The Things He Carried, We Still Carry

A self-proclaimed critic of America, James Baldwin writes about the past, present, and future of our country with unparalleled profundity, eloquence, bluntness, and foresight. 

As I suggested in another blog post earlier this semester, Baldwin remains timeless, unfortunately, however, not for the reasons he might have hoped. He gives voice to difficult and upsetting topics, problems that persist today, and compels his readers to look the issues of racism, sexuality, religion, and violence (as they relate to one another in American life) square in the eyes of faces of characters like John and Gabriel in Go Tell It On the Mountain; Giovanni, Jacques, and David in Giovanni’s Room; or Jesse and his parents in Going to Meet the Man. In case the message was not explicit enough in these texts, Baldwin offers an even more scathing portrayal of America in his shorter essays such as “The Price of the Ticket,” “My Dungeon Shook,” and “Faulkner and Desegregation,” to name a few of my particularly favorite works. In engaging with Baldwin’s prolific canon in writing and class discussions, I cannot say I felt particularly proud to be an American at any point in the semester. I am angered, frustrated, and disappointed by the little tangible change that has occurred in the decades since his passing. Yet, as Baldwin notes, these feelings are complicated by my whiteness and complicity in the oppression of Black Americans, manifest in seemingly small acts I take for granted like my ability to wear a hooded sweatshirt in public or pull over on the side of the road in front of a police officer without fear. 

In “A Fly in Buttermilk,” Baldwin writes, “You can take the child out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the child” (187). This sentence best captures one of my greatest takeaways from this course: the progress I seek for my country hinges on my ability to own my whiteness, privilege, and power– the things that make me American. I am part of the buttermilk that entraps and suffocates, and, while I detest it, I own this role. Baldwin reminds me that any attempt to distance myself from this reality, be it a “northerner joke” about the South or considerations of a more permanent life abroad in Spain, is futile. As much as I do not want to claim this America, I must. It would be a disservice to Baldwin, this class, and the future of our nation not to. He carried America’s dark history in his writing, a weight I am committed to undertaking and working to alleviate in his spirit. 

Northern Attitude

How’s the foreigner?

Blair, Gabriel is from North Carolina. That’s in the United States.

Not by choice. Let me remind you of a little thing called the Civil War.

Gossip Girl, Season 2, Episode 23.

Every year in the days preceding Thanksgiving, my hometown friends and I get together to watch reruns of our favorite television series, Gossip Girl. Half engaged in a conversation with the group and half paying attention to the show, I turned my full attention to the screen when I heard the conversation (quoted above) taking place between two of the main characters, Serena and Blair. In this moment, I was instantly reminded of our discussion in class on Monday about assumptions made about the North in contrast to the South, and, more specifically, my own biases against the South. Though Gossip Girl is by no means the most academic example of Northern antipathies towards the South, I was struck by this random episode’s coincidental relevance to our discussion of this very theme in James Baldwin’s Nobody Knows My Name. It is worth noting that, while my judgements of the South are undoubtedly primarily a product of my upbringing in the North, it is clear that they have been reproduced and reaffirmed by various forms of media, making this supposed North/South divide even more pronounced, widespread, and, ultimately, concerning. 

Despite all our efforts in the North to present racial bigotry, discrimination, and violence as “unique” to the South, James Baldwin reminds me that we are guilty of the same problems in the North. In “Faulkner and Desegregation,” Baldwin insightfully captures the relationship between the North and South in writing, “The North escaped scot-free. For one thing, in freeing the slave, it established a moral superiority over the South which the South has not learned to live with until today; and this despite– or possibly because of– the fact that this moral superiority was bought, after all, rather cheaply. The North was no better prepared than the South, as it turned out, to make citizens of former slaves, but it was able, as the South was not, to wash its hands of the matter” (213). I find the phrases “moral superiority” and “wash its hands of the matter” to be especially appropriate in describing the North. Not only do we often express disdain for the South’s history of racism with a paternalistic tone but we also consider ourselves to be absolved of any similar sin. In doing so, we ignore the gentrified neighborhoods like Hyde Park in Chicago that push low-income Black residents into unsafe and unsanitary public housing, police brutality resulting in the murders of Black people like George Floyd in Minneapolis, and mass incarceration of Black men like my Inside-Out classmates at Westville Correctional Facility in northwestern Indiana. This reality is further evidence of Baldwin’s contention that “the racial setup in the South is not, for a Negro, very different from the racial setup in the North… Segregation is unofficial in the North and official in the South, a crucial difference that does nothing, nevertheless, to alleviate the lot of most Northern Negroes” (203). Baldwin emphasizes that racism is thus an American problem, not one contained to the South, as much as Northerners, myself included, would prefer to think (for the sake of our consciences). How can we ever move forward as a country if White Americans, no matter where they live, deny the long and continuing history of denigrating Black people?

Run to History, Not from It

We cannot be free until they are free.

James Baldwin, Collected Essays, 295.

Given the recent revitalization of efforts to whitewash United States history, James Baldwin’s commentary on mid-twentieth century race relations, especially as documented during his travels throughout the South, is ever relevant. Perhaps most egregiously, Florida’s new teaching standards include instruction on “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit” (Atterbury “New Florida teaching standards say African Americans received some ‘personal benefit’ from slavery”). Florida is joined by over 11 other states, predominantly located in the South, that have enacted restrictions on teaching the long (and enduring) history of racism with the intent to avoid making (White) students feel guilty for their race. 

In my own conversations with friends and family about these very pieces of legislation, I often hear some variation of the phrase “I am not responsible for what my ancestors did” in response. Likely a result of my strong aversion to any form of confrontation, especially with loved ones, and despite my wholehearted belief in the necessity of learning the complete and unfettered history of the United States, I have always struggled to enunciate a compelling counter to their protests. For this reason, I found James Baldwin’s “My Dungeon Shook” especially useful. In this essay, Baldwin redefines our understanding of accountability, offering a new perspective on what it means for White people to acknowledge and own their responsibility and contributions to the oppression of Black people. On the centennial anniversary of the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation, Baldwin writes to his nephew James, “You know, and I know, that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon. We cannot be free until they are free” (295). This freedom, Baldwin argues, is contingent on love; in this same text, he calls on Black Americans to “with love, force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change” (294). Yet, 80 years later in 2023, the White majority continues to flee from this reality via the aforementioned attacks on school curriculums, continuous acquittals of police brutality, and more.

Sure, maybe White people are not to blame for what their ancestors did. But we are certainly presently guilty should we continue to turn a blind eye and exhibit indifference while the pain and denigration of our Black peers, coworkers, professors, friends, and bosses are not only overlooked but erased altogether. As Baldwin emphasizes in “My Dungeon Shook,” we cannot move forward towards a true future of racial equality and national brotherhood without first knowing, understanding, and acknowledging our past. Without doing so, White people, let alone Black people, are not free, to use Baldwin’s language, to be part of this path forward. We have a duty to run to this dark history, not from it.

Sex, Violence And America

Thus far in the semester we have somewhat successfully organized James Baldwin’s works into various categories: Baldwin’s writings on religion, race, sexuality, and so on. But, the final chapter of Going to Meet the Man challenges the ease with which we compartmentalize the authorship of Baldwin. In this chapter, Baldwin brings together the themes of Christianity, race, and sex in an intentional, but nonetheless grotesque, manner. At the hanging of a Black man in his town, the main character, Jesse, watches his mother’s face: “her eyes were very bright, her mouth was open: she was more beautiful than he had ever seen her, and more strange.” Jesse himself “began to feel a joy he had never felt before” as “his scrotum tightened” (949). These sentences, blatantly sexual in nature, evoke something akin to a religious experience caused at the sight of a nearly-ineffable violent murder. Later, as Jesse reminisces on this moment as an adult, “he thought of the knife and grabbed himself and stroked himself and a terrible sound, something between a high laugh and a howl, came out of him” (950). Years later, Jesse’s sexuality is still connected to this violent memory. These two sections in the text are examples of the link between the themes of religion, racism, and sex that Baldwin explores and considers explicitly and thoroughly in conversation with one another for the first time in this piece.

With that being said, for me, the last chapter of Going to Meet the Man felt peculiarly reminiscent of the disturbing language and graphic imagery of Richard Wright’s Native Son that Baldwin was rather quick to dismiss as a mere protest piece. However, Baldwin’s writing reads as a kind of racial inversion of Wright’s novel. In the chapter “Going to Meet the Man,” it is the White men who experience sexual pleasure at the sight and thought of the castration, beating, and lynching of a Black man, unlike the deeply violent Bigger who masturbates to clips of White girls frolicking on the beach and later assaults and kills Mary Dalton as she lies incapacitated in her bed. Perhaps, though, the focus is not so much who committed and enjoyed these horrific acts but rather the fact that violence, sexual pleasure, and religion are inextricably linked in American culture. In his return to the states and subsequent close following of the civil rights movement, it is likely that Baldwin could no longer escape this uniquely interconnected reality. I wonder if we could argue that Wright had a similar point in mind.

Giovanni’s Room: Prison or Paradise?

“‘Nobody can stay in the garden of Eden,’ Jacques said. And then: ‘I wonder why.’
… I said nothing.”

James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room, page 239.

There are undeniable parallels between Giovanni’s room and the metaphorical closet we invoke when referring to the “coming out” of a queer individual. We conceive of this closet as a dark and confining space that is dominated by feelings of fear, shame, and repression. Rightfully so, then, we usually understand a friend or family member’s coming out of the closet as a liberating experience– a celebratory moment indicating that our loved one feels sufficiently supported by others and secure enough to love and/or express him/her/themself as they please. However, if we read Giovanni’s room as an allusion to this closet, James Baldwin complicates this generally positive perception of coming out of the closet contrasted by the negative view of life in the closet. 

In one sense, Baldwin presents the closet (Giovanni’s room) as space that offers security for both David and Giovanni. On more than one occasion, David refers to the room as “home,” describing the “many drunken” mornings he “stumbled homeward” with Giovanni (279). David also recalls the “children playing outside the window” and “strange shares that loomed against it,” noting that “at such moments, Giovanni, working in the room, or lying in bed, would stiffen like a hunting dog and remain perfectly silent until whatever seemed to threaten our safety had moved away” (289). In both of these instances, Giovanni’s room functions as protection from the outside world. Here, Giovanni and David have some freedom, albeit distorted, to express their queer love for one another that is not acceptable elsewhere. 

Baldwin further inverts our perception of coming out of the closet in detailing David’s desire to not only escape Giovanni’s room, but this queer part of his identity altogether. David pleads with Hella: “When the money gets here, let’s take it and get out of Paris… I’ve been living in Giovanni’s room for months… and I just can’t stand it anymore. I have to get out of there, please” (331). In this same conversation, he describes Giovanni’s room as “stinking and dirty” (332). Through David’s desperate and disgusted tone, it is evident that he is not looking to leave Giovanni’s room to openly enter society as a queer man. In fact, it is quite the opposite; he wants to leave this part of himself behind and start “anew” with Hella. The closet in this story is claustrophobic and restrictive to David for very different reasons than we might assume, giving our preconceived notions of what it means to “come out.” If it is neither the outside world nor Giovanni’s room, then where can David find his Eden as a queer man? Does Baldwin believe there exists an Eden for him to exist fully in his queerness and manhood?

The Deafening Silence of Sex and Sexuality

Having recently read History of Sexuality, Vol. 1 in “Perspectives on Gender” with Professor Sara Marcus while beginning Giovanni’s Room in this class at the same time, I found these texts to be undeniably connected to one another. In History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault discusses the “repressive hypothesis” – an expression of the relationship between power and sex over time. Specifically, it holds that human beings have shifted from a time when they could speak freely about sex and sexuality to a period where these same things are not to be talked about or enjoyed. Foucault, however, rejects the repressive hypothesis, arguing that this very rise of repression had instead an effect opposite to silence. While acknowledging there were restrictions placed on discourse surrounding sex, Foucault contends that these same restrictions led to an “incitement to speak about [sex], and to do so more and more; a determination on the part of the agencies of power to hear it spoken about, and to cause it to speak through explicit articulation and endlessly accumulated detail” (18). 

With this being said, I see Giovanni’s Room as a piece that further complicates the relationship between power and sex that Foucault explores; I believe Baldwin’s work serves as evidence both in favor of and against Foucault’s analysis of the repressive hypothesis. On one hand, the theme of shame surrounding sex and nakedness that persists in Part 1 of Giovanni’s Room offers truth to the repressive hypothesis. This becomes evident as David recalls his relationship with his father: “What passed between us as masculine candor exhausted and appalled me. Fathers ought to avoid utter nakedness before their sons” (232). David is deeply uncomfortable by his father’s breaking from the silence surrounding sex and sexuality. David’s response to his father’s openness about these subjects can thus be read as an enforcement of the repressive hypothesis. Additionally, in describing his first encounters with Giovanni at the bar, David admits, “I was glad. I was only sorry that Jacques had been a witness. He made me ashamed. I hated him because he had now seen all that he had waited to see” (254). With the idea that a witness spreads the word to others, David again expresses disdain and fear for the discursive references to sex and sexuality Jacques might make about David. These feelings are exacerbated by the fact that this is a queer relationship and therefore subject to intensified scrutiny. 

Given the autobiographical nature of Baldwin’s work, these moments can be seen as a reflection of his personal sentiments. Yet despite the intense feelings of shame and desire for silence surrounding sex and sexuality that David expresses, in a Foucault-ian reading of this, he (David/Baldwin) also gives voice to these matters and brings them out of the shadow of silence. Through David’s relationship with both his father and Giovanni, Baldwin makes possible the very discussion regarding sex, pleasure, and queer love he tried to avoid. Admittedly, I was at first quite unconvinced by Foucault’s criticism of the repressive hypothesis. However, in reading Giovanni’s Room thus far, maybe he was on to something…

America at a Crossroads

As I flip through the Chicago news channels all reporting on the murder of a 6-year-old Palestinian-American boy stabbed 26 times by his landlord amidst the outbreak of war in Israel all while I am sitting on my couch during fall break, I cannot help but be reminded of James Baldwin’s warning to America nearly 50 years ago. While he focused primarily on white and Black race relations, what I perceive to be his greater concern regarding a lack of love in our country closely relates to this horrific event and other hate crimes like it. I believe Baldwin is undoubtedly timeless in his writing style; however, he has also been made timeless (and arguably unfortunately so) by the content of his writing. By this I mean that the issues and goals Baldwin enunciated in his various works are far from achieved, namely his call for some form of national love and brotherhood that transcends all violence and hate. 

I found the parallels between contemporary America and the America Baldwin wrote about to be made most evident by the existentialist theme of “Down at the Cross” and I Am Not Your Negro. In “Down at the Cross,” Baldwin argues, “He [the Black man] is the key figure in his country, and the American future is precisely as bright or dark as his… Hence the question: Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?” (340). In a similar vein, he later writes, “In short, we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation” (342). In both of these statements, Baldwin contextualizes the problem of racial bigotry in a greater conversation about nation-building, contending that the strength and longevity of our country, currently a “burning house,” as a whole hinge upon our ability to end the discrimination and hate towards Black Americans. Relatedly, in I Am Not Your Negro, Baldwin’s efforts to connect the future of our nation with the relationship between Black and white Americans become even clearer. In the film he is quoted saying “No kingdom can maintain itself by force alone.” Though this statement was used in direct reference to police brutality, another issue emerging from America’s problem with race that persists today, Baldwin’s underlying call for love and existentialist concern for the future of his country, said “kingdom,” shine through. That is, the current violent path America is on is not sustainable; something else must be present to save our country– love. In sum, both of these works depict America at a crossroads, one that it has not entirely departed from today. For this reason, and despite this dreary picture of America, Baldwin’s words of hope, “If we do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world,” also still ring true today should we choose to finally heed them (347). 

A Self-Proclaimed Intercessor

The religiosity of Go Tell It on the Mountain is incontestable. Baldwin intentionally references various tenets of Christianity throughout this novel not only as an homage to his upbringing but also as an attempt to make sense of this faith that dominated his youth and reconcile it with his beliefs about love and life as a Black American. John’s father Gabriel is a clear example of the religious (sub)text intrinsic to Go Tell It on the Mountain

There are many moments in which the character Gabriel parallels Angel Gabriel who served as an intercessor between God and humans, communicating God’s wishes to humans throughout the Bible. In Luke 1, Angel Gabriel explains to Mary, “I am Gabriel and I stand in the presence of God.” Like the archangel from the Bible, Gabriel in the novel also makes clear his unique relationship with God to those around him; he states, “I been doing the will of the Lord, and can’t nobody sit in judgment on me but the Lord. The Lord called me out, He chose me, and I been running with Him ever since I made a start” (206). At another point in the novel, Gabriel tells Elizabeth, “The Lord’s been speaking to my heart, and I believe it’s His will that you and me be man and wife” (182). This is much like in The Annunciation when Angel Gabriel says to Mary, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.” Here, both Gabriels take part in the formation of the Holy Family in their respective settings. The likeness between Angel Gabriel and Gabriel in Go Tell It on the Mountain has a critical literary and argumentative purpose. Gabriel invokes his closeness to God as a source of moral authority and thus demands compliance from other members of his family and congregation. Baldwin then uses the other characters as witnesses to Gabriel’s anything-but-holy actions that sharply contrast his self-proclaimed role of sacrosanct intercessor. In doing so, Baldwin casts doubt on Gabriel’s legitimacy as a voice for God within their community and, with that, the lessons and messages Gabriel preaches on God’s behalf, primarily, that sexuality and romantic love have no place in the church and that religion is means by which to ensure Black Americans stay within a (racial, patriarchal, etc.) hierarchy.

The Ultimate Panopticon

I recently read an excerpt from Michel Foucault’s “Panopticism” in the class “Perspectives on Gender” with Professor Marcus, and upon finishing Part 2 of Go Tell It on the Mountain, I could not help but be reminded of Foucault’s work, specifically the parallels between what he names as “The Panopticon” and the role of religion in the lives of John and his family members. Foucault defines The Panopticon in the context of the carceral system, inspired Jeremy Bentham’s idea for prison reform where the cells circle around a central guard tower, The Panopticon (like the image above). Because they each face inward towards the tower, The Panopticon represents the constant possibility of surveillance, so much so that there not even need be a person inside as long as the people in the prison have internalized this belief (fear) that they are constantly being watched. There is no escape from this incessant monitoring, real or imagined, and risk of punishment that follows should they be caught doing the “wrong” thing. Given the seemingly narrow scope of The Panopticon in Foucault’s writing, I asked: what might The Panopticon look like in other settings? 

I think Go Tell It on the Mountain offers one possible answer to this question. I would argue that religion functions as some sort of Panopticon-like force in John’s life. One moment where this idea is especially evident is when John visits the movie theater when “having once decided to enter, he did not look back at the street again for fear that one of the saints might be passing and, seeing him, might cry out his name and lay hand son him to drag him back” (Baldwin 37). John very clearly worries that a member of his church will see him committing this sin and become someone who can testify against him before the Lord come judgment time. In other words, John feels that there is no reprieve from God’s watchful eyes. Another similar example of this idea is when the mass attendees recite “My soul is a witness for my Lord,” and in this instance, John experiences “an awful silence… a dreadful weight, a dreadful speculation… and this weight began to move at the bottom of John’s mind, in a silence like the silence of the void before creation, and he began to feel a terror he had never felt before” (Baldwin 76). I understand John’s visceral reaction to this religious expression to speak to the fear that arises from the exact internalized perception of constant surveillance that is the basis for The Panopticon. For John, by way of others or himself, there is no escaping God’s sight nor this world of binaries– good and evil, white and black– he sees as intrinsically connected to and enforced by his religion.

James Baldwin: A Prodigal Son?

I found James Baldwin’s reflections on the tumultuous relationships with both of the father figures in his life in “Notes of a Native Son” and later in “Alas, Poor Richard” to be some of the more powerful pieces we have read thus far. It is especially striking to consider the similarities between his stepfather David Baldwin and mentor Richard Wright, as they both had profound impacts on the life and work of James Baldwin long after they passed. 

To say the least, Baldwin did not have a picturesque relationship with either of these individuals. Baldwin recalls only one time in all his life with his stepfather David in which they had really spoken to one another. Baldwin adds that he cannot remember a time when he and his siblings were happy to see their father return home (79). He experienced a similar distancing with Wright, noting that their dialogues “became too frustrating and acrid” (265). Tragically, Baldwin reconciled with neither paternal figure in his life before they died. 

I would argue that Baldwin saw a bit of himself in both David and Richard, and this realization of similarity is part of the reason for their tense relationships. By this I mean, Baldwin watched how qualities of these father figures eventually led to their deaths, in a physical sense for his stepfather and a metaphorical one for his mentor as an author. I think he feared that, because of their likeness, he might face a similar fate. Baldwin explains that David “lived and died in an intolerable bitterness of spirit” that frightened him “to see how powerful and overflowing this bitterness could be” and it was now his (65). In a similar vein, of Wright Baldwin says, “They despised him… It was certainly very frightening to watch. I could not help feeling: Be careful. Time is passing for you, too, and this may be happening to you one day” (266). For Baldwin, David and Wright are comparable not only in their relationship to him as some sort of distorted father figure but also in that they serve as a warning. Yet, despite the turmoil they caused him, he longs for their presence. Baldwin laments, “Now that my father was irrecoverable, I wished that he had been beside me so that I could have searched his face for the answers which only the future would give me now” (84). Similarly, he speaks to Wright: “Whoever He may be, and wherever you may be, may God be with you, Richard, and may He help me not to fail that argument which began in me” (258). This desire for reunion with David and Wright evokes for me the image of the prodigal son… has he returned home?