Throughout this semester, we have talked a lot about the ways in which James Baldwin had to fight against the system, the Man, in order to make his voice heard. He faced oppression on many different levels and struggled with the intersections of his identities, often not receiving the crucial and necessary support from the avenues which would be most likely to help him figure out his path in life. Rather, his family and his faith often made it more difficult for him to accept himself rather than being a source of comfort and reassurance. Therefore, it is easy to recognize that Baldwin had to have a strong conviction and a tough spirit in order to become as successful of a writer and leader within the Black community as he did. However, even with all of his accomplishments, it is important to remember that Baldwin was still human. In thinking about our conversations about Martin Luther King, Jr., I felt that this idea that a person can be an extraordinary individual and can still have faults was extremely relevant to thinking about Baldwin as well. Despite all of his strengths and admirable qualities, he was not a perfect man. Even in experiencing a great amount of compiled oppression in his own life, he struggled with understanding the complexity of oppression with regard to how it can affect others. As we can see in his conversation with Audre Lorde, he failed to empathize with her experience of oppression because he was so focused on how he has been disadvantaged and punished for various aspects of his identity. This idea that there is always more to learn and always more room for grace, empathy, and understanding in trying to relate to others is absolutely necessary to discussions of allyship and antiracism efforts. I think that as I reflect back on this semester, this is a key takeaway that I want to remember and put into action in my own life.
The Truth about Our Education
Last week’s presentations made me think a lot about the educational system in the United States and how we are doing such a disservice to our country’s students by not teaching them the truth. As Charity pointed out in her presentation, education takes place within the confines of a society that strives to uphold the values and status quo of that society. What a child learns in school cannot be separated from what she learns outside of the classroom, and the classroom can either reinforce or challenge what a student learns in her everyday life. Usually, because of the way that schools are structured and regulated, a child learns a very cut-and-dry version of the material that she is meant to comprehend. We see this with how schools teach students about slavery and civil rights in that children only learn about the same preapproved topics of discussion without any context of Black history. For example, students do not often know the truth about how horrible the conditions of slavery were, the lynchings that took place, and the gross injustices that were put into practice in order to try to control Black individuals. They do not learn about slavery from the Black perspective and about how Black people fought back against these injustices, thereby sending a message to students that it must not have been all that bad. This invalidates the Black experience and the intergenerational trauma that has taken place because of this horrific past. Our educational system is designed to keep the divide between Black and white students, to control Black students, and to establish “inferiority” and “superiority” among the different students. It is my hope that as our society becomes more aware of the problems with perpetuating these practices, our teachers and our schools will be more willing to teach this material with the integrity and empathy that it necessitates.
The White Liberal
I have been thinking a lot about our discussion from class the other day in which Professor Kinyon was talking about how the white liberal is the most dangerous person in the fight against racism. It is sad because I can see the truth to that statement in a lot of individuals whom I personally know. Rather than being explicitly racist in their thoughts and actions, these individuals are apathetic to the injustice that is occurring because they do not see it as directly affecting them or as being something that is within their power or control to try to change. This passivity only breeds more disinterest and a lack of empathy, and it allows individuals to avoid thinking or caring about other people. If everyone felt this way – that they do not have to do anything because they are “not part of the problem” – our society would lose any altruism that it can attempt to claim.
We are called to care for others, even those who do not have anything in common with us, and to fight for others when we are put into a position of privilege. We should use this privilege to help and speak up for those who are being oppressed. Often, those who have privilege can speak to the oppressors in a way that the oppressed themselves cannot, and it is because of this, among other reasons, that the privileged individuals have the responsibility to fight against injustice. This frequently requires the privileged people to give space and opportunities for the oppressed to speak their truth and to listen empathetically when they do so. This concept of the passivity of the white liberal makes me think a lot about the difference between being “not racist” and being “anti-racist.” In order to fight against the racism that permeates every aspect of our society, it is not enough to just not be part of the problem; rather, anyone who wants to be a true ally needs to actively work to fix the problem.
Sex and Power
I have been thinking a lot about our discussion during Wednesday’s class regarding how Jesse in “Going to Meet the Man” thinks of sex as being about power and domination rather than love. In reading this story, we can all recognize what a horrible, distorted sense of love and affection Jesse has for his wife, if he has any sense of this at all. He does not seem to think of Grace as more than an object to fulfill his sexual needs, and since she does not even really have the ability to do that, she probably means very little to him. However, I feel like David in Giovanni’s Room also falls into this trap of associating sex with the power that one can have over another. David demonstrates his concern with this part of his relationship with Giovanni during their fight when David accuses Giovanni of wanting to feel strong in their relationship and wanting David to be his “little girl” (337). Giovanni says that he does not think about their relationship in this same way, but David does not seem to be able to separate sex from the power he feels he needs to demonstrate to prove his masculinity. Because of this, I have a difficult time trying to decide if I think David actually loves Giovanni. On the one hand, I do not think that David would have been able to have a relationship with just any man because it takes a lot for him to allow another person to see his true self. For him to be able to do this with Giovanni, I think that he must have had to love him at least a little bit. However, I also think that David did not even let Giovanni see his full true self, as he remained guarded, deceptive, and concerned with the power dynamic of their relationship even as he was saying that he loved Giovanni. Regardless of the extent to which David loved Giovanni, though, it is clear that any relationship that cannot consider sex as separated from power is going to be problematic.
Dirty vs. Clean
As Theresa brought up in her blog post from last week, Baldwin talks about Giovanni and David’s relationship being “dirty” vs. “clean” when Jacques initially encourages David to love Giovanni authentically. In reading Part 2 of this novel, I found that the words dirty and clean are used with regard to David, Giovanni, and their relationships fairly frequently. After Giovanni is fired, he tells David that “They are just dirty, all of them, low and cheap and dirty… All except you” (305). In this same scene, he says that he did not want to be Guillaume’s lover because he “really did not want to be dirty with him” (307). Here, it seems as though he shares Jacques’s opinion in that he associates being dirty as being untrue to oneself. Giovanni knows that he does not want to sleep with Guillaume because he does not want to sell himself out like that, and he believes that what he has with David is sacred and should be protected. At this point in time, I think he is still under the impression that David and he could love each other and be happy together for the rest of their lives, which explains why he does not see David as one of the “low and cheap and dirty” people he despises. Once he realizes that David is going to leave him, however, Giovanni criticizes him by saying, “You want to be clean. You think you came here covered with soap and you think you will go out covered with soap – and you do not want to stink, not even for five minutes, in the meantime… You want to leave Giovanni because he makes you stink. You want to despise Giovanni because he is not afraid of the stink of love” (336). This flips the dichotomy that had been established between clean and dirty earlier in this story. Previously, if David had wanted to be clean, all he would have had to do was love Giovanni genuinely; now, Giovanni seems to be saying that David cannot be clean unless he denies their relationship because their love “stinks.” I don’t know if this is just him projecting what he thinks David believes about their love or if he has become cynical about love altogether, but either way, seeing how erratic, desperate, and anguished Giovanni has become is absolutely heartbreaking. Lastly, when David is imagining Giovanni’s execution, he narrates, “That door is the gateway he has sought so long out of this dirty world, this dirty body” (359). Again, David seems to associate their love with being “dirty” and as having been the cause of Giovanni’s downfall. However, it could also be read as David recognizing that the “dirty world” has made it so that they could never love each other genuinely, and this is the true reason for their despair: the dirty world that they live in cannot let them be authentic to themselves or to each other, regardless of the love they share.
Holiness vs. Goodness
In “Down at the Cross,” the part where James Baldwin tells his father that his Jewish friend “is a better Christian than you are” really stuck with me during my initial reading (CE 308). I feel like there are a lot of people who identify themselves as Christian but fail to recognize what is one of the most important principles of Christianity: to “love thy neighbor.” This brings to mind the difference between following the letter of the law (taking what is written in the Bible literally) and following the spirit of the law (working to understand the underlying messages in the Bible). I would guess that David Baldwin was much more of a “letter of the law” kind of man based on how James Baldwin wrote the character of Gabriel in Go Tell It on the Mountain. Gabriel (David) seems to care a lot about his image in the church and about doing whatever will make him appear to be a holy man, but the lack of love and kindness he has for his son, whether that be because of John’s (James’s) sexuality, his intellect, his illegitimacy, his friendships with white people, or a combination of these and other factors, shows just how much he does not understand the most basic tenet of Christianity. David cannot get over his own pride and anger, so he takes it out on others instead of treating them with the love and compassion that the Bible demands of Christians. I think David Baldwin needed a reality check in that just because he considers himself a “holy man,” this does not make him a good person; one does not have to belong to a certain religion or claim a specific identity in order to live a good and virtuous life. She can still attempt to “love her neighbor” even without thinking about it from a Christian perspective, and I think that the effort and actions matter more in this case than the specific reasoning for that effort.
In Part Two of Go Tell It on the Mountain, Gabriel’s point-of-view narrative irrefutably demonstrates just how misogynistic he is by making clear the double standards he has regarding how he views himself and how he views women. When he finds out that Esther is pregnant with his child, he is shocked and appalled that she should be the one worthy enough to carry his heir. Baldwin writes from Gabriel’s perspective, “She was going to have his baby – his baby? While Deborah, despite their groaning, despite the humility with which she endured his body, yet failed to be quickened by any coming life. It was in the womb of Esther, who was no better than a harlot, that the seed of the prophet would be nourished” (124). At this point, the reader has already seen how Gabriel thinks very highly of himself while continually judging and denigrating everyone else. However, the harsh language he uses to describe Esther in referring to her as “no better than a harlot” is especially hypocritical. She is not the only one who has acted in order to create this child, and she is not the one in this relationship who is cheating on a spouse by pursuing it. We see Gabriel’s misogyny and hypocrisy a little further on in this section when he comments on “how far his people had wandered from God;” he reflects, “Women, some of whom should have been at home, teaching their grandchildren how to pray, stood, night after night, twisting their bodies into lewd hallelujahs in smoke-filled, gin-heavy dance halls, singing for their ‘loving man.’ And their loving man was any man, any morning, noon, or night – when one left town they got another…” (131). It is not his place to condemn these women and tell them what they should and should not be doing when he, as a preacher, definitely should not be engaging in many of his similarly sinful behaviors. He is no better than them, and his willingness to believe that he will be forgiven for all of his transgressions but that they are irredeemable is extremely hypocritical. This double standard solidifies in my mind how utterly reprehensible and undeserving of grace Gabriel is.
John’s Faith (Despite his Best Efforts)
In Go Tell It on the Mountain, I was struck by how deeply faith is ingrained in the way that John thinks about the world despite his expressed desire to reject his faith. One part that really stood out to me was when Baldwin describes John’s thoughts while praying in church. He writes, “For it was time that filled [John’s]’ mind, time that was violent with the mysterious love of God. And his mind could not contain the terrible stretch of time that united twelve men fishing by the shores of Galilee… this weight began to move at the bottom of John’s mind, in a silence like the silence of the void before creation” (76). In this passage, John compares his situation and his emotions to events in scripture so casually and nonchalantly that the reader could very easily miss it if she is not paying attention. However, it is important to remember that this is a fourteen-year-old boy who has expressed a lot of uncertainty about his faith life and has repeatedly intimated that he wants to avoid being like his father. One could feasibly assume that this includes rejecting the faith that his father has so firmly tried to instill in his children’s lives. Therefore, it is interesting, if not altogether surprising, that John easily communicates his thoughts with references to the Bible in the same scene that ends with him thinking, “And why did they come here, night after night after night, calling out to a God who cared nothing for them – if, above this flaking ceiling, there was any God at all? Then he remembered that the fool has said in his heart, There is no God” (77). Clearly, John does not think that he believes in God when he is actively deliberating on the subject, but in his everyday life, he makes connections to scripture in a way that might not even consciously register with him. I think this speaks to just how extensively Gabriel has conditioned John and the other children in his family to be religious, even if this is not necessarily something that they want to pursue themselves.
Power Dynamics and Fear
After Wednesday’s presentations, I’ve been thinking a lot about fear in Native Son and how it affects the characters’ actions. As Julian described in his presentation, there is fear on both sides of the conflict in the novel, a Black fear and a white fear. This fear prevents either side from seeing the other’s humanity and results in excessive aggression and hysteria in attempting to overcome that fear. Looking at two different examples, when Bigger kills the rat in the beginning of the novel and the search party’s efforts to capture Bigger, we can see how these characters’ fear determines their actions.
In the opening scene, Bigger tries to kill the rat while his family members are all screaming and panicking around him. What is important to note is that the rat in this scenario is probably much more afraid of the humans than they are of the rat. This is rightly so; there are multiple humans who are much larger and have much more power over the fate of the rat than he has over them. We see this clearly in the fact that Bigger is able to kill the rat in just a matter of minutes. Even though the humans have several factors working in their favor, they cannot deal calmly and rationally with their fear and instead exert all of their energy into trying to kill the rat. This parallels the relationship between the search party and Bigger when he’s on the run. Although Bigger is clearly capable of killing individuals, the search party as a whole unit is much more likely to overpower Bigger and ultimately bring him harm. Therefore, Bigger’s fear of the search party is likely greater than their fear of him. The party’s numbers and resources work in their favor to allow them to capture Bigger, and this is what brings about his death by capital punishment. In both cases, the more powerful group’s fear causes them to act with excessive force in order to accomplish their end goals, directly resulting in the deaths of the less powerful individuals.
Mr. Dalton’s Performative Activism
In Native Son, one aspect that stands out to me during Bigger Thomas’s trial is Mr. Dalton’s insistence that he is someone who truly cares about the wellbeing of Black people while not understanding how little he is really doing. He adheres vehemently to the belief that he is a man who bears no ill will toward Black people, describing how he has worked for years to help them in whatever ways he can. His efforts are, in reality, very minimal and not actually effective.
Mr. and Mrs. Dalton believe that their hiring Black individuals and contributing to the South Side Boys’ Club are sufficient actions that mark them as being true advocates for all Black people. Several times throughout the novel, Mr. Dalton mentions how he “sent a dozen ping-pong tables to the South Side Boys’ Club” with a sense of pride and accomplishment, as though he has done some great service to the Black community in Chicago (294). However, Max calls him out on this belief, saying, “My God, man! Will ping-pong keep men from murdering? Can’t you see? Even after losing your daughter, you’re going to keep going in the same direction? Don’t you grant as much life-feeling to other men as you have? … This boy and millions like him want a meaningful life, not ping-pong…” (295). Max attempts to show Mr. Dalton the ridiculous mismatch between what he thinks Bigger needs to live a good life and what Bigger actually needs in order to be able to do that. Mr. Dalton fails to recognize or admit that even with the help he tries to provide, he still places Black people at a disadvantage in other ways, such as by only renting them apartments in certain neighborhoods and raising the prices for them. While he tries to come off as this kind gentleman concerned with equity and justice, his actions align more with the concept of performative activism. He claims to care a lot about the problems that Black people face but makes no effort to incite real change. In order to truly help the individuals he claims he wants to, Mr. Dalton would need to analyze the systems of oppression that are in place and work to address and alleviate the issues that prevent Black people from having the “meaningful life” that Max tells him they deserve.