The Final Blog Post

Sometimes Dr. Kinyon began class by asking us if we liked what we read, and for some reason, I always found that question complicated. It should be simple to say if we liked Baldwin’s writing. After all, this is an English class, and that is perhaps the most basic question she could ask of us. However, I think what made the question difficult for me to plainly answer is the content and context of Baldwin’s writings. 

The America Baldwin describes is divided by racism and hate, so much so that he and other Black American writers left for Europe. In fact, Baldwin’s America and America in 2021 are quite similar. The very title of our course refers to the progress that still needs to be made in this country. “James Baldwin, From the Civil Rights Movement to Black Lives Matter.” We have had class discussions about how slavery became Jim Crow which became mass incarceration or The New Jim Crow. While I consider Baldwin’s writing captivating and smooth, I have not liked what I have read. A white family bringing their young son to witness the lynching of a black man. A black woman being raped by multiple white men. I do not like an America that allows, enables, and even encourages these situations. 

I argue that Baldwin’s goal was not for us to like what we read. In many ways, he wanted us to feel the opposite. Upon reading “The Price of the Ticket” and “On Being White and Other Lies,” we all felt a desire to change this country. Baldwin wrote about America’s racism in the time of the civil rights movement, and now he calls us to think about it and write about it in the era of the Black Lives Matter movement. Though this is my final blog, I know this won’t be the final time I think of Baldwin’s arguments and consider how they inform our world today. 

The Price Paid by Irish Immigrants

Last week, our class discussed the “price of the ticket” for Irish immigrants in coming to America and becoming white. The process of becoming white and finding success in America as Irish immigrants hinges on denying the Black presence and thus debasing themselves. As Baldwin writes in “On Being ‘White’ and Other Lies,” the price of the ticket for white people is delusion. Because white Americans have built their identity on fear of Black people and the fear of lacking power, they are unable to have a community. Instead, as Baldwin writes, they are a multitude. However, they have deluded themselves into believing they are a community. 

Irish immigrants are a particularly interesting case of paying the ultimate price for power. Aside from their delusion, another price they pay is losing their community, their language, their culture. In joining the white monolith, Irish immigrants lose their Irishness. The extent of many Irish Americans’ understanding of Irish culture is rooted in celebrating St. Patrick’s Day and possibly supporting Notre Dame football. 

In coming to America, the Irish lose their identity, but many of them left to escape that same fate back home. The English were hard at work subjugating the Irish people, stripping them of their language, their religion, and their freedom. Ironically, the Irish who left for America ended up suffering the same fate. In the process of escaping one power attempting to crush their culture, they lost their culture themselves. To some immigrants, the cost of the ticket was lower than the cost of staying. As white Americans, they denied the existence of Black Americans like the English denied the existence of the Irish. Black Americans were able to retain their community, because it was not built on fear. They developed a language and kept their culture alive as they battled for freedom. 

When Our Heroes Have Flaws

Many of us were disappointed in James Baldwin when we read his conversation with Audre Lorde, “Revolutionary Hope.” Throughout their discussion, Lorde continuously mentions the plight of Black women, saying, “The cops are killing the men and the men are killing the women. I’m talking about rape. I’m talking about murder.” She wants Baldwin to acknowledge the physical violence perpetrated on Black women. He does acknowledge it, but he also excuses it. Baldwin replies that for Black men who beat up women, “it’s his responsibility, but it’s not his fault.” Baldwin is correct – racism in American society absolutely contributed to this trend, but then Baldwin adds, “It hurts me at least as much as it hurts you.” Here is where a female reader might become frustrated. How could it hurt him as much? The Black woman being physically beaten at home is certainly suffering more than the man beating her. Why doesn’t Baldwin understand that? Is he not listening to Lorde? She agrees with him that they are both suffering, but she wants him to recognize the unique harm faced by someone who is both Black and a woman. 

In this discussion, however, it seems that Baldwin never reaches that point. He persistently tries to recenter the conversation around Black men, telling Lorde that “in this republic the only real crime is to be a Black man.” When she argues that being Black is the crime, not being a Black man, he maintains his position. After they go back and forth about the challenges faced by Black men and women, Baldwin eventually gives one or two word answers. He never affirms what Lorde tells him and it does not seem that they even agree by the end. Lorde backs him into a corner and he seemingly gives up, but he never admits his misunderstanding. While Baldwin is a brilliant participant in the civil rights movement, he fails in this exchange to stick up for women. I was reminded of Baldwin’s flaws as a social critic while watching MLK/FBI this weekend. Martin Luther King is an imperfect figure as well. While his contribution to the civil rights movement is undeniable, he was not a faithful husband. Despite working as a pastor and using his moral code as the foundation for many of his arguments, he frequently broke those moral rules. This information is undoubtedly disappointing, but it doesn’t unwrite the work he’s done for Black Americans, just as Baldwin’s unsatisfactory responses to Lorde do not discredit his achievements as a social critic. It is unfair to hold our heroes on great pedestals and expect them to be flawless, as many do with King especially. Instead, we must see them as human.

“The Uses of Anger” and White Feminism

In recent years, the term “white feminism” has entered the common lexicon as a way to describe an ideology that seeks “not to alter the systems that oppress womenーpatriarchy, capitalism, imperialismーbut to succeed within them” (Solis). While Audre Lorde does not use the term “white feminism” in “The Uses of Anger,” she highlights examples of how this approach to feminism fails to effect substantial change and instead promotes the continuation of a system that excludes and oppresses women of color. In her article “When Feminism Is White Supremacy in Heels,” Rachel Elizabeth Cargle discusses how she and her fellow black feminist activists responded to the murder of 18-year-old Nia Wilson. Cargle and her black activist community called upon white feminists to use their platforms to acknowledge the senseless murder of a black woman. While many white allies did, a large number of them also grew defensive and lashed out. 

This situation is analogous to Lorde’s example of white women addressing racism on college campuses. They blame their inability to properly confront racism on the fact that no women of color attend their events. Lorde writes, “In other words, racism is a Black woman’s problem, a problem of women of Color, and only we can discuss it.” This sentiment is apparent in the defensive responses of those white feminists. Too often in modern-day activist circles, black women are charged with the responsibility of educating white women and white people in general about the oppression they have faced. White feminist activists should prioritize stories like Nia Wilson’s instead of waiting for black activists to ask them for support. And when black activists encourage them to use their platform, white people should respond with genuine willingness instead of with their ego. “The Uses of Anger” aligns strongly with Cargle’s article, as Lorde states, “Oppressed peoples are always being asked to stretch a little more, to bridge the gap between blindness and humanity. Black women are expected to use our anger only in the service of other people ‘s salvation, other people’s learning.” White women’s rights activists should listen to Lorde’s words and work to educate themselves instead of waiting for black women to take on that emotional labor.

Women in Giovanni’s Room

As I read Giovanni’s Room, I could not quite put my finger on what Baldwin’s intentions were regarding Hella or his portrayal of women generally. In Go Tell It on the Mountain, he constructed well-rounded female characters and seemed to demonstrate an understanding of the difficulties women face regarding sexual relationships, childbirth, and motherhood. As a result, I had high expectations for his treatment of Hella in Giovanni’s Room, and I was puzzled to read Giovanni’s speech about women to David at the beginning of Part Two. Giovanni, probably due to jealousy, inquires about Hella and makes a number of broad generalizations about womenー what they want, who they are, and so on. 

“Nobody likes to travel, especially not women” (283).

“Women are just a little more trouble than I can afford right now” (284). 

“There is no need, thank heaven, to have an opinion about women. Women are like water. They are tempting like that, and they can be that treacherous, and they can seem to be that bottomless, you know?ーand they can be that shallow. And that dirty” (285). He goes on to say he possibly doesn’t really like women, but he still asserts he respects them… and that he used to beat them. All the while, he refers to Hella, a grown woman, as a “silly little girl” (285). When David defends Hella and her intelligence and complexity, Giovanni, who has never met her, describes her as a flighty busybody. Giovanni displayed absolutely no respect for women or for Hella during that entire interaction. Perhaps Baldwin wanted to display his jealousy, but the point of this scene still nags at me. I found it difficult to continue sympathizing with Giovanni after this part of the story. 

Finally, we meet Hella, and she gives her own speech about women. She explains to David how humiliating it is to be a single woman and having “to be at the mercy of some gross, unshaven stranger before you can begin to be yourself” (322). Here, Baldwin seems to understand that unmarried women during this time were sized up constantly by those around them, only being free once married, though that kind of freedom pales in comparison to that of a man. While Hella dislikes these constraints, she works within their confines to carve out a life for herself. Baldwin restores dignity to Hella’s character after Giovanni’s diatribe about her. 

I tend toward the conclusion that Baldwin is showing us all the complexities of Giovanni’s dynamic with David. His jealousy and the tension between the normative relationship of Hella and David and the same-sex one between David and Giovanni. I also recognize that this is a story of what it’s like to be a man, not a woman. 

Identity in Giovanni’s Room and “Montero”

“You live in the dark, boy, I cannot pretend,” sings Lil Nas X in “Montero (Call Me by Your Name),” a song about a same-sex relationship with someone who has not come out publicly. The content of the song and its accompanying music video center around the rejection of feeling shame about one’s identity, a theme that features prominently in Giovanni’s Room. David struggles with his attraction to men, his love for Giovanni, and the realization that he has to return to his fiancée soon. To escape these feelings and possibly to prove that he is attracted to women, he sleeps with a woman named Sue. As he has sex with her, he goes through the motions and refers to it as a “performance” (302). She asks to see him again afterwards, but he shrugs her off and “could scarcely bear to watch the struggle occurring in her face, it made [him] so ashamed” (303). In this scene, David, unlike Lil Nas X, can and does pretend to be someone he’s not, an experience that leaves him feeling unfulfilled and ashamed. 

When Lil Nas X sings, “Call me by your name,” he is encouraging his lover to feel comfortable around him in his identity, something that Giovanni wants from David as well. In class, Lan Ahn brought up the fact that every person in the music video, from Satan to the serpent, was portrayed by Lil Nas X. She asked if we think that has any connection to the theme of identity. I think it absolutely does. The “Other(ed) Americans in Paris” article describes the tension between the true self and the historically-determined self present in Baldwin’s work. In “Montero,” Lil Nas X is taking the version of himself society has createdーthe sinner who is going to Hellーand uses it to show them who is really is: a black queer artist who is not ashamed of who he is. David, in his relationships with Hella, Sue, and even his father, is attempting to be who society wants him to be: a straight, white, engaged man. His love for Giovanni interferes with that performance by revealing his true identity. 

A Tale of Two Sermons

In our class discussions the past two weeks, we have encountered two sermons, one orated by Jonathan Edwards entitled Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, and the other written by James Baldwin called “Down at the Cross.” While I did not initially view “Down at the Cross” as a sermon, I began to see the common elements of a sermon in Baldwin’s essay when Dr. Kinyon asked us to consider it in class. Baldwin tells two stories from his life and connects them to the Church, concluding with a call to action for African Americans to “do all in one’s power to change [one’s] fate” (Baldwin 346). He chooses words meant to stir emotion in his readers and cajole them to recognize how the Church can perpetuate white supremacy. For instance, he appeals to African American history, remarking how they have fought for so long against white supremacist institutions. He then becomes more specific by discussing how Black people in America “knew that the job had to be done, and they put their pride in their pockets in order to do it” (Baldwin 344). The Black people reading “Down at the Cross” would likely connect with Baldwin’s references to such shared experiences. He uses rhetorical questions and long, complex sentences that read as if Baldwin is preaching off the page about what America should be like and how we might try to better it. 

During her presentation, Theresa asked us to consider Sinners at the Hands of an Angry God, one of the most famous and influential sermons in American history that perpetuates the idea of a vengeful, rage-filled God. Baldwin’s sermon counters this notion by discussing the need for love in the Black Church. He writes, “People, I felt, ought to love the Lord because they loved Him, and not because they were afraid of going to Hell” (Baldwin 307). Edwards’ fiery language promotes fear surrounding the afterlife, saying that “the God that holds you over the pit of hell…abhors you” (Edwards). Instead of discussing a God of love, Edwards depicts one filled with hate. Baldwin’s sermon, which acknowledges the significance of love in the Church, proves Edwards wrong. 

Gabriel Seeing His Own Face in the Glass

In the preface of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde writes, “The nineteenth century dislike of Realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass. The nineteenth century dislike of Romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.” When I first read Wilde’s book and encountered these lines, I interpreted them in the context of Wilde’s time and never considered how they may apply to a work like Go Tell It on the Mountain until Dr. Kinyon asked us to contemplate them in class. I then realized that these lines explain the relationship between Gabriel and John. 

Gabriel is confused by his strange, intelligent son who reminds him of the white people he hates so much. As a result, Gabriel seems to hate John and treats him with anger. Gabriel’s reaction to John is the “rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.” Gabriel wants John to be like him, but instead, Gabriel sees in his son traits that he associates with whiteness. Like Caliban in this quote, Gabriel is upset to see the unexpected and lashes out. 

At the end of the novel, John undergoes his conversion, and thus becomes more like his father, a dutifully religious man. However, Gabriel does not respond to this conversion as you might expect, with pride, joy, and love. Rather, when John turns to face his father smiling, Gabriel does not smile back. Gabriel only thinks of being saved from his own sin. In this way, Gabriel demonstrates the “rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.” Finally, John is acting like his father and embracing the Church, but his dad remains unhappy. He is too consumed by the letter his sister Florence shows him. Gabriel refuses to accept what he sees in the glass, because it reveals the truth about himself and the child he fathered by cheating on Deborah. Whether it is dismay at seeing what he does not wish to see or distress upon seeing who he really is, Gabriel exemplifies Caliban as he looks into the glass. 

The Two Gabriels

Our class discussion on Wednesday made me more interested in exploring the connections between John’s father Gabriel in Go Tell It on the Mountain and the archangel Gabriel in the Bible. In one sense, both angels bring salvation to those around them. In the Bible, the archangel Gabriel tells the previously barren Elizabeth that she will have a son, who later becomes John the Baptist. Go Tell It on the Mountain Gabriel brings salvation to the life of Elizabeth by marrying her. Her boyfriend had passed away and she was left unmarried with a son. Gabriel saves her from a life as a single mother and the potential insecurity that might come along with it during that time period. This situation mirrors what Gabriel did for his first wife Deborah. She was barren and, as a result, had few prospects for marriage, but Gabriel married her when others would not. 

However, there are crucial differences between these stories as well. While Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a virgin and Elizabeth was married but barren when the archangel Gabriel appeared to them, Deborah and Elizabeth in Go Tell It on the Mountain had experience with sex and pregnancy. Deborah was sexually assaulted so violently by a group of white men that she physically could not have children, and Elizabeth gave birth to a child outside of marriage without ever telling the father. None of Mary’s purity or her cousin’s desperate prayers for a child exist in Baldwin’s narrative. With these biblical parallels in mind, it is difficult to understand Gabriel the character, who we see primarily through John’s eyes. John and his father’s contentious relationship seems to contradict this connection to Gabriel the messenger of God and deliverer of good news. An answer to this uncertainty may be found in the racism that impacts Gabriel’s life and loved ones in Go Tell It on the Mountain. Baldwin’s Gabriel is not perfect like the angel but that is because he has endured immense hardship that influences how he views the world and his son John. As Dr. Kinyon posited in class, John, with his unusual personality, may remind Gabriel of white people, resulting in their rift. While the biblical Gabriel reveals much about how Baldwin’s Gabriel brought a type of salvation to his wives, other areas of connection remain unclear. 

Baldwin’s Better Argument

In his essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” James Baldwin critiques Uncle Tom’s Cabin and makes a compelling argument for why it is a protest novel. He explains the dangers of its sentimentality and unrealistic characterization, and because of his strong rhetoric, I agree with his position. Baldwin outlines how Uncle Tom’s Cabin denies the complexity of the truth by focusing solely on convincing the reader that slavery is wrong. He details how the book fails to explain what motivated white people to commit such atrocities. In doing so, Baldwin provides strong evidence for his contention that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a protest novel and thus, is “forgiven, on the strength of [its] good intentions, whatever violence [it does] to language, whatever excessive demands [it makes] of credibility” (18). 

Baldwin’s essay only ever addresses Native Son in its final two pages. He gives himself very little room to support his claims with examples and to elaborate upon his comparisons, as he does with Stowe’s book. As a result, his assessment of Wright’s work as a protest novel is less persuasive than it could be, diminishing the strength of his argument. Baldwin alleges that Native Son is “a complement of that monstrous legend it was written to destroy” (22). However, he does not show us why that is. The only support he offers this comparison is his assertion that Bigger must “battle for his humanity” (23). In his view, this battle defines Native Son as a protest novel, since such works deny the humanity of its characters by adhering to the importance of their categorization instead. At that point, Baldwin ends his essay. He does not support his claim that Bigger is battling for his humanity, but rather assumes that point, and he fails to provide a reason why the existence of that supposed battle renders Native Son a protest novel. He writes that “we need not battle for [our humanity]; we need only… to accept it” (23). If Baldwin explained the difference between battling for humanity and learning to accept it; if he showed how Wright’s work is the former and not the latter; and if he clarified why the battle itself constitutes a rejection of humanity, then his argument would be improved. Instead, he leaves the reader with every opportunity to question it.