregard this reality. James Baldwin recurrently attempted suicide, even at the height of his fame and creative power. He wanted to escape a life in which he presumably had much to be proud of and feel meaningful because of. In my opinion, Baldwin’s desire for death must be included in the conversations had in his quest for life – a life he singlehandedly built himself. He re-wrote himself and the various identities he held. Even amidst re-defining himself with his own words, he didn’t feel worthy of another breath. He alluded to his proximity to death in an interview before his death in 1987. He says: “For every James Baldwin, there are a whole lot of corpses, a lot of people who went under” (Holiday). France was Baldwin’s escape until he realized that it was no such thing. Escape from a world in which a black man lived in a cage. A reality which Baldwin had to contend for and which I believe doesn’t excuse, but perhaps adds perspective to his losses. He attempted to save himself, to float above the water threatening to drown him. But to do so, he unintentionally saw others drown. He carried a heavy societally-sanctioned burden with his own intersectionality, and thus cannot be expected (now or then) to save us all.

Mythologization of Baldwin

I hope to continue my discussion from last week on Baldwin’s own biomythography (term intentionally borrowed from Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name), specifically with regard to the mythologization of James Baldwin today. Nearly 35 years after his death, Baldwin’s name and words are invoked as a source of inspiration for such movements as #BlackLivesMatter. Baldwin, beyond other civil rights figures or prominent black authors, is invoked most often. On Twitter alone, “The words ‘James Baldwin’ (1,708 tweets) appear more in the August 2016 archive than ‘Claudia Rankine’ (416), ‘Langston Hughes’ (281), ‘Assata Shakur’ (130), ‘Ta-Nehisi Coates’ (129), ‘Toni Morrison’ (72), ‘Teju Cole’ (55), ‘Richard Wright’ (50), ‘Ralph Ellison’ (49), and ‘Amiri Baraka’ (10) combined” (Walsh). Perhaps Baldwin’s hybridity as both an autor and activist resulted in such an admirable legacy, as his social criticism is given breath on new platforms, such as Twitter. The temporal disjunct between past – namely the civil rights movement and present – namely the BLM movement – is collapsed through and within James Baldwin. He bridges the gap, teaching us of the cyclical and incessant nature of racism in this country. Baldwin, although I believe might support BLM, would revolt against his own mythologization. Melanie Walsh, author of “The Mythology of James Baldwin on Twitter” writes: “Twitter users engage in collective acts of authorship under the auspices of Baldwin as a single literary avatar, creating a communal literary mythology based on Baldwin’s real life and words but also extending beyond him” (Walsh). Whether or not Baldwin intended for his voice to be borrowed and manipulated to support or dismiss certain movements is unclear, yet presumed as not. It raises another question as to who our voices belong to, especially when they are used by others after death. I believe this might anger Baldwin, that his voice is now owned, accessible, and used by the mass public as a means of activism. Would this further Baldwin’s dominant message of the Black man being a commodity owned by the Republic? 

I believe, however unintentional, Baldwin was indeed mythologized, as a ruse invoked in the context of the political and social upheaval we are facing today. His words, and thus his contribution to the world, are quoted (or misquoted) countless times in our media, legitimizing certain social justice movements and giving an eloquent voice to black rage, which Audre Lorde explicitly alluded to in her work “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding To Racism” (1981).

Biomythography – Lorde & Baldwin

I would like to explore the use of biomythography prior to our discussion of the intersection of James Baldwin and Audre Lorde. The concept of biomythography is intentionally borrowed from Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. It is a combination of myth, history, and biography in narrative format, often transcending conventions of said genres. I believe Baldwin, although much of his work predates Lorde’s, borrowed the conception of writing as self-discovery and claim. I argued this in my Richard Wright essay, in which I wrote that “Baldwin’s writing, thus, is effectively an act of personal salvation in the face of racism, homophobia, and condemnation,” in which he “sees identity as spectral and subjective, non-conforming to sanctions enforced by society.” Baldwin uses his criticism of Wright as staking a claim in his own conceptions of masculinity and identity and he does this out of personal need. He says the violence is gratuitous not because it is against women, but instead because it is an inaccurate portrayal of masculinity and is characteristic of the rage of castration. This is perhaps an issue misplaced or forgotten, yet telling of Baldwin’s primary thought in dealing with the racial divide. 

I believe Lorde does the same but perhaps takes it a step further. 

I read Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name last semester for a women’s writing course, and in much of our discussion, we explored how Lorde rewrites herself through the use of language and reflection. Most notably, how Lorde mythologizes the persona of “Audre” to adopt “Zami” which is incidentally, “a Carriacou name for women who work together as friends and lovers”. The protagonist is robbed of the conception of identity (perhaps what Lorde felt), and thus must reclaim her sense of self. Considering Lorde was legally blind, her life is a multi-traversing sensory experience. Lorde uses a third-dimensional, sensual language as symbolic meaning. This language is not phallocentric, it is a place where women and power might coexist, and demands an engaged and active audience. Just as Lorde challenged her readers, she seems to have challenged Baldwin. 

Baldwin has a clear and objective focus on the black man’s struggle in America. He says: “But you don’t realize that in this republic the only real crime is to be a Black man?” To which Lorde responds: “No, I don’t realize that. I realize that the only crime is to be Black. I realize the only crime is to be Black, and that includes me too”. Lorde points out one of Baldwin’s neglected margins of oppression of which he did not identify: the black woman. Lorde brings this topic to the forefront for Baldwin, directly addressing how black men use violence against black women as a way to cope with society’s treatment. Baldwin seems to push back, noting how a black man must not be blamed “for the trap he is in,” to which Lorde again re-emphasizes her point, not of blame, but of necessary change. These are thoughts I hope to continue to explore in my final paper, so feel free to leave feedback!

Baptismal Ocean

I was really struck by the motif of the ocean in Giovanni’s Room. Some version of the sea or the ocean or water is often used to describe David’s relationship to America and David’s relationship to Giovanni. I couldn’t help but track this repetition, considering how pervasive the way in which Baldwin uses it is. 

David’s internalized homophobia makes him believe his sexuality is his original sin. It seems as if David, in escaping across the sea to another land, is escaping a proposed cleansing of his homosexuality. He is jumping from one land to the next, crossing the sea to get there. The water that separates the two countries is cleansing and baptismal. Geographically, David’s sexuality differs. In America, David’s home is his ideal of heterosexuality and conventionality. In France, where David (and James) flees, is where David can practice homosexuality. Despite avoiding the water, David can’t forget his home and the shame that discolors his self-concept. Home is not specific enough for David, it is relational to the sea: “across the ocean” (271). The ocean transcends the different sexualities, he wades deeper into the water as he experiments more with Giovanni. It is an alternate baptism; instead of washing away the original sin, he is submerged in it. In this way, Baldwin is subverting our Christianized ideal of baptism. David is “being led by Giovanni into deep and dangerous water” (250); his life with Giovanni occurs “beneath the sea” (281); life “occurs underwater,” David undergoes a “sea-change” (289); Giovanni drags David with him to “the bottom of the sea” (314). Baldwin exploits the qualities of water: its cleansing ability and its potential for depth and danger. The “dirt” of his sin is not washed away, despite Giovanni’s assurance that the “dirty water” the older gay men swim in will be easily washed away by him and David (256). He is being baptized by Giovanni, but the act is incomplete. He is submerged in the water, yet does not come up for air. This motif comes to exclusively symbolize suicide. David says, “I thought of the people before me who looked down at the river and gone to sleep beneath it” (304). All those who committed suicide by drowning exist in the between, an incomplete act of baptism, in which they are submerged in sin (as David acutely feels). Yet this is a shame that is not shared by the others. Specifically, Jacques encourages David not to get trapped within this perception of his dirty body because he will end up despising every inch of his flesh (267). 

David soon develops a fear of water, because it is a reminder of his incomplete and subverted baptism. After sleeping with another woman in order to distract himself from the pull of Giovanni, David “hear[s] the water running” and becomes afraid to “go out into that night which had seemed to be calling [him] only a few moments before” (303). Giovanni tries to complicate David’s notion of water when he describes women as “like water…tempting…treacherous…bottomless…shallow…dirty” (285), yet it is Giovanni who represents all of these things for David. He is the possibility of simultaneous fulfillment and paralyzing shame, freedom and imprisonment, salvation and damnation. 

Flesh As Sin

The presentations today prompted a continuation of thought regarding one of the things Baldwin takes issue with within the institution of the church: the sin of flesh. Baldwin has learned from the church to hate his body, which might commit actions of his sinful sexuality. Baldwin is taught by American society to hate his skin, which threatens the legitimacy of whiteness. Baldwin, in grappling against this self-loathing, reveals what he has struggled to love most about himself: his body.  

I believe this might relate to our discussion of the afterlife, which is said to be existence without flesh and body. Perhaps the Christian church orients itself away from the sin of our human bodies knowing that the afterlife means a dismissal and a departure from the profane. Yet this is a notion that Baldwin confronts, as he believes that the shame we are taught to approach our bodies with is harmful. Salvation need not be divorced from bodily existence. 

To believe sin is inherent in your body and written on your skin is to never believe in personal salvation. Baldwin believes in his own salvation and prophethood, regardless of his physicality. He refuses to be ashamed of his flesh, knowing that it instead is the content of his deliverance. Baldwin vehemently rejects flesh as sin as taught in religion and society, instead rewriting flesh to exist as sanctification. He suggests that “love can only be attained through a holistic acceptance of the body as well as the spirit,” which is perhaps why Baldwin also demands sanctity of nudity as an exposed body (Field 451). 

David, the protagonist of Giovanni’s Room, has salvation “hidden in his flesh,” as the body holds redemption in its very existence. Most of Baldwin’s protagonists make no distinction between the body and the spirit, as he contends that the two share in significance and value. He uplifts the body as a sight of salvation, “insisting on [its] sanctity and acceptance” (Field 451). I’m curious to track this train of thought as we continue to trace patterns in our second Baldwin novel. Questions I might ask going forward: Is transcendence reached when the body and soul meet each other? How are sexuality and religion continually entangled in Baldwin’s text? Does human flesh force a confrontation between sexuality and religion?

Fate, Dust, and Silence

Motifs of fate, dust, and silence appear to me as existing in an interconnected web of meaning within Go Tell It On The Mountain. I would like to explore these intersections, with special attention to what this might reveal of Baldwin, author of said web. 

As mentioned in my last blog entry, the ceaseless dust of John’s surroundings and the point to which John is affected by this filth reveals his inescapable terror of the consequences of afterlife. John feels the need to atone for the pronounced evil of his body and identity, tasking himself with cleansing the floorboards and walls of grime in his home and in the church. This job is endless and reaps little reward. John is nearly suffocated by the dust, it “fill[s] his mouth” and threatens to “bury” him, and later, “made him cough and retch,” appearing as film around his mouth during his conversion (24, 187-188). I’m struck by the notion that the dust is so incredibly powerful that it muzzles. It invades John’s throat, his mouth, incapacitating him. 

The dust transforms, however, coming to resemble the ashes of a fire. John’s throat, when filled with dust, burns as if filled with ash and becomes as “sharp as the fumes of Hell” (189). When a fire burns, ashes result. I contend that the dust that John consumes and gags on might mutate into ashes, part of the iconography of Hell. In the Old Testament of the Bible, God creates man from the dust of the ground and envisions a return to this origin: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust, you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). John is fated to this dust, yet is fighting to exist outside of this fate bequeathed to him by God and (in Baldwin’s view) is bequeathed to the American Negro. Simultaneously, John is fighting to escape the fiery Hell that he believes he is fated to. After his conversion, however, John finds reprieve. He escapes the silence symptomatic of his shame and finds a voice. Baldwin writes, “And the words came upward, it seemed, of themselves, in the new voice God had given him” (199). John is given a voice that transcends flawed human language, it comes from God himself. Baldwin may have felt a similar way when is called as a witness to the lived Black experience. This trajectory differs from the expectation of his stepfather, yet is a purpose Baldwin feels is truthful. He rejects the fate that Wright prescribes in Native Son and the fate prescribed to him by Christianity, which is “sealed forever, from the beginning of time” as a descendent of Ham (Down At The Cross 307). I’ve noticed time and time again that Baldwin is fighting to be understood for all the possibilities of his existence. He is an amalgam, a was, an am, and a will. Baldwin’s becoming is the inspiration for John’s own beginning. John is converted, yet is unfinished. As apparent in the last lines of the novel, he is still “coming” and merely “on his way” (215).

No Escape

Just as John cannot seem to escape the endless accumulation of dust in his house, in his church, or on his body, I couldn’t escape the initially unclear motif of dust within Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain. I initially thought this dust might signify John’s interminable dread and shame with regard to his position in the church. However, upon further investigation, this notion is complicated when viewed in a Biblical context. 

Baldwin relies heavily on religious language and imagery, and its parallels and subversions illustrate John’s existential crisis. Dust appears everywhere: “in the walls and the floorboards…beneath the sink where roaches spawned…in the wall against which they hung…in every corner, angle, crevice of the monstrous stove and lived behind it in delirious communion with the corrupted wall”; dust even “veils [the] doubtful glory” of the windows, which might otherwise offer a reprieve of “gold or silver” (19). The dust of John’s home reflects the dust that he feels spoils his interior. He feels dirty, vile, and even wonders if he resembles Satan presumably because of his emerging sexuality.

“The Temple of the Fire Baptized” has caused John an inescapable self-loathing and contempt for his body. John is so affected by this intrusion that he is nearly suffocated by the dirt that surrounds him. The dust “rose, clogging his nose and sticking to his sweaty skin,” it “fill[s] his mouth” and threatens to “bury” him (24). He is submerged in the dust of his own self-hatred and internal dissonance; a feeling I believe Baldwin knew all too well. John harbors an extreme self-consciousness and feels the need to atone for the pronounced evil inherent in his body, yet “so much labor brought so little reward” (24). He is horrified that this filth will remain forever and come to dictate consequences afterlife. The same church that taught him to hate his sexuality and body is the church of which is to decide his fate, a toxic entanglement of which John feels he will never elude. 

In the Old Testament of the Bible, God creates man from the dust of the ground and envisions a return to this origin: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust, you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). John sees the origin and fate of humanity as a reminder that he is sub-human, and must bend to the will of God. He is stifled by this notion of nothingness, coming from and returning to, the nothingness of dust. Yet this dust transcends the junction of before birth and of after death, it characterizes John’s very life. He is not permitted the freedom to escape the reminder of the beginning of his already-determined end, he is smothered within the confines of life. Dust, for John, will not solely exist before and after his life on Earth, it instead must destroy him from within.

Baldwin’s Self-Advocacy

Baldwin, as much as he is fighting against the depictions of race and masculinity in Native Son, is equally as concerned with their respective intersections of sexuality and spirituality.

Baldwin grew up as Bigger: “cold or black or hungry,” yet unlike Bigger has not “accepted a theology that denies him life” (Collected Essays 18). Despite the intersecting components of his identity (queer, black, expatriate, activist) facing extreme ridicule and shame, Baldwin advocates existing beyond these measures of diagnosed evil; he is not “sub-human” nor will “battle for his humanity according to those brutal criteria bequethed him at his birth” (Collected Essays 18). This is a radical act of self-love, one that confronts the reductive binarisms of popular culture and Christian morality. I’m very intrigued by this autonomy, as I believe it is evident in every one of his works, both fiction and criticism.

Baldwin is being told by various institutions (including the church) that his body and its varying components are sinful, vile, and ugly. He is expected to morph into expectations of blackness and sexuality, and if he can’t, accept his lack of humanity in an exhibition of self-loathing. He stakes a claim in his writing, for the complexity and subjectivity of the individual, rejecting the tormenting treatment of the black body in society. This becomes an act of personal salvation, as much as it is an act of rebellion. ‘The recognition of this complexity,’ he says, ‘is the signal of maturity; it marks the death of the child and the birth of the man” (Everybody’s Protest Novel).

I also suggest that this notion must be held if we are to assess and understand Baldwin’s work. Not only must we appreciate Baldwin as an amalgam of identities, but his writing as an act of self-assertion in the face of racism, homophobia, and condemnation.

Post-Mortem Treatment of Whiteness and Blackness

One of the things that stuck with me from our discussions this week – in a horrific, searing kind of way – was that of the post-mortem treatment of whiteness and blackness. We see this most precisely in Mary and Bessie, who, because of their differing races, face significantly different care post-mortem. During the courtroom proceedings, Wright chooses to include an explicit objectification of Bessie’s body in service of a white woman’s justice. 

Bessie is neglected in life and in death. She explains the social death that characterizes her life to Bigger; she exists solely to work for white people and the white-benefitting systems that oppress her. Bessie’s neglect within the text is authenticated by Bigger, her rapist and murderer: his “eyes widened. He had not thought of Bessie but once since his capture. Her death was unimportant beside that of Mary’s; he knew that when they killed him it would be for Mary’s death, not Bessie’s” (Wright 304). He forgets, again, later on: “He had completely forgotten Bessie during the inquest of Mary” (Wright 331). Bessie’s social death is ignored during her life with Bigger, yet is corroborated in her actual murder by the same person. Not only is Bessie’s own death completely neglected as deserving of justice, but it is further demoralized when her body becomes a spectacle within the courtroom. “They were bringing Bessie’s body in now to make the white men and women feel that nothing short of a quick blotting out of his life would make the city safe again…Though he had killed a black girl and a white girl, he knew that it would be for the death of the white girl that he would be punished. The black girl was merely evidence” (Wright 331). Bessie’s “bloody and black” body is objectified by the coroners/judge/lawyers in justice-seeking for Mary. Bessie, then, is raped twice in death: once by Bigger after her social death, and yet again by the white public and courtroom, after Bigger has murdered her (Wright 331). Mary’s body, contrastingly, is burnt, in a near-cremation. Her corpse, thus, is free from post-mortem objectification. She carries freedom even in death. 

This notion becomes further convoluted because a black body is being used to prosecute a black body. In other words, Bessie’s body, as black, becomes the proof of which to prove male black monstrosity and secure white justice. Bessie becomes an exhibition, for the eyes and cameras of the white people, whom she felt had killed her in social death long prior. An exhibition, in which she would have “resent[ed]” (Wright 331). When viewed through the lens of film critic Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”(1975), the female body is fetishized to displace anxiety of the male spectator. The mechanism by which we view Bessie’s post-mortem body is dissecting, dehumanizing, and objectifying. All processes of which continue in service of racism and whiteness.