Final Blog Post

I took this course because as an English major I thought that taking a class solely on the works of James Baldwin was essential to my development as someone who is interested in writing my senior thesis on American literature. Before taking this class I knew that his works were significant with regards to the Civil Rights Movement. However, I did not think that his writing and experiences would become so personal to me. I think I ended up enjoying his essays more than his novels, mostly due to the fact that his essays delved into his personal life and I understood him better as a person from his essays. I enjoyed the Notes of a Native Son collection the most because the essays were written while he was abroad in France and my final essay is going to focus on this collection because I want to explore what made Baldwin’s time that he spent in Europe so transformative for his journey as a writer. I want to understand why Americans are able to cultivate a better sense of identity abroad. I understand that Baldwin left America to escape racism. However, I feel as though this feeling persists throughout generations of Americans who feel the desire to escape for other reasons (apart from travel). I will be studying abroad in England next semester and wonder how the experience of living abroad will affect my identity and how I view my Americanness. I look forward to exploring these ideas further in my final essay through my analysis of Notes of a Native Son. Now that I have read and conversed about Baldwin in an academic setting I feel prepared to read the works that we didn’t have the opportunity to discuss in class on my own and in other classes.

The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism 

Audre Lorde’s analysis of the function of anger in combating racism is a refreshing take on the misleading assumption that black women are vessels of indisposable anger. She takes the negative connotation of anger and turns it into a catalyst for change. Women are told every day that they are supposed to look a certain way and act a certain way that does not disrupt the environment that they find themselves in. Women of color are not allowed to react to the racism that they experience, especially in the workplace. I admired how Lorde did not hold back on criticizing how the conference perpetuates racism. She states, “Yet the National Women’s Studies Association here in 1981 holds a conference in which it commits itself to responding to racism, yet refuses to waive the registration fee for poor women and women of Color – for instance, Wilmette Brown, of Black Women for Wages for Housework – to participate in this conference. Is this to be merely another case of the academy discussing life within the close circuits of the academy?” The hypocrisy of organizations meant to promote inclusivity by hosting Lorde as a speaker while simultaneously presenting as an exclusive event is unsurprising. Lorde also states, “Hatred is the fury of those who do not share our goals, and its object is death and destruction. Anger is a grief of distortion between peers, and its object is change.” I found this distinction between anger and hatred to be profound as I have correlated the two. Lorde’s description of anger as a grief of distortions between peers allowed me to understand why anger is a feeling and hatred is acted on. Towards the end of the MLK/FBI documentary it was stated that the fear of black Americans has a lot to do with white people’s own perception of themselves and the danger of black people forcing a reckoning with the violence of the American past. I think that the fear of black anger is the reason why black women are stereotyped as angry individuals and are forced to appear and act without resentment. Lorde’s analysis of anger as a form of protection and change has changed my perspective on how anger should not have to be oppressed to validate the feelings of others, while invalidating your own. Anger is more political than I imagined. 

Foreignness and Identity 

Giovanni’s Room explores queerness as a foreign concept in a foreign land. Baldwin wrote Giovanni’s Room while living in Paris. In “Take Me to the Water” he states, “My journey, or my flight, had not been to Paris, but simply away from America” (376). Baldwin simply wanted to be in a place where he would be relieved from his life in America. Although I believe that Giovanni’s Room could have been written in America, it is quite fitting that he writes the novel in a country that is foreign to Baldwin, just as David’s concept of his queerness is foreign to him. David states, “My flight may, indeed, have begun that summer–which does not tell me where to find the germ of the dilemma which resolved itself, that summer, into flight. Of course, it is somewhere before me, locked in that reflection I am watching in the window as the night comes down outside. It is trapped in the room with me, always has been, and always will be, and it is yet more foreign to me than those foreign hills outside” (227). This idea of seeking out a foreign concept of life in order to escape or redefine the sense of self has allowed me to think about how the American identity is also sort of foreign to black people. Baldwin doesn’t feel a sense of belonging in America so he seeks out clarity in another country with language barriers and no money. In Take Me to the Water he also states, “Still, my flight, had been dictated by my hope that I could find myself in a place where I would be treated more humanely than my society had treated me at home, where my risks would be more personal and my fate less austerely sealed” (377). While Giovanni’s Room is a novel about David’s struggle to accept his queerness, I think that the novel can be used to explore how Baldwin’s sense of identity functioned when he was not in a state of crisis. Maybe he was able to write about his sexuality because he was not burdened with the task of tackling his race first. My theory is that Giovanni’s Room is just as much an allegory for Baldwin’s veiling of his blackness in Europe as it is about David’s veiling of his sexuality. 

A conversation between James Baldwin and Audre Lorde

Baldwin and Lorde’s perception of what it means to be black in America is clearly distinguished by gender. Baldwin initially argues that the American Dream is desirable by all black people. However, it is an experience that they cannot attain due to their blackness. Lorde argues that this is not the case for her and she knew that the American Dream was something that she had no interest in because the American Dream did not include her. I agree with Lorde on this part because the American Dream is not an idea that was created for the oppressed. Most notably, Lorde touches on how black men and women destroy each other due to that oppression. She states, “Differences and sameness. But in a crunch, when all our asses are in the sling, it looks like it is easier to deal with the sameness. When we deal with sameness only, we develop weapons that we use against each other when the differences become apparent. And we wipe each other out – Black men and women can wipe each other out — far more effectively than outsiders do.” I find this statement to hold a lot of truth today. In my experience, I have found that there is a lack of desirability of black women in the eyes of black men. Black men find proximity to whiteness by partnering with white women as more desirable and this is also pushed through the media. How black women are treated by black men significantly impacts how black people are viewed by society. If they are not taking care of each other then the rest of the world will treat them poorly as well. Baldwin states, “In both cases, it is assumed that it is safer to be white than to be Black. And it’s assumed that it is safer to be a man than to be a woman. These are both masculine assumptions. But those are the assumptions that we’re trying to overcome or to confront…” Baldwin is trying to argue that gender inequality shouldn’t factor into overcoming racism. However, Lorde’s argument against this mindset is so important because gender does matter. She states, “And the fury that is engendered in the denial of that vulnerability – we have to break through it because there are children growing up believe that it is legitimate to shed female blood, right?” I have to break through it because those boys really think that the sign of their masculinity is impregnating a sixth grader. I have to break through it because of that little sixth-grade girl who believes that the only thing in life she has is what lies between her legs…” This conversation highlights the differences in the ways black boys and girls are raised. Black girls are taught to be modest and close their legs so that black boys do not see them as a target. However, as Lorde states to Baldwin perfectly, “But what we do have is a real disagreement about your responsibility not just to me but to my son and to our boys. Your responsibility to him is to get across to him in a way that I will never be able to because he did not come out of my body and has another relationship to me. Your relationship to him as his father is to tell him I’m not a fit target for his fury.” Lorde’s understanding that issues of race must be examined from a standpoint that includes gender and sexuality is imperative and her explanation to Baldwin reveals that understanding what it means to be black in America cannot be understood by only male perspective, because the male lens often leaves out the nuances of the female experience, no matter how much they understand about race. 

No Name in the Street 

Baldwin’s childhood and his relationship with his father impacts the way he navigates love and loss. The manner in which he describes being fearful of his father is quite disturbing especially when one realizes that this should be the first relationship with a man that he experiences love with, even if it is familial love. In the first few paragraphs of Take Me to the Water he states that his father had him circumcised at the age of age, a terrifying event for him. He doesn’t remember much about this traumatic event but he does remember “tugging at my mother’s skirts and staring up into her face, it was because I was so terrified of the man we called my father” (353). Further, “I have written both too much and too little about this man, whom I did not understand till he was past understanding” (354). Baldwin’s purpose for writing has always seemed personal. Many of the personal accounts we have read have a connection back to his relationship with his father and trying to understand masculinity from his closest connection to it. Most of what he understands about his father is rooted in violence, specifically domestic violence. Baldwin states, “It did not take me long, nor did the children, as they came tumbling into this world, take long to discover that our mother paid an immense price for standing between us and our father. He had ways of making her suffer quite beyond our kin, and so we soon learned to depend on each other and became a kind of wordless conspiracy to protect her” (354). Viewing Baldwin’s writing as a means of protecting reveals that it could really only protect him, not his loved ones. He states, “The guilt of the survivor is a real guilt–as I was now to discover. In a way that I may never be able to make real for my countrymen, or myself, the fact that I had “made it” –that is, had been seen on television…” (359). Baldwin’s writing was able to take him further away from the trauma of his past and the violence of his father, which could have been really difficult for him to grasp. His closeness with his friends, MLK and Malcolm X, who were both assassinated could have also affected his perception on the permanence of his own life and what it meant for his writing to be permanent. 

Nobody Knows My Name: A Letter From the South 

In Nobody Knows My Name: A Letter From the South Baldwin states, “The level of Negro education, obviously, is even lower than the general level. The general level is low because, as I have said, Americans have so little respect for genuine intellectual effort. The Negro level is low because the education of Negroes occurs in, and is designed to perpetuate, a segregated society” (201). Education in America is already designed to promote whiteness as ideal and the black experience as one of unfortunate circumstance. There is a lack of accountability for how the systems of racism were founded on whiteness as superior to everything else. The idea of education perpetuating a segregated society affects the way black people have viewed education for generations. This is something that I have come to take interest in with regards to my own family’s background in education or lack thereof. I will be the first person in my family to attend college because my parents did not even know that college was an option because their education was limited to barely graduating high school. Education is a pathway to upward mobility for many people and not having access to it contributes to generational poverty. 

Baldwin also describes the experience of being black in the North in comparison to the South as having little difference. He states, “It must also be said that the racial setup in the South is not, for a Negro, very different from the racial setup in the North. It is the etiquette which is baffling, not the spirit. Segregation is unofficial in the North and official in the South, a crucial difference that does nothing, nevertheless, to alleviate the lot of most Northern Negroes” (203). This idea is something that education also thwarts. Like many other students, I grew up believing that life in the North was better for black people and that only the South was racist. I’ve come to learn that this is far from the case. Education is a powerful tool that has been used to manipulate the way people perceive American history.

MLK/FBI: James Baldwin and Civil Rights

MLK/FBI’s detailed documentation of the hyper-surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement remains significant today as the over policing of black and brown neighborhoods increases the school to prison pipeline and occurrences of police brutality. The analysis of J. Edgar Hoover’s uncomfortability with his own sexuality and how he formed the FBI in his image was unexpected, but provided insight into why he was obsessed with surveillancing MLK. Further, Hoover stated that he feared “the rise of a black messiah,” which to him was MLK. The FBI pushing the agenda that MLK was “the most dangerous negro in America” and their attempts to connect him to communism demonstrates how big of a threat MLK was to Hoover and his racist agenda. The most jarring aspect of this film from my perspective was the fact that the FBI mailed a tape of MLK’s infidelity to him and his wife. The lengths the FBI went to in order to crush the image of black liberation allows me to wonder if they really cared about taking down the Civil Rights Movement, or if Hoover’s obsession with MLK’s sexuality and infidelity was the cause of these violations. Despite MLK’s actions that could potentially ruin his legacy, he still remains as a martyr for the Civil Rights Movement and black liberation. The tapes that the FBI recorded cannot be accessed until 2027 and one can only wonder what information in the tapes will change the way future generations perceive MLK. As discussed in class, MLK is ingrained in American history and embedded in the education of children across the country. As students grow older they come to learn that the leaders of this country are not the saints that they were taught about in their classrooms. I do not believe that whatever is found in those tapes will tarnish his legacy to the point where he is no longer seen as the hero of the Civil Rights Movement. 

Esther and Deborah 

Go Tell It on the Mountain and the Bible

Gabriel’s relationship with the women in his past life is representative of how he believes in the lack of agency of women. He resents Esther for embodying his sexual desires in contrast to Deborah who is marginalized for her barrenness. Gabriel views Esther as a symbol of sin and temptation. Although she gives birth to his son, Royal, whom he is a stranger to, Gabriel cannot see Esther other than a woman sent to disrupt his holiness. In the Bible, Esther was living in exile before becoming a queen and Baldwin pulls from this narrative. Esther in Go Tell It on the Mountain is treated nothing like a queen but does live in exile from Gabriel to the point where he doesn’t even know his son. Further, Gabriel does not tell Deborah that Royal is his son, even though she knows. Deborah is depicted in complete contrast to Esther. She is characterized as a godly woman who represents all good parts of the church. In the Bible, Deborah is characterized as a judge and/or prophet. On her deathbed, Deborah conveys to Gabriel that she would’ve taken care of him. It didn’t matter to her that he wasn’t her child. This final judgment is indicative of how much Deborah was watching the people around her, especially Gabriel. While she may not resent Gabriel for his lies, she warns him that God is also watching him and that he should atone for his sins before it gets too late. This sort of prophetic warning is reflective in the way Gabriel treats John. He has not learned that the way he treats his children will have consequences. Esther and Deborah do not let Gabriel control their views on Royal or their life. Although he may condemn Deborah for not being able to have any children or Esther for being a “harlot”, he is judged more for his actions than anyone else in the novel. One can only wonder if Gabriel has limited control over his emotions and actions than he chooses to reveal. His own self hatred might be masked by the way he treats his children, especially John.

I Am Not Your Negro

The film I Am Not Your Negro brings to life Baldwin’s thirty page manuscript of what was going to be his work titled, “Remember This House”. Baldwin’s narration of the work throughout the documentary humanizes the text and complements the visuals. There are several noteworthy moments in the film that deserve attention. The first is Baldwin’s commentary on how black people are portrayed in the media in comparison to white people, specifically film. Baldwin describes how white men are portrayed as heroes, whereas black men are depicted as criminals. He states that he “despised and feared those heroes” and that “his countrymen were his enemies.” Another notable moment is when Baldwin separates himself from the Black Panther Party, the church, and the NAACP. His reasons being that he doesn’t think all white people are evil, the church doesn’t practice the commandment of loving thy neighbor, and that the NAACP enforces classism among the black community. By distinguishing himself apart from these groups he establishes himself as a self-fashioning individual that is not easily polarized by the media as Malcolm X or Martin Luther King Jr. were. After reading Go Tell It On the Mountain, it is clear that Baldwin wants to separate himself from hate that is fueling America during the time of the Civil Rights Movement. Despite this being an effect of his moral compass, Baldwin’s desire to not subscribe to any of those groups was a marketable choice. It made him palatable to a white audience, which is why I think we see him in several talk shows. Another significant part of the film is when he describes himself as the “The Great Black Hope of the Great White Father.” His criticism of his role as an influential figure of black hope amongst the assassinations of Malcolm X, King, and Levers, is substantial because it allows the viewer to realize that despite movements for anti-racism, America was still extremely racist. It didn’t matter if Baldwin was “The Great Black Hope of the Great White Father” if countless black people were still being killed.

Baldwin’s Religion

Douglas Field’s Pentecostalism and All That Jazz: Tracing James Baldwin’s Religion is probably one of my favorite articles that we’ve read so far. I appreciated how this article made sense of Baldwin’s understanding of religion and it allowed me to think about how growing up in the Baptist Church has affected my perspective of religion. I agreed with Baldwin’s argument of how the church as an institution can be contradictory and produce a lack of self love. I’ve seen how the Baptist church can condemn its members and I’ve seen how the Baptist church can be a safe haven. The point that I resonated with the most is that you can be critical of the church and still be very Christian or religious. I also appreciated the history lesson on jazz music and the Pentecostal church. I think that being involved with music in any aspect can be religious or spiritual. I also never thought about how religion can lead to passivity and I think Field makes a great point when he states, “Baldwin suggests that piety not only leads to passivity, but that it damages personal relationships” (446). I feel as though this happens with a lot of religious people who blame their actions on God instead of taking responsibility for it. Further it is often people who claim to be the most Christian that I’ve seen do this. It also turns people away from faith in anything when people of the church continuously act hypocritically. Baldwin’s practice of an anti-institutional spiritually shifted my interpretation of part one of Go Tell It on The Mountain. I didn’t think that this novel was going to be critical of the church. I knew that religion was going to be a theme in the novel but I didn’t think the criticization of the church was going to be a central point of chapter one. I am curious to see how Roy’s and John’s paths diverge or connect throughout the rest of the novel. 

Field also addresses Baldwin’s ideology of salvation through the love and support of one another. He states, “Baldwin’s most radical rewriting of Christian–or at least spiritual identity–is to place emphasis on salvation and redemption, not through God, but through a love that is founded on the sharing of pain” (450). Can we be saved through each other? If God is the ultimate judge, do humans have the agency to save each other in a religious sense? I am not sure if Field meant for this to be taken quite literally. However, I am taking Jesus and Salvation for my second theo requirement right now so that could also be a reason why I am reading so deeply into this statement.  The purpose of this article is to address Baldwin’s opposition to the church. However, I did not expect his interpretation of his use of religious language in his writing to be taboo. He states, “In Baldwin’s later fiction, nakedness is holy, but the fear of judgment is replaced by the act of complete surrender to another lover. This authentic sexual love becomes itself an act of both revelation and of redemption” (452). Baldwin’s idea of a holy sort of love is what we would associate as traditionally taboo, which makes his work all the more thought provoking to me. Field is quick to acknowledge that Baldwin is not talking about sexual gratification, but more of a spiritual sexual love that is received by both people involved. I have seen If Beale Street Could Talk and I think the movie captured this aspect of a spiritual love. I loved how the article ended by reiterating that “Love, then aided and nurtured through gospel music, becomes the bedrock of Baldwin’s new religion. Irrespective of class, gender or sexuality, love becomes, for Baldwin, a redemptive act” (453). Further, “Love, spiritual love, is the new religion. For it is ‘love’, Baldwin concludes, ‘which is salvation.’” I think Baldwin’s understanding of religion is digestible, coming from the perspective of someone who is a Baptist Christian and his philosophy makes a lot of sense to me.