Final Thoughts on Love

When I entered this class, all I really knew about James Baldwin was the seconds-long clips I had seen of him on Twitter, starting especially around the time of George Floyd’s murder. I am now leaving this class with a deep understanding and admiration of Baldwin, his life, and his message.

Reflecting more on the question Professor Kinyon posed to us in our circle on the last day of class, I think the one thing that I learned/ that I will really take with me is Baldwin’s message of love–an “explicitly active and political” love as salvation, as a means of liberation (Field 450). 

I have a minor in education and am going to be a teacher next year. On the first day of one of my education classes, everyone was asked to describe the most important element of good teaching. As I sat there thinking about it, the answer that came to my head was love. After studying for the past years about educational disparities and how schools in the U.S. have been unequal since their conception (as they were created for and by white people), I had decided in my head that the only way we are going to fix this incredibly broken system is with empathy and love. We are going to have to actually care about each other enough to decide we will no longer tolerate inequities. As it came along to my turn though, I changed my answer. Having heard everyone else’s answers about impartiality, enthusiasm, and patience, I began to think love didn’t have a place in the conversation and would sound weird. To my surprise, when it became the professor’s turn to respond, he said love himself. 

I think that love as the answer to injustice has become somewhat discredited in today’s conversations–seeming too ‘weak’ or passive a response to an issue that is pressing and even fatal for some. We discussed in class what needs to be done to fix the system–we need to burn it to the ground (shoutout Rae’vonne). That idea is radical. It seems contradictory to love, but I think love can be radical too. Love might be what it takes to burn it down. I personally don’t think love is weak at all, I think it can be the strongest instrument we possess.

John 15:13 states: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” When those who benefit off the abjection of others decide they are ready to relinquish their privilege, and in a sense, give up the life of comfortability that is all they know, everyone will begin to truly live. This is going to take love.

The Cost of Whiteness

On Wednesday, the groups presenting on Baldwin and Civil Rights posed the following questions: How are our identities related (Black vs white, male vs female)? Are they interdependent? How so?

In our recent class discussions, we have considered the question: what is the cost of whiteness?

To me, the answers to these questions are quite similar. 

In Bodies That Matter, Judith Butler states the following: “Th[e] exclusionary matrix by which subjects are formed requires the simultaneous production of a domain of abject beings, those who are not yet ‘subjects,’ but who form the constitutive outside to the domain of the subject…This zone of uninhabitability will constitute that site of dreaded identification against which–and by virtue of which–the domain of the subject will circumscribe its own claim to autonomy and to life. In this sense, then, the subject is constituted through the force of exclusion and abjection, one which produces a constitutive outside to the subject, an abjected outside, which is, after all, ‘inside’ the subject as its own founding repudiation” (xiii).

In this excerpt, Butler is describing what it means to exist as a queer, trans, gender nonconforming individual, but I believe her understanding of these unlivable conditions also apply to being Black in America. She describes an articulation of a norm here as inextricably linked to the creation of the abnormal. In fact, she extends this to say that the existence of what is normal is actually reliant upon what is abnormal. Applied here, and in response to the original question posed by this group, I might ask: what would it mean to be Black in a world void of whiteness? Blackness fortifies the regulatory norm of whiteness. Whiteness cannot be without its direct opposition to and distance from Blackness–the abjected, unlivable, uninhabitable position in society. Thus, what whiteness costs is Black lives. Butler may say that the privilege of whiteness makes the site of the materialization of Black bodies devalued and endangered–quite literally not just figuratively, as we see everyday in our society. 

I think Baldwin would agree with this application of Butler. I think he would understand Black bodies as abjected in society, as never existing as the subject but only as the nonsubject that grants the subject livability. 

Anger over love?

I found the conversation between Lorde and Baldwin quite illuminating. Baldwin reacted to Lorde with some resistance. At one point in particular, Baldwin asked, “But you don’t realize that in this republic the only real crime is to be a Black man?” and Lorde responded, “No, I don’t realize that. I realize the only crime is to be Black. I realize the only crime is to be Black, and that includes me too.” I loved this response, and I was sort of surprised by this comment from Baldwin. Given the impression of Baldwin that I have gotten throughout the course of this semester, I suppose I would have expected him to empathize with the position of Black women, but it seems that even he too lacked a deep understanding of it. This conversation reminded me of the mission of the Combahee River Collective–which Audre Lorde was also a part of. 

The 1977 Combahee River Collective Statement, written by Black feminists and lesbians, states the following: “We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation are us…Although we are feminists and Lesbians, we feel solidarity with progressive Black men and do not advocate the fractionalization that white women who are separatists demand. Our situation as Black people necessitates that we have solidarity around the fact of race, which white women of course do not need to have with white men, unless it is their negative solidarity as racial oppressors. We struggle together with Black men against racism, while we also struggle with Black men about sexism.” Occupying arguably the most oppressed position in society, Black women are truly the “outsiders-within,” as Patricia Hill Collins described them. We have had extensive conversations this semester about what it means for Black people to be strangers in America, but as we can see from this conversation, Black women are even strangers to Black men. Baldwin states, “There’s a real difference between the way a man looks at the world…And the way a woman looks at the world. A woman does know much more than a man.” Lorde responds, “And why? For the same reason Black people know what white people are thinking: because we had to do it for our survival…” It is interesting that Baldwin incorporates this idea so heavily into his work, yet seemingly fails to understand how it operates between Black women and Black men. 

Reconsidering Baldwin with intersectionality in mind had me thinking about Baldwin’s biggest message being love as a means to liberation, and Lorde’s being anger as a means to liberation. I had never had doubts about Baldwin’s message until now. Perhaps taking up love as arms is only a possibility for those in a more privileged position. Perhaps anger is a means of achieving love. 

David’s “Flight”

David alludes to the idea of his “flight” multiple times before leaving for Paris in the novel. First, when speaking of his life after being with Joey: “I began, perhaps, to be lonely that summer and began, that summer, the flight which has brought me to this darkening window” (EN 227). Second, when he thwarts his father’s attempt to grow closer to him: “Perhaps he had supposed that my growing up would bring us closer together–whereas, now that he was trying to find out something about me, I was in full flight from him. I did not want him to know me” (EN 232). Finally, when describing his plans to leave America: “Perhaps, as we say in America, I wanted to find myself…I think now that if I had any intimation that the self I was going to find would turn out to be only the same self from which I had spent so much time in flight, I would have stayed at home” (EN 236). It seems that this attempt at flight from his true self and the disclosure of his queerness was unsuccessful. 

He seems to be torn between the ideas that he ran to Paris to live into queerness or rather ran away from America in order to cure himself of his queerness. I think that whichever reality of his flight is true, he failed at both. Despite his best efforts to be ‘the man’ he wants to be, he cannot quench his sexual desire for men. He repeatedly fails himself when he decides he is going to quit Giovanni and ‘make a wife’ of Hella. At the same time, he never truly experiences what it might be like to embrace his queerness. For this, I feel he can never reciprocate the love Giovanni had for him. He wants to, but his fear disables him from any true flight in one direction. He instead stays stagnant, paralyzed, living trapped between two worlds. This is what causes his ultimate ‘death’ in a sense. For this, I feel the most empathy for David.

I would argue that it is his Foucaultian power that disables him in such a way. David seems to be read as a character with accessibility to immense power that neglects to utilize it. Foucault might disagree, and instead state that David is using his power. If power is seen as diffused, one can even exert power over themselves. David’s fear of retribution for his queerness drives his incapacity to love or fully embrace himself, keeping him ‘stuck.’ It is then not in spite of David’s power that he receives the fate he does but rather because of it. 

A Foucaultian Idea of Power

When Korey Garibaldi guest lectured our class, he asked us: Who holds the power, David or Giovanni? Some people responded that David is less powerful because he is so controlled by his own shame, fear, and second guessing of himself and his actions. Giovanni was perceived as powerful to an extent because he feels that he has nothing to hide about himself. He is not ashamed of his queerness, and he does not feel that he is doing anything unnatural or wrong. David’s identity grants him immense power–he is a white, American man. America is the richest nation in the world. David has money, and he also has a partner, Hella, who has money; wealth obviously grants him considerable power. 

There seemed to be no direct answer as to who holds the power in their relationship. Rather, the power dynamics between them are nuanced. This idea reminded me of Foucault’s conception of power in The History of Sexuality, VI. He believes that society typically envisions power solely in a monarchical fashion–what he termed the “juridico-discursive” representation of power (Foucault, 82). He describes one of the main features of this power as “the insistence of the rule”–the manner in which power is conceived as unilateral; certain laws are given by the authority and received by the subject (Foucault, 83). This idea of power creates a binary between those who possess it and those who are subject to it. 

Foucault believes that understanding power in this way leads to misunderstanding the manner in which sex and sexuality function in our society. Foucault redefines the concept of power as diffused, operating through “unspoken strategies” and having no certain direction (Foucault, 95). It is exercised from “innumerable points,” meaning that there is no singular authority possessing it (Foucault, 94). It is multidirectional, with power originating from below as well as from above, operating vertically and horizontally. It is inextricably linked to “economic processes, knowledge relationships, sexual relations,” and relationships of the like (Foucault, 94). These “power relations are both intentional and nonsubjective,” meaning that while some individuals are responsible for carrying out certain acts of power, there are forces of power that exist beyond any individual act, always controlling people but without a precise locus of control (Foucault, 94). Foucault reenvisions power as something enacted by the individual that may conventionally seem powerless as well as something imposed upon them.

With Foucault’s idea of power in mind, I believe it is possible for both David and Giovanni to hold power in their relationship. The power between them need not be dichotomous. There are certain aspects of their character, race, ethnicity, nationality, and economic status that grant each of them power in very specific ways. There are also factors beyond either of their control that have power over them–like society’s heteronormativity. I feel as though considering Foucault and his ideas of sex and sexuality may bring to light aspects of identity that are at play in the novel that on the surface seem neglected in failing to thoroughly address race and intersectionality.

The Outsider-Within

Rae’Vonne focused on the idea of stranger-hood in Black America and how Baldwin was a stranger himself, both in America and within his family, struggling with his queer identity as well as his Blackness. This discussion reminded me of an idea I had come across while doing an assigned reading in a gender studies class. In Black Feminist Thought, Patricia Hill Collins describes the social location of Black women in America as outsiders-within. Specifically, she cites their historic position as domestic workers as endowing them this status. Black women were brought into the most intimate spaces of their white counterparts, giving them the ability to see, hear, and know everything that went on in these households. They were nearly insiders in terms of their accessibility to the private happenings of the white family life, but they would never be considered such as they were Black women being exploited economically for their work. Thus, their Blackness made them the “perpetual outsider[s]” (PHC 11).

I feel as though PHC’s analysis of the Black woman’s position can be applied to all Black people in America today. Collins quotes Alice Walker stating “the gift of loneliness is sometimes a radical vision of society or one’s people that has not previously been taken into account” (PHC 12). I think, in a sense, all Black people within this country experience this loneliness–or as we have labeled it, stranger-hood–that makes them remarkably aware of their position as oppressed in society. 

As we have discussed in class, white people do not have to know Black people. They can go their entire lives without more than a few shallow conversations with a few Black individuals–if even that. Black people on the other hand have no choice but to know white people. They live in a white world run by and for white people. This is what makes them, and what made Baldwin, the outsiders-within, and by extension, this is what gives them the ability to see clearly how society operates to their disadvantage. I think this loneliness is what allowed Baldwin to become the ‘prophet’ that he saw himself as and that John became in GTIOTM.

An Alternative Creation Account

Part One of Go Tell It on the Mountain is titled “The Seventh Day.” As we discussed in class, there is a lot of imagery of renewal and rebirth–Pentecost, spring, John’s 14th birthday. In Genesis, God rested on the seventh day. He had just finished his creation, making humankind in his image and likeness and granting them “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth” (Genesis 1:26), and he saw that his creation was good. The novel, however, does not give us the same imagery. Instead, the imagery of dust, dirt, and filth recur throughout the novel. During John’s Saturday morning chores he would become overwhelmed by dust–”each dustpan he so laboriously filled at the doorsill demons added to the rug twenty more” (24). John and his family’s world does not feel as the same beautiful and good one God created and granted humankind. Additionally, the characters in the novel seem to have little to no control, or dominion, over their own lives and choices. Gabriel, John, Elizabeth, and Florence are unable to see that something better may lie ahead of them–unable to ‘see a way out of the desert.’ 

At the end of the novel, John is saved. As we discussed in class, he has become a prophet of sorts, just as Baldwin felt that he was for Black America. When they leave the temple, they emerge onto the “filthy streets [ringing] with the early-morning light” (202). The streets are still filthy, but they are ringing in the light. Light is an image of hope and goodness–a goodness that we see in the creation account but that John’s world has been lacking. John is becoming prepared to deliver his people from this filth. In a way, John feels like the light–there to give his people the dominion they never received. Perhaps this is like a sort of exposé on those that the creation account neglected. Perhaps the seventh day here is of a new creation story for Black America–one where they will receive their dominion, volition, and goodness so that they too can rest (Genesis 2).

“the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked”

In class we discussed at length the passage of John contemplating his sin of masturbating to older boys in the school bathroom (16). After reading Field’s piece on Baldwin and his religion, as well as trying to find connections between the bible and Baldwin’s text, I noticed another element to the scene that didn’t initially catch my attention. When John is recalling his transgression, he is waking up in his bed. On a typical morning, the house would be filled with the sounds of “his mother singing in the kitchen,” his father “muttering prayers to himself,” pots and pans, the radio, and “folk near by.” But on this day, nothing could “disturb the silence”–a theme that emerges continuously throughout the novel. In this moment, the silence is leaving him alone “with his sinful body,” making him keenly aware of his transgression. In the bible, when Adam and Eve commit the sin of eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad, they become aware that they are naked, and with this awareness comes overwhelming shame, guilt, and the need to hide from God so as to not feel exposed for what they have done and their nakedness: “…she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves” (Genesis 3:6-7). I feel as though this scene in John’s room resounds some of this imagery. His eyes were opened in a figurative sense, as designated by the silence making his awareness of his body and his sin inescapable. God could be comparable to the inescapable silence as he is omnipotent and omnipresent, and sudden awareness of Adam and Eve of their nakedness could be comparable to John’s awareness of his body. 

Field describes nakedness in Go Tell It on the Mountain as “both foul and terrifying” (452). Though John was not necessarily naked in this scene, he seems bare to some extent. 

I’m not sure if this connection is fully there, but this is just something I have been thinking about.

Whose protest novel?

After last Monday’s class, I was having a conversation with a friend on the idea of Native Son being or not being a novel about race. The idea we were stuck on was what a Black woman might feel after reading this novel. How could they identify with its message as a Black reader? Are they supposed to identify with Bigger after his treatment of women, or worse, should they have to identify with Bessie after her treatment by Bigger?

Some of the presentations touched on the differences between Wright’s treatment of racial experiences and Baldwin’s. I truly feel as though Wright misses the mark in trying to get his message across by making the deliberate choices that he did. In failing to understand sexual violence against women and making blatant references to the bible, for instance, that solidified this misunderstanding, I feel as though he lost any connection he might have had to his Black female audience.

In addition, the presentations touched a little on Baldwin’s queer identity. Baldwin seemed to have a more intersectional perspective on the race idea. It’s possible his queer identity gave him the ability to critique Wright’s work and lacking perspective of the issue. I personally agree with Baldwin’s view on the novel and Bigger’s character. Wright did not have to deliver this message by means of stripping Bigger of his humanity. We have referenced in class the idea that Baldwin was growing up and existing in a time where who he was, a gay Black man, could have gotten himself killed. I wonder if when reading this novel, as someone who himself had been a victim of hypermasculinity and the patriarchy, Baldwin was able to have this discerning eye. On the whole, I would have to agree that Native Son is not the most accessible protest novel.

Explanation or Justification?

When reading “How Bigger was Born,” I couldn’t help but see Wright’s explanation of how Bigger’s character came to be as rather a justification for creating such a hateable character. His articulation of the different Biggers he had met throughout his own life seemed too shallow to have accounted for the depth of Bigger’s character in the novel. Book Three stressed the idea that Bigger was created by this country and its people–anything that Bigger was resulted from what this country facilitated him to be. So to me, Bigger could be seen as sort of a placeholder for any Black man (I’m intentionally using the word man here because it seems as though Wright wasn’t concerned with Black women). This image of Bigger as representing a group seems undermined by the 5 individuals cited as his muse. 

Additionally, regarding the idea of Bigger as a native son, I’m tempted to ask: what about Bessie? Is she not also born of this country, a native daughter, or is she simply a means to an end? It seems like, to Wright, she was merely the latter, and in writing her as so, I feel as though the message about race becomes undermined almost completely.

I find it difficult–impossible really–to defend sexual violence against women (or anyone). To me, rape and sexual assault are a different level of egregious. As we discussed in class, I understand that Wright wanted us to see an image like the one in Freedom, and think that nobody, not even Biggers, deserve such treatment–and I do. But I also see Bessie and think the same for her. I don’t think Bigger should have been sentenced to die, but not because I was able to empathize with him for his crimes. I don’t think he should have been put to death simply because I don’t believe in capital punishment, but I did feel sorry for him. However, I think it’s important to mention that as much as I felt sorry for Bigger and his “fate,” I felt worse for Bessie and hers. It’s difficult to see Bigger and his crimes as a result of a racist country that created Bigger when Wright failed to address Bessie and her blackness in America as well. He lost me in his treatment of women. Rape is what one does to women, and its effects last a lifetime.