Until Next Time…

So what a lot of people don’t know is that I was never meant to be in this class. I had to get specially placed into ENGL 40873 after literally every other available course filled up on registration day. Unwilling to submit to a semester of solely business-based learning, I sent a very anxious email to some higher-up and, a few exchanges later, received notice that I had been placed in James Baldwin: Civil Rights to Black Lives Matter.

Even lesser known is how grateful I am for this reality everyday.

Before February of this year, I had no idea who James Baldwin was. My understanding of American literature was limited to Steinbeck and Hemingway, and I had little interest in nonfiction. I was too terrified to talk on the first day of class because I thought I might look stupid, especially when I realized that the majority of my classmates were older than me. And I felt disconnected from the central themes of the class because, simply put, I am not Black. I am limited to my own experiences, and I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to make any meaningful contributions during our discussions. 

I am proud to say that I was wrong.

James Baldwin examined with particular care ideas of strangerhood and unbelonging. As a Black man, a queer man, and an expat, he was well-versed in rejection. He was an expert, I think, in being lonely even when he was not alone. But as I mentioned in class, strangerhood is as much a choice as it is a circumstance. Baldwin so defined himself by his differences that he blinded himself to the possibility of a shared human experience; he internalized his rejection and he rejected society right back.

I figure that you can choose to let your experiences separate you from the pack–you can choose to focus on your dissimilarities and adopt an attitude of perpetual solitude, or you can reconfigure your perspective a bit and instead enjoy the many, many ways that our individual experiences enrich our collective human identity. I may not be Black, and I may not be queer, and I may not be a man, but I still managed to find so many parallels between my own life and Baldwin’s. 

I’ve talked about this class with so many different people, and I’ve gotten to explore the material from so many different points of view. After any given lecture I’d update my poli sci roommate, or or my anthro major neighbor from down the hall, or my accountant friend, and we never failed to find some parallel between the day’s lessons and their own studies. At work I once called a ‘68 grad who studied English at Notre Dame: we talked about James Baldwin and the myth of the tortured artist for three whole hours.

I guess that’s the final lesson: there’s a unity in multiplicity, and there comes a sense of comfort in the knowledge that we are more alike than we realize. We just have to challenge ourselves to find it.

Shareholder Theory (Or, Maria Finally Uses Her Business Studies For Something Useful)

So every finance major you’ve ever met has learned that central tenet of the corporate religion known as shareholder theory: financial managers exist to maximize shareholder value. Simply put, a good financial manager seeks to increase their corporation’s profits and thereby grow a stock owner’s dividend payment; if the stock owner is happy, the manager is happy.

This might seem intuitive, but shareholder theory actually introduces a quagmire of moral ambiguity. Underpaying employees; exploiting child workers; and engaging in cheaper, environmentally unsustainable practices can each increase profits, but at what cost? Can any businessperson worth his salt truly justify such blatant unethicality?

Yes, actually. According to shareholder theory, we’re taught exactly that.

 That’s because those employees and those children are not shareholders, but stakeholders: parties with a vested interest in a firm but who do not necessarily own stock in that firm. In this case, the stakeholders rely on the company for income–they want the company to do well so that they can make enough money to survive. In all cases, shareholder theory requires that financial managers completely cut stakeholder interests out of the picture; shady business practices of all sorts are not only allowed, but encouraged, so long as they benefit shareholders.

During this week’s discussions, we debated whether or not James Baldwin had a responsibility to represent the female perspective in his work as a man. Professor Kinyon reminded us that James Baldwin catered his rhetoric to a white male audience. White women historically supported the political narrative by aligning their votes with their husbands’; Baldwin could therefore concentrate his conversion efforts on an all-male congregation and achieve similar results.

To synthesize these ideas, the men are shareholders: they own stock in the political arena and Baldwin (our trusty financial manager) must appease them to succeed. The women that Baldwin marginalizes in his body of work are stakeholders and, according to shareholder theory, simply do not factor into the equation. 

The funny thing about shareholder theory, though, is that–as ingrained into our curriculum as it may be–it doesn’t work. Studies show that when companies put their stakeholders first, they actually perform significantly better in the long run. By taking care of employees (factory workers, custodians, etc.), a company improves its own efficiency and reaps higher profits, therefore better satisfying both financial managers and shareholders. This is called stakeholder theory.

I believe that in the same way, Baldwin could have maximized his own success by addressing the female perspective in his work. If his goal was to increase interracial cooperation and improve the Black condition in America, Baldwin might’ve enjoyed greater success by affording women the same time and attention as men rather than ignoring 50% of the very society he sought to change. While I can understand the logic that led Baldwin to tailor his rhetoric to white men, I can’t help but question whether or not his efforts to maximize shareholder value at stakeholders’ expense precluded him from fully recognizing another value–that of the female perspective–altogether.

Boys Will Be Boys (And Other Lies)

So this week we devoted a lot of time to the discussion of David Baldwin and his abusive behavior–specifically, we debated whether or not he deserved our empathy.  As Professor K pointed out, David Baldwin suffered a tremendous amount of stress by simply existing as a Black man in a white world. Blatant racism, systemic oppression, and the emasculating inability to provide for his family are each compelling arguments for casting David as a sort of tragic hero, nothing more than a product of circumstance. Pain, after all, is cyclical; deprived of any emotional outlet and forced to perpetually engage with the very same society that wished him dead, it seems only natural that David would pass on his own traumas to his children.

As comforting as this interpretation might be, however, it begs an important question: if a Black man’s anger at a broken system is enough to push him to beat his children, what about a Black woman? Both face the same injustice day in and day out. So why are only men ever driven to physical violence?

The fact is that women are not allowed to be angry. And when they are angry, they are not allowed to express that anger. Where a man who fights back is brave, and strong, and natural, a woman who fights back, even a little, is a bitch. Instead, women are taught to internalize their anger. Where a man is taught to hate his oppressor, a woman is taught to hate herself.

This is the fundamental truth which Baldwin fails to address in his work. For every barrier a Black man faces during his life, a Black woman faces two. It’s time we recognize this intersection between race and gender; now, more than ever, we must validate Black women’s anger rather than silence it. As Audre Lorde says, “The angers of women can transform difference through insight into power.” It’s time we harness that anger rather than silence it.

I leave you with this (rather ironic, considering our class discussions) Margaret Atwood quote on internalized misogyny, to do with what you will:

“Male fantasies, male fantasies, is everything run by male fantasies? Up on a pedestal or down on your knees, it’s all a male fantasy: that you’re strong enough to take what they dish out, or else too weak to do anything about it. Even pretending you aren’t catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy: pretending you’re unseen, pretending you have a life of your own, that you can wash your feet and comb your hair unconscious of the ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole, peering through the keyhole in your own head, if nowhere else. You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.” 

A Rant ;-)

My mother has never made it through an airport without security selecting her for “random” security checks. Nothing–not her American citizenship or the near-imperceptibility of her accent–has ever been able to protect her from the seemingly inherent criminality of her Egyptian birth certificate. It is a sad reality to which my mother has grown numb; even the novelty of a new airport loses its charm after a while. Swedish racism looks no different from Italian racism, or French, or German; after a while, it all blends together. 

When Professor K brought up the book Guns, Germs, and Steel, she mentioned that Jared Diamond classifies Egyptians (and other North Africans) as white. From my little corner of the classroom, I overheard a few people’s surprised reactions and couldn’t help feeling a little jaded: as shocking as this revelation might be to some, I’ve grown depressingly accustomed to checking little boxes that read “Caucasian, including people of Middle Eastern descent.”

The fact is that the US government, despite stark differences in physical appearance and in culture, despite racist travel bans and years of discrimination hailed as a “war on terror,” despite my mother’s sad inability to make it through a single airport unmolested, classifies Middle Easterners as white when, in reality, Middle Eastern people have never enjoyed the privileges American society affords white people. 

There’s a historical basis for this, of course: the Naturalization Act of 1790 defined eligibility for citizenship as confined to “any alien, being a free white person who shall have resided within the limits . . . of the United States for a term of two years.” Various ethnic groups attempted to achieve legal whiteness and therefore obtain American citizenship, but most failed. Dow v. United States, however, expanded the definition of white to include Middle Eastern heritage. 

This reminds me of two discussions we’ve had in class: the first, of course, is that of the Black/white binary and all the ways it erases outlying racial subgroups–Egyptians, for example. The push to exist as “oppressor” rather than “oppressed” directly relates to the Dow v. United States case. While the ruling might have immediately benefitted Middle Eastern people, it has since only suffocated Middle Eastern culture and facilitated discrimination against Middle Eastern persons; after all, it is difficult to explain to your friends exactly how Donald Trump’s travel ban is racist when the inhabitants of the eight affected countries are “white.”

Second (and pertinent to our most recent lectures), I wonder why everyone seems so eager to lump Egyptians (and other Middle Easterners) in with other Causasians. I’d never really considered this before Professor K mentioned it in class, but Jared Diamond’s destructive misclassification might reference some desire to claim Egyptian achievements for the white man. The pyramids, the Temple of Amun Siwa, the Valley of the Kings–that Ancient Egypt accomplished any one of these feats is impressive enough, but that the list is so much more comprehensive is almost unbelievable. 

This, in turn, reminded me of Baldwin’s assertions that “[t]he story of the Negro in America is the story of America–or, more precisely, it is the story of Americans” (CE 19). Our entire nation has been built on Black backs; this entire country is the ultimate achievement of African Americans. Why don’t we learn more extensively about slavery in America, or the racist attitudes to which most of our founding fathers subscribed? Why do we ignore African-American literature in favor of white authors in our American Lit classes? Why do we so violently whitewash our history–that is, African-American history? Could it be that we are trying to discredit the enterprises of the African-American community, just as Jared Diamond discredits Egyptians? Could it be that “the white man on whom the American Negro has modeled himself for so long” is not actually the model, but the modelled (CE 657)? I certainly don’t have the answers, but that doesn’t make it any less worthwhile to think about.

The (Fe)Male Prison

I know it seems counterproductive to think about the role of women in a book all about men, but Hella’s been on my mind a lot this past week. I commented on Faith’s last post about the ways in which Hella constitutes an “easy way out” for David. Even though he does not love her, he values all that she represents as a woman: a socially acceptable heterosexual relationship, a couple of kids and white picket fence, and the promises of the American Dream™. 

What I find especially remarkable about Hella is just how incredibly unremarkable she is. Hella is hardly featured in the novel; aside from a brief appearance in the final chapters, she exists primarily as a vague, nebulous concept to which David periodically alludes but who never fully develops as a character. In fact, for all the many times she’s mentioned by other characters, all we really know about her is that she really submits to the patriarchy: her self-proclaimed purpose in life seems to be nothing more than to marry a man and to raise his children–to exist as someone’s “obedient and most loving servant,” which she professes is “all [she’s] good for” (EN&S 323-324)

Despite an initial reactionary distaste, it now occurs to me that Baldwin never intended to develop Hella because she’s not really a person at all: she’s a doorstop! Hella’s function is analogous to Madeleine’s in “The Male Prison.” As Baldwin describes it, “Madeleine kept open for [Gide] a kind of door of hope, of possibility, the possibility of entering into communion with another sex. This door, which is the door to life and air and freedom from the tyranny of one’s own personality, must be kept open, and none feel this more keenly than those on whom the door is perpetually threatening or has already seemed to close” (CE 233).

In exactly the same way that Madeleine appeals to Gide, so, too, does Hella appeal to David: not as an autonomous human being with her own thoughts and feelings, but as a representation of the nuclear family and the traditional gender roles into which David so damnably wants to fit. Hella is nothing more than a solution to David’s problems–a “steady ground, like the earth itself, where [he] could always be renewed” (EN&S 302).

On Fools

Giovanni’s Room broke my heart. Like, seriously, I did not expect it to be quite so distressing a read, and part of me isn’t even sure what’s sadder: David’s doomed relationships or the fact that he’s the one that dooms them. David himself says it best during his discussion of his father: “I did not want him to know me. I did not want anyone to know me” (232). And indeed, this much is evident in almost all of David’s relationships: from his father, whose attempts at bonding David constantly rejects; to Hella, the fiancee to whom David is unfaithful and dishonest; to even Joey, the first love to whom David is terrified of “[losing his] manhood” (226) and who David then bullies until he moves away, David seems hellbent on alienating himself from any person that might care for him.

Giovanni, of course, is only the latest victim of this cycle of self-destructive isolation. David’s fondness for the Italian bartender is so overshadowed by his own internalized homophobia that, despite the all happiness that he experiences while with Giovanni, David helplessly “[resists] him with all [his] strength” (287). David is unable to accept the greater implications a relationship with Giovanni has on his own sexuality and perceptions of masculinity and is therefore equally unable to accept Giovanni himself: David chooses a loveless marriage to a woman over a heartfelt affair with a man, toppling the first in a string of dominoes which ultimately results in Giovanni’s execution. I guess it all goes to show that whether we examine his familial, platonic, or romantic relationships, David’s self-hatred burns so intensely that it immolates his ability to connect to the people around him; he so despises himself that he loses the ability to love at all.

It’s funny, because at one point David eavesdrops on a woman’s conversation about her lover and rather snidely remarks that “One had the impression that, though she certainly did not wish to be a fool, she had lost one definition of the word and might never be able to find another” (293). I recently watched Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom on Netflix and they just happened to suggest such an alternate definition, though one which I believe David would benefit to learn more than the woman: A fool is responsible for what happened to him. A fool cause it to happen. David causes his own pain, his own suffering, and his own loneliness; he chooses (and keeps choosing) to be alone.

Baldwin, BLM, and #StopAsianHate

This week’s presentation on James Baldwin and Religion really got me thinking about community. As our lovely presenters shared with us this past Wednesday, Baldwin argues that some community-like aspect is integral to love. After all, John’s transformation throughout Go Tell It On the Mountain is largely dependent upon the people around him: Elisha, who guides John through his encounter with the “power of the Lord,” and Gabriel, who introduces John to organized religion in the first place, are each necessary components of John’s final metamorphosis from a position of self-loathing to the imperfect beginnings of self-love. (I’d argue that this transformation is more of a bildungsroman than a true religious epiphany, but that’s a post for another time.) In a way which directly opposes Richard Wright’s depictions of a solitary, isolated Black experience, Baldwin argues that humanity is bonded across all of its differing races and creeds through oppression, and that this collective suffering is important to the achievement of holiness and the attainment of love. 

Now, I know that this is a class concerned with Baldwin’s commentary on the Black condition, but I can’t help but feel like a lot of these ideologies are applicable to the current Stop Asian Hate movement as well. In case anyone didn’t know, 2020 saw a 1900% increase in anti-Asian violence. The past few weeks, my Instagram has been inundated with all the relevant statistics and rebuttals of commonly held Asian stereotypes—specifically, the “model minority” myth, which perpetuates the idea that Asian-Americans, through years of hard work and perseverance, have transcended the socioeconomic barriers they once faced and now enjoy a position of relative wealth and success. This argument is problematic for several reasons: it inherently pits the Black and Asian communities against each other in its insinuation that the struggles of Black Americans stem from a simple lack of effort (read: “Black people are lazy and Asians are not”) when, in reality, Asian-Americans simply do not face the same depth of discrimination that centuries of slavery and systemic racism have inflicted on countless generations of African-Americans; it also further marginalizes an already-marginalized demographic of impoverished Asian-Americans who do not enjoy the aforementioned wealth or success attributed to their race.

It is the latter which I find particularly pertinent to our discussions of community and love. We’ve talked extensively about Baldwin’s criticisms of the overly simplistic white-as-oppressor/Black-as-oppressed narrative, as well as the weird American obsession with creating a Black/white binary which discounts the existence of any nonconforming parties (we discussed this in relation to the US Census on the first day of class). The model minority myth erases the racial injustice that so many Asian-Americans continue to face and exacerbates the perceived proximity to whiteness that, according to the racial binary in place, casts them as oppressors rather than oppressed and thus inhibits any opportunity for solidarity with other racial minorities. To synthesize this with Baldwin’s assertions that we are bonded through our mutual oppression and that only through our acknowledgement of this shared experience can we truly learn to love each other, I’d argue that stereotyping Asian-Americans as flourishing, contributing members of society thus alienates them from other communities of color. In masking a history of suffering and racial violence which should unite Asian-Americans with fellow BIPOC, we instead estrange them from other victims of racism. And so, not quite white but not quite un-white, we condemn millions to racial limbo where, denied community with their fellow man, they wait, loveless, for absolution.  

For more information on the model minority myth and historical context surrounding the relationship between the Black and Asian-American communities, please feel free to check out these links(!):

Philip Larkin On Inherited Trauma

There is a scene in Go Tell It On the Mountain that’s bothered me since I first read it. It’s extremely short—you can almost miss it if you aren’t paying attention. In the scene, John has just watched a film and stands on a hill, pondering the allures of sinful city life. He runs down the hill in a moment of joyous freedom, only to nearly collide with an old white man; the two “stopped, astonished, and looked at one another. John struggled to catch his breath and apologize, but the old man smiled. John smiled back” (EN&S 32). 

And that’s it! That’s the whole scene. Now, John already enjoys a comfort among white people that his elders have never experienced; his intellect affords him his white teachers’ respect. And white people have never abused him in the ways his Black father has; in fact, it is Gabriel, not any white man, who continuously antagonizes John. Why, then, should John fear the white folks, who have always been kinder than his own flesh and blood?

What John doesn’t realize, of course, are all the twisted ways in which whiteness has shaped his entire family. It is whiteness that carved the racist, postbellum landscape of Gabriel’s youth; which brutally violated Gabriel’s first wife, Deborah; and which destroyed his firstborn son Royal. It is whiteness which drove Elizabeth’s first love Richard to take his own life after he was implicated in the robbery of a white man’s store, a crime he did not commit. It is whiteness that instilled in Florence the internalized racism which alienates her from the “dirty” and “common” lower class Black people; which moves her to try and lighten her skin; and which ultimately contributes to her separation from her husband, who feels Florence would prefer it if he’d only “turn white” (81). 

Gabriel, like his wife and sister, is a product of whiteness—a victim. In an extremely screwed-up way, it makes sense that, recognizing in John’s intellect a sort of whiteness, Gabriel would so violently react. I’ve talked a lot about inheritance laws; this is John’s allotted portion. The same Gabriel who once reflected on “how sin led to sin” and who has for so long borne that Great White Sin of racism now passes the fruits of his trauma onto John, projecting years of oppression onto his step-son (129). It reminds me of that Philip Larkin poem, “This Be the Verse”:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

Gabriel and Elizabeth and Florence have all lived their lives; they’ve each experienced whiteness in all its cruelty and fallen victim to the cycle of oppression, Their fates are sealed. But John! John is young—only fourteen—and has his whole life ahead of him. John is the future—a future that has emerged from a history of racism and violence, but which ultimately promises to break the cycle. John, at his core, is a symbol of Baldwin’s hope for the next generation of Black Americans: where whiteness has marred John’s entire family tree, it only smiles at him.

My Brother’s Keeper

I really don’t know how I could have been so surprised that a book called Go Tell It on the Mountain could contain so much religious imagery, but I was. From each character’s name to the green snake that lives on the mantle, almost everything in the novel functions as some theological double entendre. Similarly, almost everything in the novel provides autobiographical insight into James Baldwin’s own life; the allusions to his own impoverished childhood in Harlem, his religious upbringing, and his tumultuous relationship with his father are unmistakable. I thought in this week’s blog post I’d unpack an aspect of the novel which lives at the intersection between these two themes: the historical role of the oldest son in the Bible.

According to the primogeniture of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the eldest male of each family is entitled to the birthright, or a double portion of his father’s inheritance. Younger sons were each allotted only a single portion of the inheritance, while daughters were expected to marry and were thus largely excluded from inheriting anything at all (shocker, I know). Beyond this material advantage, eldest sons were expected to serve as priests–an honorable position in ancient Israel. 

I’d argue that Go Tell It On the Mountain reflects this bias towards the oldest son in the characters of John and Aunt Florence. Neither John nor Florence is the eldest male: John, though older, is illegitimate, casting his trouble-making half-brother Roy as their father’s only real heir, and Florence’s younger brother Gabriel is simply a rebel. Though both John and Florence prove themselves more responsible, respectful, and generally worthy of love, it is Roy and Gabriel who are heavily favored by their respective parents. In the first two parts of the novel, it’s never explicitly stated why Gabriel so blatantly prefers Roy (though the obvious similarities between father and son almost certainly play a part), but if we are to use James Baldwin’s own life as a lens through which to analyze the text, we might surmise that the “whiteness” of John’s intellect inspires a sort of fear in his father that no amount of praying or preaching can soothe. John is thus robbed of his birthright–his father’s love–while Roy gets his own double portion, remaining, for all his faults, somehow blameless in Gabriel’s eyes. Florence’s case is much more straightforward: she might be the firstborn, but she is also a girl, and “would by and by be married, and have children of her own, and all the duties of a woman” (EN&S 68). Florence is therefore continuously overlooked, forced to watch helplessly as her mother wastes all her efforts on an ungrateful son; she is precluded from her birthright–an education, her mother’s attentions, and any hope of a future–by virtue of her gender, just as the women of the Old Testament before her.

I’d like to think that James Baldwin’s religious background would have familiarized him with this concept of primogeniture, and yet I do not doubt that it was an issue which he recognized from his own life experiences. As we discussed in class, James Baldwin was not actually the eldest child; rather, David Baldwin had a son by a previous marriage. However, James was still forced to do much of the parenting, essentially raising his younger siblings for a father who hated him. Like John, his every attempt to do right by his father was overshadowed by the simple fact that he was not David’s real son. Despite following in his father’s footsteps as a religious leader and earning a reputation for his intellectual pursuits, James received no reward for his hard work; he labored without promise of any birthright.

Naturalism, Dr. Seuss, and Me

If you haven’t heard by now, this week Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced that they will cease the publication of six classic children’s books which “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” Now, this didn’t come as the biggest surprise to me; Theodore Geisel’s racism manifested in numerous political cartoons, support for Japanese internment camps, and blackface. But that this racism had extended to the stories which so defined my childhood—stories like And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street! and If I Ran the Zoo—was a disappointment for which I was thoroughly unprepared.
And yet, as I perused article after article, book after book, the racist imagery became apparent in monkey-like depictions of tribal Africans and Asian “helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant” from “countries no one can spell” (those are real quotes from If I Ran the Zoo). I knew that I must have read those words countless times–seen the images of yellow-faced Asian men literally carrying a white man with a gun on their heads—and simply thought nothing of it.
As we learned in our readings this week, naturalism, which Irving Howe defines as a sort of scientific detachment from the subject matter, is a philosophy with which Baldwin proves particularly concerned. Of his own encounters with racism, he says, “I knew about the south, of course, and about how southerners treated negroes and how they expected them to behave, but it had never entered into my mind that anyone would look at me and expect me to behave that way” (CE 68). Clearly, Baldwin exhibits some of that same detachment from the Black condition of which he accuses Wright when Wright withdraws to Paris and ingratiates himself to the French intellectuals, falling out of sync with the Black American experience and seemingly forsaking the cause for which he once so vehemently advocated (CE 266). There is a divorce, a disjunction, an otherness which defines the relationship between both Wright and Baldwin and Black America in these instances.
I would argue that the liberals who Baldwin so distinctly criticizes in “Many Thousands Gone” fall victim to this same otherness when they assert that, “though there are whites and blacks among us who hate each other, we will not,” eager to subscribe to the dream that “the battle is elsewhere” (CE 34). And, as I’ve racked my mind these past few days trying to figure out how I could have forgiven such blatantly racist rhetoric, especially anti-Asian rhetoric, part of me wonders if I didn’t experience some of that same otherness myself. True, I was young when I last read Dr. Seuss, and I am only half Asian, and these are certainly facts which colored my perception; regardless, I can’t help but wonder if I, like Wright and Baldwin and those liberals before me, found comfort in denying my proximity to the issue, and whether this denial was rooted in shame, ignorance, or some concoction of the two. In short, I guess, the question I inevitably return to is this: is naturalism natural?