Final Reflection: Baldwin as a philosopher

Looking back on all of my blog posts from this semester, I am struck by the diversity of subjects I was able to cover, along with all of my fellow classmates. I wrote my first blog post on Black Existentialism and my most recent on American Idealism. In between I touched on intersectionality, various images of light and darkness in Giovanni’s Room, and the evolution of shame for John in Go Tell It on the Mountain. Our discussions in class also illuminated the diverse subjects connected to Baldwin. In the syllabus it reads that “we will interrogate questions of race, sexuality, violence, and migration… Baldwin’s life and work will allow us the opportunity to explore transatlantic discourses on nationality, sexuality, race, gender, and religion.” In class we discussed how religion and sexuality affected the character of John, what Baldwin asked of white America in his critical work, how race functioned in Paris differently than in the U.S., and more. My main point is to say that I cannot tie up the course neatly, with one succinct explanation of how Baldwin is relevant today and how his work links up with a broad swath of experience. 

I do want to argue for a point that we have not brought up in discussion, however. We have discussed Baldwin as a writer, a black queer man, a son, an activist, and more. But we have not called him a philosopher. The power of using this label is that it acknowledges Baldwin’s work in a field dominated by white men. Additionally, spotting the philosophy in Baldwin’s work further bolsters the power of his literature. In “Down at the Cross” Baldwin does some of his most interesting philosophical work. First, he considers the suffering of Black people. He concludes something about the nature of God from this exploration:

“But God—and I felt this even then, so long ago, on that tremendous floor, unwillingly—is white. And if His love was so great, and if He loved all His children, why were we, the blacks, cast down so far?” 

Baldwin disrupts a tradition of Christian philosophy that has come before him. Instead of characterizing God as unraced, as an eternal and all loving entity, he calls him “white.” It is the only way for him to explain the uneven and persistent suffering of Black people. The power of this statement is that it forces Christians to take a hard look at who is bearing the brunt of the suffering that many Christians value as instrumental or in accordance with God’s plan. 

Baldwin is a philosopher in many other ways: from his theory on the tragedy of life to the power of love. His literature grapples with these themes and Baldwin clearly does so in his own life as well: his attempted suicides and desire for love both point towards his deep reflection about life and whether or not it is worth living. This new label for Baldwin is just another lens through which to view him and his work. I look forward to finding new ways to think about Baldwin going forward!

Baldwin and American Idealism

After finishing Giovanni’s Room, I found myself wondering why Baldwin wrote such a devastatingly sad novel. In another blog post, I argued that Baldwin is documenting what life was like as a political statement, to gesture towards what should be. I think, though, that my analysis was missing a key component. In the letter to his nephew, Baldwin positions himself in the American story—an aspect of his identity that supplies the idealist framework that I was just starting to uncover in my analysis of Giovanni’s Room. Baldwin allows himself to believe in the possibility of an ideal America because it supplies a goalpost to strive towards. The profound sadness of his work, then, is not a rebuke of this ideal, but rather a sign that the work is not done. His ideas link up with Langston Hughes and strongly reject the rhetoric of “Make America Great Again” used in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and term.

Baldwin tells his nephew about where America has been and where it will go: “Great men have done great things here and will again and we can make America what America must become” (302). Baldwin praises individuals for their contributions in making America a country of equality and justice, but there is still work to be done. Perhaps, because he can only point to individuals in the past, he is hoping for more structural change in the future. It is slightly disappointing that Baldwin only mentions “great men” who have begun to shape America into its ideals. His blind spots when it comes to women are evident. But his project allows for his own views to grow: “what America must become” is a sentiment that leaves room for radical change and growth. This particular sentence reminded me of the poem “Let America Be America Again”  by Langston Hughes. He, too, suggests that America has not yet lived up to its own ideals: 

O, let America be America again—

The land that never has been yet—

And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—

Who made America,

Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,

Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,

Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Hughes describes how the poor, Black, and indigenous peoples in the U.S. really made America. His story already contradicts the story of white people that dominates the history books. He also looks to the future. America “never has been yet,” but it “must be.” Baldwin shares this same idealism. He believes in a world where humans no longer have to “sacrifice all the beauty of our lives” (Down at the Cross, 339) because of arbitrary labels and factions. I do not think that the relevant part of this idea, though, is whether or not a world like this is possible. The American ideal has a function even if it is not attainable. By imagining a world of equality, love, vulnerability, justice and more, Baldwin and Hughes motivate Americans to work tirelessly on the the continual project that is America.

Distance, Knowledge, and Love

I found the section of No Name in the Street where Baldwin discusses his relationship with his old friend to be particularly interesting. His friend, according to Baldwin, has not changed a bit. He is “trapped, preserved” (361) in time. Baldwin, on the other hand, is a public figure who smokes on television and no longer subscribes to the Church that formed so much of his childhood. There is distance between them. This distance is reminiscent of the kind of distance Baldwin saw between white and Black people. There seem to be two worlds, a Black and white one, but Black people are forced to know about the white world because they are confronted with it daily. This causes an epistemic gap where white people do not have access to as much reality: “Therefore, whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves” (312). The distance between Baldwin and his friend poses a different, but interesting question about knowledge, privilege, and reality. Unlike the stark distance between the Black and white worlds, the distance between Baldwin and his friend illuminates a more subtle point about the relationship of Black people to celebrity status and wealth. 

Baldwin goes on to explain what this gap means for him: “For that bloody suit was their suit….they had created Martin…The distance between us, and I had never thought of this before, was that they did not know this, and I now dared to realize that I loved them more than they loved me” (365). Two points emerge from Baldwin’s analysis. First, Baldwin explores the idea that “they” created Martin Luther King Jr. This seems to suggest that everyday Black Americans participated in the mythologizing of MLK and formed the base of support that helped to skyrocket him to prominence. Baldwin, though, had more intimate knowledge of Martin. He knew about his wife, his tendencies at parties, and what it felt like to talk with him. Baldwin’s friend must rely on the caricature of Martin as true whereas Baldwin has access to Martin in all of his humanity. The distance, then, causes the “everyday person” to have a simplistic picture of the world that evades the truth. 

The second idea from the quote above is that Baldwin has a larger capacity to love his friend than his friend has to love him. This claim, to me, is the more controversial one. Baldwin links up knowledge with an ability to love, which seems to incorporate a level of privilege into his theory of love. Is it really true that his friend cannot love him just because he does not know the intimate details of his lifestyle? If love requires an understanding of the other, how does Baldwin account for those structurally barricaded into only knowing about a certain sector of society, for example a poor, Black family? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I d think Baldwin is trying to make sense of the separation that occurs between those Black people with celebrity status (or wealth) and those without. Whether this idea is successful hinges on the relationship between love and knowledge.

Intersectionality and Lorde

Audre Lorde, in the article “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism” (1981), discusses interior tensions amongst women, especially the tendency of white women to ignore or actively harm women of color. But it is not just about gender. Lorde identifies her experience in specific terms: she is a woman, Black, and Lesbian. I think that this urge, to specify your own experience, is critical in the project Lorde lays out (which is ultimately to use anger fruitfully to dismantle racism, sexism, homophobia, and any other marginalizing tactic). For this project to work, women need to be able to communicate with one another, to be willing to listen to the experiences of other women. In other words, the idea of intersectionality seems to be a prominent, underlying topic of this article. 

I will now explore how intersectionality connects up with Audre Lorde and her project by discussing what intersectionality really means. The term was first coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw and it refers to the various social identities that combine in the individual to create a particular kind of oppression. Black womanhood, for example is an example of an intersectional identity. It is not just the additive result of combining “blackness” and “womanhood” together, but rather a different entity altogether. In a paper by Sara Bernstein called “The Metaphysics of Intersectionality” she proposes a unique, metaphysical way to view intersectionality. According to her argument, intersectional identities are actually more critical building blocks of identity than more general categories. In other words, “…intersectional categories are explanatorily prior to their constituents. Rather than the conjuncts explaining the conjunction, the conjunction explains the conjuncts” (331). This means that “Black womanhood” is prior to “blackness” and “womanhood.” Ideas about blackness are derived from the specific instantiations of blackness found in individuals, not the other way around. This idea is powerful because it suggests that to know about “women” you must know about black women, queer women, Native American women, disabled women and more. 

Audre Lorde deeply criticizes white women for refusing to listen to women of color, whether that be walking out of conferences or cutting them off from telling their stories. Another way to describe this criticism is that women who refuse to listen to other women (who are different from them) are not actually interested in learning about what it means to be a woman and ending the oppression of women. Lorde summarizes this well when she writes, “What woman here is so enamored of her own oppression that she cannot see her heelprint upon another woman’s face?” (“The Uses of Anger…”). To care only about the oppression directly at hand in your own life is to be ignorant of the ways in which you yourself participate in the oppression of other women. Lorde, and the theory of intersectionality that I laid out above, both suggest that perspectives of the most marginalized in society are often the most critical to the betterment of society. The tapestry of difference amongst people must be expressed, not feared, in order for the larger project of equality to occur.

The Naturalistic Fallacy

James Baldwin, in his essay “The Male Prison” makes a point about where homosexuality fits in to the natural world. He writes, “to ask whether homosexuality is natural is really like asking whether or not it was natural for Socrates to swallow hemlock….whether or not it was natural for the Germans to send upwards of six million people to an extremely twentieth century death. It does not see me that nature helps us very much when we need illumination in human affairs” (232). Baldwin pushes back against the vision of an ideal natural world by positing that one could call the suicide of Socrates or the genocide of millions of Jews natural as well. To Baldwin, what human beings intuitively want, or do, does not always link up to being moral. Baldwin is actually summarizing one of the informal logical fallacies called the Naturalistic Fallacy in Philosophy. The fallacy goes something like this: 

  1. Doing X is natural. 
  2. Therefore, you ought to do X. 

This is a fallacy because what is natural is not always ethical. Getting vaccinated, for example, is not classified as natural because vaccines “trick” your body into creating antibodies without actually exposing someone to a disease. But many would agree that getting vaccinated is ethical because it protects individuals and the larger community. Baldwin employs this fallacy to argue that the question about whether or not homosexuality is natural is not the question at stake. 

I would argue, though, that the argument against the Naturalistic Fallacy undergirds “Giovanni’s Room” too. Giovanni describes his life in Italy before he knew he was homosexual, “I thought I was like other men…I wanted to stay forever in our village and work in the vineyards…” (334). At first, this beautiful, natural landscape seems like a dream or a fairytale. Giovanni is happy. But the space does not remain this way: his wife births a stillborn and Giovanni leaves the village, cursing God. What at first seemed like a natural paradise became a place where Giovanni could not create life, where his love could not produce more love. What is natural is not always what is good. But Baldwin does not try to suggest that the city is any better just because it is not natural. There is more freedom for homosexuals to thrive and crossdressing and other modes of being are much more widely accepted. But Giovanni and David are still holed up in a small room. Even here, their love cannot flourish. 

I think Baldwin is showing us all of these spaces where homosexual love cannot grow not to say that homosexual love is impossible, but to critique what the world is at this point in time. In other words, he does not fall for the Naturalistic Fallacy that what is is what ought to be. The novel is so tragic because it has a larger political aim: to show that the conditions of the world did not allow for love to flourish, especially homosexual love, and to suggest that it needs to change.

Father and Mother figures

David has a strained relationship with his dad, although his dad does not seem to know this. They are as close as acquaintances, and although David wishes for a deeper tie, he continues to hide himself from his father. After a car accident, David and his father share a tender moment, but David notes that it is fleeting and shallow: “For I understood, at the bottom of my heart, that we had never talked, that now we never would” (235). David puts significant weight into the activity of talking. He cannot “talk” to his father because he cannot communicate his true feelings, thoughts and desires to him. This is why, I will argue, Giovanni and Jacques step in as father figures. 

The joy of reading sections of the text with Giovanni and David is the dialogue. They are intellectual equals—they spar and joke and question each other. Giovanni is able to push David to question his mindset. During a rather philosophical conversation about time, David tries to suggest that people need time to make good decisions: “‘I guess people wait in order to make sure of what they feel'” (250). This sentiment, of course, mirrors David’s own choices thus far in his life. He has waited to learn to accept himself or be truthful of his identity. Giovanni responds in a way that prods this exact fear: “‘And when you have waited—has it made you sure?’ For this I could simply summon no answer” (250). David reaches a point with Giovanni where he feels stumped and finally begins to wonder if he might be wrong (at least his silence implies this). Because David defined a strong relationship between father and son as one where they can actually talk, I think that Giovanni fills in as a father in this moment. Their conversations digs deep immediately and pushes the other to see a new worldview. This is the intimacy David craved from his father and even acts as a sort of tough love. 

On the line of tough love, I want to briefly mention Jacques, who I think exemplifies this even more. Jacques is an advice giver. He takes David under his wing and, at least in some moments, tries to guide him along a better path than his own. He understands David’s shame and asks him to shed it for the sake of love: “‘Love him,’ said Jacques, with vehemence, ‘love him and let him love you. Do you think anything else under heaven really matters?'” (267). Jacques, too, is taking on a role that David’s own father never did. For one, he knows that David is homosexual, but he also actively guides David towards a better life. He does so often by bluntly pointing out David’s shame, but also suggests a new path going forward. This protective attitude and tough love resembles that of a father figure. 

Finally, David explicitly connects the caretaker to his mother, who passed when he was young. The caretaker is an older Italian woman who checks up on David and attends to his needs in a way that a mother would, or at least a very friendly neighbor. Before she leaves, David thinks to himself,  “I feel that I want to be forgiven, I want her to forgive me. But I do not know how to state my crime. My crime, in some odd way, is in being a man and she knows all about this already. It is terrible how naked she makes me feel, like a half grown boy, naked before his mother” (278). It seems that part of the reason David cannot forgive himself for his homosexuality is because he needs his mother, or a mother figure, to do so for him. He wants desperately to be forgiven, to no longer feel like a little boy, naked and scared and guilty. 

The inclusion of these pseudo-parental figures illuminates something larger about David. He lacks these strong relationships with his own parents, and this contributes to the shame and fear he has surrounding his sexuality. In many ways he resembles a child in the text, lashing out easily at those who make him scared and hiding everything he feels ashamed about. This childlike attitude might illuminate his character traits and actions more going forward and stunt his ability to fully accept himself.

Night v. Morning

The imagery of blindness and sight was striking in Native Son by Richard Wright. In Giovanni’s Room, the same image is there, but subtler and more natural. Instead of literal blindness, the darkness emerges in the nighttime. In the mornings, then, for David, reality is searing and often painful. First, it is important to establish that David, like many other characters we have seen so far in the semester, is weighed down by a deep sense of shame. For him, the shame resides in his homosexuality. This shame leads him to shut others out. When speaking about his father he says, “I did not want him to know me. I did not want anyone to know me” (232). This desire to not be known ebbs and flows from morning to night. 

In the very first lines, this dichotomy of morning and night emerges: “I stand at the window…as night falls, the night which is leading me to the most terrible morning of my life” (221). This foreshadowing, of the terrible morning to come, reflects his attitude towards the harsh realities of life. He then imagines the train ride the next day, thinking about how he will have to mask himself once again, confuse the girl across from him by refusing to flirt. In the nighttime, though, he does not have to hide as much. There is solace in not having to be seen, exposed, and forced to hide. 

In a later scene, when David overhears Ellen and his father arguing about him, the same imagery occurs. He listens in on a late night discussion about his father’s parenting, which makes him think to himself, “I wondered what I would see when I saw them in the morning” (231). In this instance, David almost has more access to reality in the nighttime, because he hears an unfiltered conversation between adults. Perhaps the morning is scary because the social realities take hold. His father and Ellen will act as if nothing has happened, they will wear a mask and deceive David into thinking that everything is fine. 

This theory, that the morning is a time when one must face the social reality of the world, holds when David recalls his first sexual encounter. He spends the night with Joey, performing the “act of love” (225). In the night he is free and joyful. The morning after, though, he sees Joey’s naked body and feels a deep sense of shame at what he has done. His thoughts immediately focus on the perception of this act from others: “I wondered what Joey’s mother would say when she saw the sheets” (226). David does not want anyone to see or know what he has done in the night. The morning acts as a rude awakening to the external pressures which cultivate the shame he feels about his sexuality and selfworth.

The Evolution of Shame and Sexuality for John

In the beginning of the novel, John is consumed with thoughts about his burgeoning sexuality and what this means for his soul. He concludes that it is a sin because even thinking about his own nakedness brought on feelings of “shame and anger” (26). This feeling occurs when he looks at a picture of himself as a baby. Even in the most innocent and natural form, John hopes to hide his body and everything it signifies. At this stage in the novel, John has not yet made his full commitment to Christ in the Church. There is significant external pressure, but no substantive internal drive. (In fact, he would rather wear nice clothes and go to the movies). 

When John has his religious experience on the Threshing Floor, his shame about his sexuality and body seems to lessen while his commitment to the faith grows. During his hours long conversion he thinks about being with Elisha: “In his heart there was a sudden yearning tenderness for holy Elisha” (188) and a desire to “lie where Elisha lay” (188). After these thoughts his mind wanders, from dark places to light. But at the end of it all, the voice of Elisha is the voice that saves him. At the close of his experience it is Elisha who says, “Rise up Johnny” (199). The fact that Elisha is the one guiding him through to salvation says more about the combination of the profane and the sacred. It is John’s love for Elisha, which is sexual desire too, that helps him reach this religious climax. Baldwin seems to be gesturing towards a larger point, that sexuality and religion are not inversely related. 

In the final scene of the text Elisha and John share a kiss: “And he kissed John on the forehead, a holy kiss” (215). Although a kiss like this is often found in religious contexts, this kiss is at once religious and sexual. John noted his desire for Elisha throughout the text and their connection is deeper than just a friendship because of their joint effort to bring John through to the other side of his experience. When John is most holy, then, he is also most outwardly affectionate and comfortable in his sexuality. Perhaps, for Baldwin, this release of sexual shame is what really constitutes a religious experience.

The Humanity of Florence

One of the major critiques of Native Son in our class discussions centered on the objectification of women in the text. Bessie and Mary were brutalized and and dehumanized by Bigger, and in a way by Wright. I wondered then how Baldwin would shape the women characters in Go Tell It on the Mountain. Would his female characters have more dignity? To what extent would female characters be at the forefront of the text? I decided to examine the passages with Florence to answer this question. (Of course, my answer now will be limited given that I have not finished the book.) 

Florence describes growing up in a home with her mother and Gabriel as difficult for a myriad of reasons, but mostly because everything she wanted was handed over to Gabriel simply because of his gender. Her mother gave him everything of value: nicer clothes, better food, and “the education that Florence desired more than he” (68). In this scene, Baldwin makes sure to include the structural inequalities affecting women, but especially black women, at this time: they were often undervalued and given second priority. Florence, though, within this cultural and structural oppression, enacts more agency than any woman in Native Son. Florence is a narrator in this text, with the ability to tell her own story and develop a more nuanced perspective about the family relationship. She also leaves her mother and brother and moves north. Her physical movement away from this environment where she is undervalued shows that she values herself and prioritizes her wellbeing, a choice that Bessie and Mary never have the chance to make. 

Florence moves north, but she does not escape her oppression. Her relationship with Frank is a combination of her trying to exercise power and her being treated as less than once again. When Frank would come home drunk, Florence felt some semblance of power: “Then he, so ultimately master, was mastered. And holding him in her arms while, finally, he slept she thought with the sensations of luxury and power: ‘But there’s lots of good in Frank. I just got to be patient and he’ll come along all right'” (79). Florence believes that she can change Frank for the better, that she can guide him towards a more virtuous life. But at the same time she realizes he would never change, and recalls a time when Frank refused to stop his sexual advances even when she asked him not to. Florence is a character consistently dealing with the oppressive behaviors of men, but also a character who is trying to find power where she can. 

Florence is more human to me than Bessie or Mary because she actively struggles against the norms of society, even though she still falls prey to them at times. She is not merely a prop, but a narrator of her own story and actor within it. She questions the common attitudes towards gender and religion, while still dealing with internal need to conform when she attempts to bleach her skin and make Frank into something he is not.

Afro-Pessimism and Baldwin

After the wonderful presentation this week, I began to think more deeply about Afro-Pessimism, especially in the context of Baldwin. Afro-Pessimism argues that black people are ontologically dead because of the ongoing effects of racism, slavery, and colonialism. In other words, there is a different and permanent existence for Black Americans. While reading Baldwin, though, I noticed a different attitude that pushes back against this idea. 

In “Notes of a Native Son” Baldwin describes going to a restaurant in New Jersey and being turned away by a waitress, who nervously told him they did not serve negroes. Baldwin, out of anger, threw a watermug at her. It missed and shattered. After the incident, he realized clearly that he could have been murdered by the white restaurant goers. He also realized how easily he was ready to murder. His reflection turned introspective: “My life, my real life, was in danger, and not from anything other people might do but from the hatred I carried in my own heart” (CE 72). Baldwin makes a distinction between his bodily life and his real life. He is worried that his internal humanity is at risk because of the hatred he harbors. This does not seem to fit in with a traditional Afro-Pessimist view. Baldwin believes that an internal choice to free yourself from hatred gives you a sort of liberty in your real life. This idea of self-constitution, at least in one sense, denies a fact of Afro-Pessimism, which situates the black experience in a permanent ontological category.

The recognition that relieving yourself of hatred leads to a more real life also seems to imply that one has more control over their existence. Baldwin writes later that, “In order really to hate white people one has to blot so much out of the mind—and the heart—that this hatred itself becomes an exhausting and destructive pose” (CE 82-83). By describing this hatred as a pose, Baldwin implies that it is something malleable. There is a sense of hope that Black Americans can free themselves of the hatred in their own hearts as a step towards realizing themselves fully. Baldwin makes sure to say that this erasure of hatred is not an excuse for white Americans to continue their mistreatment. Rather, it is a reclamation of dignity and a step towards a world with greater humanity. It is, unlike Afro-Pessimism, more hopeful.