Over the weekend, I witnessed an argument between my friends about the merits of Black students attending HBCUs versus PWIs. Many of the points made brought me back to James Baldwin’s short story, “A Fly in Buttermilk,” where he talks to G and his family about the experience of attending an all-white school. Baldwin writes, “I began to suspect that the boy managed to support the extreme tension of his situation by means of nearly fanatical concentration on his schoolwork; by holding in the center of his mind the issue on which, when the deal went down, others would be forced to judge him. Pride and silence were his weapons. Pride comes naturally, and soon, to a Negro, but even his mother, i felt, was worried about G.’s silence, though she was too wise to break it. For what was all this doing to him really?”(193) While some might argue that society has progressed and that the severity of racism Black students face today cannot compare to what G experienced, there is complete merit in the observation that learning can be much more difficult when one is uncomfortable, isolated or misunderstood. While all Black students are not the same, it can be argued that being the first or the only can create a tense or difficult learning environment. When there is a lack of understanding or relatability relative to teachers, administrators, and even fellow students, it can negatively affect learning. Rather than being immersed in the subject matter, these students can be preoccupied with understanding, fitting in, and not being ridiculed. Learning environments are critical to information share and retention. While the discrepancy in education levels G saw between his two schools is much greater than the differences between HBCU’s and PWI’s, when one thinks of “elite” institutions, HBCUs are rarely included. This leads to a few questions. Is there a discrepancy in what is being taught? Can HBCUs help Black students thrive because they’ve eliminated the distraction of isolation? Should Black students explore PWIs even if there’s a tangible price to pay academically and or socially? Should the best and brightest Black students attend HBCUs to bolster these critical centers of learning? In fairness, it would seem that many of the answers are dependent on an individual’s preference. A blanket approach would underserve many. The fight should be to grow the population of college attendees—information and education seekers—above all else. These are a series of difficult choices and considerations. As we discussed in class, segregation and integration have both resulted in additional challenges for Black people in America.
To judge David Baldwin through a 21st-century progressive lens might seem easy and evoke a universally negative response. Living with him was extreme, difficult, and abusive. He consistently beat his children, had many of them, and clouded his sins with forced religion. However, the short stories, “A Fly in Buttermilk” and “A Letter From the South” give important and needed context to David’s world. They give the reader an opportunity to see further into the circumstances that created David’s decisions. He was born and raised in the South during very difficult times. These short stories help the reader attain a better understanding and even empathize. While hard to endorse what David did, his history and circumstances need to be examined to understand his actions. Reading them certainly allowed me to pause in my harsh judgment and try to put myself in his shoes, in his environment.
In the beginning of “A Fly in Buttermilk”, James Baldwin reflects on a discussion he had with an older Southern man: “”You’ve got to remember,’ said an older Negro friend to me, in Washington, ‘that no matter what you see or how it makes you feel, it can’t be compared to twenty-five, thirty years ago – you remember those photographs of Negroes hanging from trees?’ I look at him differently. I had seen the photographs – but he might have been one of them.”(187) While a true student—extremely wise to the ideas, thoughts, and emotions of Black people in history—James Baldwin was still missing the greatest and most authentic tool to capture the true essence of his people: Experience. While James Baldwin saw pictures in journals or articles and read books about the experiences of Black people in the South, James Baldwin never lived that reality firsthand. There is a difference between seeing the two-dimensional black and white photo of an incident versus seeing it in color, hearing the screams and sounds of torture, smelling the flesh and burning, and witnessing the depravity and fear. Being immersed in the event in real-time was different than the stories. David likely had similar real-life experiences as the older man. And we can likely surmise that these experiences had great influence over how he would live his life, raise and “protect” his family. In “A Letter From the South” Baldwin writes, “I could not suppress the thought that this earth had acquired its color from the blood that had dripped down from these trees…I was to remember that Southern Negroes had endured things I could not imagine.” (198) Baldwin acknowledges the constant and unjustified killing of Black people in the South with no recourse – almost as if it was an accepted way of life. Growing up in that environment had to have a massive effect on the definition of abuse and on how to raise a family in the “right” way. James Baldwin had heard about the stories of Emmitt Till’s murder because of the allegation of whistling after a white woman in Mississippi. However, he only knew of this through the national media attention that it garnered. It was not a common nor widely accepted practice in Chicago. The regular occurrence of lynching —without retribution— had become part of the post-Emancipation terrorism that Black southerners endured regularly. Young people had to be affected by that type of evil behavior and made decisions as a result: fleeing home because of minor infractions, leaving loved ones, changing names, raising children in strict households, having many children just in case of premature death. While it can be argued that David Baldwin does not deserve our sympathy, we do not have the luxury of his viewpoint. He, in fact, may have created this strict, oppressive environment to save his children from the fates of those he witnessed while growing up in the South. There is some honor in his ability to execute a plan to create a family that could survive into the next generation.
While the history curriculum taught in school has been fixated on the overarching themes that map Martin Luther King Jr.’s character, insights into what truly made him extraordinary are harder to find. The “I Have A Dream” speech has been continuously referred to, studied and recited as a signal of his incredible ability to convey meaning and emotion just through words. However, this truly unique talent was honed over many years in Black churches and in front of Black audiences. Martin Luther King Jr. was able to influence and connect with listeners in ways others could not. He was, in fact, gifted in this area and led to his ability to change lives.
In “The Dangerous Road Before Martin Luther King”, James Baldwin begins the essay with a deep examination of a Martin Luther King Jr. Church service. Church in the Black community was a staple. It was a place of refuge, fellowship, renewal, inspiration. In many cases, it served as a refueling station for the battle – a place to hold one over until next Sunday as one endure the constant fight of being Black in America. Preachers attempted to serve congregants in the best ways possible but also knew the suffering first hand. Martin Luther King Jr. truly brought something different to the struggle of his churchgoers. When Martin was preaching, he brought something different to his audience. Martin embodied the plight. He held himself on the same plane of struggle with the congregation and thus could truly walk with and inspire them. Baldwin knew something was different. Baldwin describes the “joy” within the church: “The joy which he filled this church, therefore, was the joy achieved by people who have ceased to delude themselves about an intolerable situation, who have found their prayers for a leader miraculously answered, and who now know that they can change their situation if they will.” This was a condition that could only be found when love, strength, and community were mixed together for an end cause. Martin’s preachings transcended the constant pressures placed upon the people by the outside world. The congregation was not simply receiving the sustenance to go another week but was receiving the strength and ability to believe that their situations will be altered. He gave them tangible hope. He gave them a roadmap to a better life. The ability for Martin to relay the ideas and hopes of change inside his congregation provided the groundwork for his public appearances and famous speeches.
Additionally, the importance of James Baldwin’s description of Martin Luther King’s congregation is poignant and informed. He was no amateur listener. As the stepson of a preacher, Baldwin attended many sermons but did not find the love he hoped to get from the church. The constant themes of judgment and punishment turned Baldwin away from the Church of his youth. However, in King’s Church, he saw that love filled the air. Love was an essential ingredient in the inspiration that Martin provided for his people, and it showed. He cared for all those who heard him and provided a message that lit a spark in all those that listened. Through this love, he was able to help his congregants, his community, the world fight for a better way.
Though seemingly completely different characters, Baldwin connects Jesse from Going to Meet The Man with David from Giovani’s Room with precision. Both protagonists fall exceedingly short of Baldwin’s goals in the same way – the inability to love.
The Latin-derived name Grace means “Gift from God”. This element is important as it connects to Baldwin’s biblical intent. It also exacerbates Jesse’s inability to love. Jesse, consumed by his hatred of Black people, cannot love his wife emotionally or physically. In fact, his hatred for African Americans does not allow him to actually love himself or his own people. He is jailed by his hatred of Black people and it manifests in sick ways. Not only does the abuse and mutilation of Black people bring him joy, it defines who he is. His hatred was taught to him by his father and the society at large. Family gatherings and community events center around the lynchings of Black men. The hate is so ingrained in him that he cannot actually love. His hate consumes even his most intimate acts. He can only have relations with his wife when he taps into hate thoughts—memories of lynchings and the abuse of Black people. Jesse’s fixation on Black male genitalia can be interpreted in multiple ways. It could be argued that it signals his hidden homo erotic nature. It could be viewed as pure fascination with an opposite. It could be viewed as study of the power dynamic that Jesse seeks to make up for his short comings. His desire for power can be found in his jealousy of his “enemy’s” maleness. It speaks directly to his insecurities.
In Giovanni’s Room, David—like Jesse— has a relationship with a woman where he attempts to tap into the perceived “heterosexual” power. There is a status that derives from David’s ability to revert to his normative relationship whenever he pleases. This allows him the ability to have loveless encounters with Joey and eventually Giovanni. He holds the power in all relationships with gay men because he can simply fade and downgrade the relationship, thus never having to offer his love, affection, vulnerability. However, Baldwin argues that both characters are fatally trapped – Jesse’s all-consuming hatred and David’s lack of emotional commitment—both disabling them from love. Jesse can never truly develop a relationship with God because he lacks the most important key to establishing that relationship. Hate consumes him so much that there is no room for love. David tries to be perceived as being more powerful in his homosexual relationships because he can always run to the other side. In truth, Baldwin demonstrates he’s not. Giovanni holds the power as he expresses his love to David without fear of the outside world. Giovanni is able to remember the time when he was in the Garden of Eden when he had a normative relationship and was happy, and he is able to forget that Garden of Eden as he dives fully into a homosexual relationship where he looks to love as well. He is a true hero, according to Baldwin. Love is priority number one for Baldwin, so one’s ability to be “manly” should be demonstrated in one’s ability to love, not who they love.
“Perhaps everybody has a garden of Eden, I don’t know, but that seems to have made so little difference. Perhaps everybody has a garden of Eden, I don’t know, but they have scarcely seen their garden before they see the flaming sword. Then, perhaps, life only offers the voice of remembering the garden or forgetting it. Either, or: it takes strength to remember, it takes another kind of strength to forget, it takes a hero to do both.”(239)
This passage clearly illustrated Baldwin’s ability to offer insights into biblical stories in his own unique and authentic voice. These thoughts come after Jaques makes the statement that “Nobody can stay in the garden of Eden.” In the case of many of the characters in this story, including James Baldwin’s own life, there is a moment where innocence was lost. Similar to the story of Adam and Eve, the realization and knowledge of their nakedness suggested sin and led to their ejection from the Garden of Eden. This theme was continued in Baldwin’s writing – the realization or knowledge of one’s homosexual nature rids them of innocence. It suggests evil forces are in play and leads to the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. By definition, Eden is paradise, free from the devil, and serves as protection for all those who remain in it. Showing any traits of homosexuality, especially for Baldwin and particularly at the time this book was written, meant serious punishment. Baldwin’s religious upbringing taught him that homosexuality was a sin and that he would face God’s banishment for those thoughts. Additionally, the outside world provided a similar condemnation as those who were openly gay faced a violent homophobic society as well.
Whether there is a religious belief in the Garden of Eden or not, it is regarded as a sanctuary where only conformists to the rules are allowed to enter and stay. To declare oneself as gay means to self banish from the Garden. The idea of willingly abandoning that Garden of Eden—the “paradise” that comes from still being able to hide under normative sexuality—takes incredible courage. Baldwin’s struggles are alive and well in our society today. In his latest music video, the artist Lil Naz X, seems to have put this concept on full display. His ostentatious imagery depicting, in essence, his embrace of his expulsion from the Garden is what has caused an enormous amount of attention of both supporters and critics. This struggle with separation is something that Jacques seems to pick on David about. David’s queer identity leaves him in a state of limbo. Manhood, in traditional society, is directly tied to one’s ability to be straight, manifested through a relationship with a woman. In a scene where Jacques and David are at a bar, and Jacques is trying to get the attention of Giovanni, he says, “I was not suggesting that you jeopardize, even for a moment, that’ – ‘he paused’ – that immaculate manhood which is your pride and joy.”(244) Jacques says this in response to David’s admittance that he is attracted to women. David’s struggle with his sexuality is important because we can see him battle – it is almost as if he has one foot in and one out of the Garden. He is not wholly ex-communicated from the Garden as he can go back home to Hella and be in a normative relationship. However, he is not entirely in because he has an attraction to men, an attraction he does not want to fully admit, as seen by his treatment of Joey and all his second-guessing with Giovanni. The concept of the Garden of Eden usually brings comfort and aspirational behaviors. However, for many who are true to themselves, it can be a place one must demonstrate incredible strength and courage to bypass.
“Other(ed) American in Paris: Henry James, James Baldwin, and the Subversion of Identity” by Eric Savoy addresses a provocative subject matter particularly on the subject of identity. On page 338, Savoy notes, “If knowledge of self – self as implicated, situated subject, but simultaneously as ‘other’ and therefore as resisting agent – is the goal of Henry James and James Baldwin, then ‘identity’ is a dangerous word to describe that goal. Whereas Baldwin and James construct their examinations of self in terms of contraries and doubleness, ‘identity’ posits sameness: the sameness of a person at all times or in all circumstances.” In “Go Tell It on the Mountain” the topic of identity and knowing one’s self are focal points in understanding the characters of each novel. However, the analysis of the word “identity” makes one delve deeper into the appropriateness of the word in its use of defining the characters.
According to Savoy, if the understanding is that identity is found in a person’s sameness, John has none. John is an outsider in almost every environment he exists in and as a result, he cannot have a sameness or an identity with others in the novel. John, although a son and a brother, is not the same as his other siblings at home. John is not the son of Gabriel and is treated differently, but he feels the pressure to act differently than his siblings. Whether it is the difference between his baby picture and his siblings’ or the hatred he sees in his father’s eyes when he looks at him, he knows he is not the same. At church, John outwardly lives up to his father’s name and tries hard to forge an identity centered around the dedicated work of the son of a preacher. However, internally, John is far from that salvation. John struggles with seeing the light. Between the hypocrisy he sees in the teaching of the Lord versus his father’s actions or God’s role as an executioner and nothing else, John is not “at home” in the church. Although physically with his family and fellow churchgoers, John is not in unison or in sameness with them as even after he is “saved” he cannot find the spirit in his soul that he awaited to bring him closer to God one day. Finally, John could not find a home accepting of his sexuality. John’s first sin of masturbation was inspired by the thought of older boys in the bathroom. His family’s religion taught him that homosexuality was a clear sin. It was introduced and promoted as a reason for which God would strike him. This again left him with a void of identity. Savoy’s piece outlines Baldwin and James’ frustration with the American failure to recognize otherness. John’s life is a manifestation of that reality.
The essentially autobiographical “Go Tell it on the Mountain” allows the reader to examine and relate to the true thoughts and emotions that shaped Baldwin. Several elements draw distinct comparisons between James and Jesus the Messiah. To start, the book itself begins with the protagonist’s birthday. Although it isn’t his actual day of birth, his 14th birthday symbolizes his start of puberty and the beginning of his consciousness, manhood, and realization of who he is. This is very similar to the beginnings of two gospel stories in the Holy Bible that describe Christ’s nativity and “birth”. Furthermore, both Jesus and the protagonist are assisted by a “Gabriel”. In Jesus’ case, the angel Gabriel came down to tell Mary, Jesus’ mother, that she would have a divine child. He delivered the news that out of her virginity, she would give birth to a child of the Lord. In class, we studied a marble statue that interpreted the concept of Gabriel’s delivery of the message that Mary would be impregnated with the seed of God. Gabriel was the messenger that predicted Jesus. In “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” Gabriel is portrayed as a stepfather, and while his seed did not produce the protagonist, his urging of John to embrace Christianity and get saved, allowed John to become the person he would be. John’s desire to please his family and follow in the ways of God truly shapes his thoughts and motivations. However, because he never truly feels the spirit that he anticipates coming when giving oneself to God, he views Christianity from a removed, third-person view. This enables him to recognize and speak about the hypocrisies. James Baldwin uses this knowledge and vantage to apply to his analysis of Black Americans. Additionally, in the biography of James Baldwin that was studied in class, it was only because James had been “saved” that his stepfather allowed him to stay in high school and cultivate his academic prowess. Without his education, he would not have the tools necessary for success. Lastly, both Jesus and Baldwin suffered for their beliefs and for the salvation of others. The Christian understanding is that Jesus suffered for our sins. The suffering element is important as humility is found in the time spent suffering. While Christ had to suffer, he did so to testify for humanity’s sins and to save them. Throughout the story, it is clear that John is suffering. Whether it is his sexuality, the sin of his masturbation, his treatment from his father, his outward appearance, Christianity in general, and his ideas of white people, John is constantly in turmoil. But “John” endures this in order to be able to testify for his people. Without the struggle and experiences of his childhood, he would not have been prepared to speak with credibility about the lives of Black people in his adulthood. His road destined him for service to others.
The dynamic between stepfather and child is very interesting as people argue that many stepfathers develop the need to erase that seed from the equation. While that can explain John’s hatred from his stepfather, the nature of John’s personality is directly attributed to his mistreatment. In class, we discussed how “love” was expressed in the time this book was written and before. Love was expressed in a parent’s desire to keep their offspring alive. So the beating of good behavior into one’s child was a love language expressed by the parent. Gabriel was the apple of his mother’s eye, and although Gabriel constantly did wrong and received the belt as punishment, the bond was built he was beaten out of love and care. This is similar to Gabriel’s relationship with Roy. While he does plenty bad, Gabriel beats him constantly, but it cultivates the love he has for his child.
Even more so, Gabriel sees himself in Roy. No matter how Holy he believes he walks, he knows deep down inside that Roy represents everything that Gabriel did. And because of that, he hopes to force-feed Christianity to his son in a similar fashion that it was given to him. However, this cannot work with John. John, who is revered by everyone else in the church and whoever interacts with him, seems to be walking the path of a “Saints” son. But John’s often silence, intellect, and sexuality have allowed him to view his father and the religion he has been taught, from an outsider’s lens. John knows he’s an outsider, “He longed for a light that would teach him, forever and forever, and beyond all question, the way to gogo for a power that would bind, him forever and forever, and beyond all crying to the love of God.”(76) He hoped to belong to the religion of his stepfather, but he senses a disruption. One that allows him to see the hypocrisy in his father’s words and actions, one that causes him to shrink from the spotlight of his people, and one that forces him to question and be critical of his teachings daily. Gabriel can’t teach John the way he wants to, for John, in many cases, is already brighter than Gabriel, and he’s not about to let his heir not come from his loins.
In “How Bigger was Born” Richard Wright effectively uses his protagonist to express his views on the larger society. Through character development, Wright is able to comment and message on the world as he sees it. For example, Bigger’s study of and connection to fascist movements across the world stood out. Wright grew up and wrote during an era where fascism was on full display. He would have been a child during WW1 but a grown man during WW2. The debate around the effectiveness of governments and regimes would have been in full swing. Because Bigger studied and commented on its effectiveness, means Wright used his protagonist to explore polarizing topics. Bigger wanted to be powerful, he wanted to be in control of his life, he wanted to matter. Naturally, he sought out examples. And while it may be abhorrent to admire these fascist leaders, especially through today’s lens, what Bigger and possibly Wright saw were men who were feared and effective.
After reading and processing this part of the origin story, Bigger made a lot more sense to me. Whether it was Bigger 2, whose hardness was directed toward the whites in the South, Bigger 5 who rode the streetcars and sat wherever he pleased, or Bigger Thomas who gazed up at the planes in the sky knowing his ceiling would never reach that high, there was a clear understanding that there was a larger life at stake. But other than a few fleeting moments, these Biggers were, for the most part powerless. The small acts of rebellion, while feeding their need to fight back, could not do much to change their situation at large other than land them in and out of the prison system.
The attraction to and admiration of the Hitlers and Mousillinis, therefore, seems natural. They “did Things”. The Biggers of the world, knowing there is more to life, are angry and frustrated by being subdued in their environments. They gravitate towards those who can effect change. Bigger’s attraction to a leader stems from the deep desire for change but the lack of opportunity to do so. It is through this vantage that I see the parallels to Malcolm X. Malcolm Little was an aware, frustrated, angry young man with few options. He, like Bigger, landed in jail. From there, he fashioned the tools and skills that would lead him to prominence and a place where he could effectively advocate for change. Young Malcolm grew up poor and endured many of the same racial tensions and racist encounters as Bigger. Thus, in their youth, they both turned to a life of crime, neither having the ability to give their inner Bigger a productive outlet. However, the key difference is that Malcolm X was introduced to a platform that allowed him a prism to project his Bigger. His intelligence and leadership abilities were not wasted – he had an incredible impact on Black lives, on the Civil Rights movement, and on American and global culture. Because Malcolm was “found” and cultivated, he could put his gifts to work. Arguably, Bigger Thomas was a decision or two away from having a different path in life. The larger question is how many Biggers do we have today rotting in our prison systems or on the streets, unable to share their gifts with society. How many Malcolm’s are yet to be discovered?
The crazed, bipolar, and volatile exterior Bigger fashions for himself is methodically designed to hide his insecurities. Bigger is completely controlled by the multitude of fears that dominate his life. For example, Richard Wright describes the hatred that Bigger has toward his family, “He hated his family because he knew that they were suffering and that he was powerless to help them”(10). Subsequently, he provides the reason why: “He knew that the moment he allowed himself to feel to its fullness how they lived, the shame and misery of their lives, he would be swept out of himself with fear and despair”(10). Bigger’s disdain for them stems from his fear of poverty and failure. Arguably, this is a common narrative for those attempting to defeat poverty’s confines: they use this fear of failure to push and drive them forward. However, Bigger is incapable of doing this. Bigger chooses to bury his fear deep into his soul, reconfiguring himself to act hard and lash out to protect his fear instead of facing it. He feels powerless to defeat the confines of poverty, resulting in him refusing to take job opportunities. Bigger’s is resigned: “Goddammit, I’m always broke” (13).
Bigger struggles with the decision of either taking the job or continuing to live the way he does. “Yes, he could take the job at Dalton’s and be miserable, or he could refuse it and starve” (12). It could be argued that there’s not really a choice as both paths lead to pain. This decision that Bigger is faced with is familiar to those living in poverty. Empathy is required before the judgment of Bigger as poverty, fear, and avoidance of it shapes many actions. In some cases, these choices may not seem logical. Some may be designed for short-term gain and escapism. In my Intro to Social Problems class last semester, we focused on wealth, poverty, and inequality. In a reading directly applicable here, the author stated, “You gravitate toward those that can make you feel special for however long that single experience may be and not worry about any future effects“. Although not healthy for him, the gang that Bigger runs with provides that much-needed companionship that he seeks. His ability to laugh genuinely because of the shared experiences of those around him, is essential to his well-being. He’s keenly aware that this would be sacrificed by taking the job. The author of the article also mentioned, “Poverty is bleak and cuts off your long term brain”. For many in poverty, the ability to dream and look forward is not feasible. While logic might suggest Bigger should take the job, the needed community of those with his same shared experiences of suffering is more powerful. He doesn’t have the will to break away from the tough, but predictable life he knows. The comfort of staying in the place he knows around the people he knows is a path of less resistance. The alternative, working for a white man in a white area of town brings its own set of anxiety and fears. The only opportunity to dream of a path towards a longer-term, better life is done through the movies he watches. The movies are his escape; however, what he sees on the screen is not accessible to him. The life he wants to live is seemingly only accomplished and lived by white people. Once again, he is deterred from this desire to think big, leaving him to suffice his desires by living day-to-day.
Bigger is severely impacted by his fear of poverty and the mindset he has developed due to this. Bigger’s experience is not unique and it speaks to a broader challenge. The energy he has put into hiding and denying what he goes through leads to his volatile actions. His fears control him, and his actions constantly look to take some control back, leading him down bad paths.