One Last Time…

For my last blog post, I wanted to write a short reflection on what I’ve enjoyed in this class, what I’ve learned, and what I will carry with me moving forward. 

I am grateful for my classmates’ willingness to be vulnerable and to be honest during the difficult discussions we have about race, violence, and discrimination in America. There were often moments in class where Professor Kinyon would pose a question and I couldn’t even begin to come up with a semblance of an answer, but there was always someone who was open to sharing their own experiences, and I learned a lot from them. 

On that note, I am grateful for Professor Kinyon for asking us difficult questions and pushing the boundaries of our perspectives on these topics. Thank you for always encouraging us to think about the nuances of every issue and giving us the opportunity to share them with each other in the classroom. 

Coming into the class, I knew nothing else about James Baldwin besides the fact that he was a Black writer who “moved” to Paris. Now, at the end of the class, I definitely agree that Baldwin’s life and work gave us a rich and complex lens to explore transatlantic discourses on nationality, sexuality, race, gender, and religion. In each unit, I found that there was always a narrative that I had not considered, or at least shied away from: whether it be the difficult discourse of purity culture in Christianity, internalised racial discrimination, queerness and migration, or the purpose of vulnerability in activism. These perspectives not only enriched my understanding of civil rights history in America, but also of race relations and connected issues across the world.

Moving forward, I would like to apply the same nature of purposeful and honest inquiry in the future classrooms that I might teach. I want to encourage students to dig deep to look at the real root of social issues, and examine how that affects the way we live our lives today. In the same way this class has fostered open dialogue, I want to create the same atmosphere of trust and mutual respect so that my future students can learn from each other, and I from them. 

Asian Hate and Anti-Black Racism

Content warning: descriptions of violence

In reading Audre Lorde, “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism” and Revolutionary Hope: A Conversation Between James Baldwin and Audre Lorde, there were moments that made me think of the discourse that has been happening between the Asian-American and the Black community in the U.S. in 2020 and 2021. Alongside the fight for accountability regarding the murder of Black Americans (Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor), there has also been a call for accountability toward hate crimes inflicted upon Asian Americans (61-year-old Filipino man Noel Quintana slashed in the face as he rode the subway in New York; 84-year-old Thai man Vicha Ratanapakdee shoved to the ground in San Francisco, resulting in his death) due to Sinophobic rhetoric from the media in the midst of COVID-19. Prominent Asian-Americans have taken to the internet to criticise the “lack” of media attention for these anti-Asian hate crimes, comparing it to the media coverage surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement by saying “Asian Lives Matter.” An example tweet of this sentiment reads “Those of you who were so vocal w BLM, where are you on the 1900% increase in Asian-directed hate crimes?”

The reason I bring this up is in this quote from Lorde’s The Uses of Anger: “Most women have not developed tools for facing anger constructively… There was usually little attempt to articulate the genuine differences between women, such as those of race, color, age, class, and sexual identity. There was no apparent need at that time to examine the contradictions of self, woman as oppressor. There was work on expressing anger, but very little on anger directed against each other.” In some Asian-American’s attempt to guilt-trip others into being as “vocal” about anti-Asian racism as much as anti-Black racism, they have unknowingly done what Lorde criticises Baldwin for in Revolutionary Hope, that is — assuming to know what the other groups lived experiences feel like. Asian-Americans who try to evoke guilt from the public for not giving the same response they did for the murders of Black individuals are refusing to “look at our differences and not allow ourselves to be divided” (Revolutionary Hope), and are contributing to anti-Black racism with their adaptation of the “Black Lives Matter” slogan and their erasure of Black struggles. On the surface, this sentiment of “we care about you, why don’t you care about us?” may seem harmless, like a cry for help, but in reality it trivialises equity and reduces the work of anti-racism into one that is purely transactional. It expresses a displaced anger that radiates dissatisfaction and jealousy, rather than solidarity and joy at the fact that movements like BLM have gained more traction in the public eye than ever before. It reduces injustice to instances of objectification, which is mentioned by Lorde in The Uses of Anger. The purpose of highlighting Asian and Black oppression should not be making people feel guilty, but should rather be a way for us to meet as peers “upon a common basis to examine difference, and to alter those distortions which history has created around our difference. For it is those distortions which separate us. And we must ask ourselves: Who profits from all this?” 

James Baldwin, Martin Luther King Jr., and Paulo Freire

Baldwin’s words and observations in The Dangerous Road Before Martin Luther King reminded me of Paulo Freire’s commentary on radical liberation in his work Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Interestingly, when I looked back at my notes from reading Pedagogy, I noticed that Freire had written it based on his observations from the period in which he was in political exile, which naturally made me think back to Baldwin and his self-imposed exile to Paris. I found that Baldwin’s observations on the importance of MLK Jr. as a figurehead had a lot of overlapping themes with Freire’s work, predominantly on the idea of a fear of true freedom, and how conformity, compromise, and complicity ends up hurting both the oppressed and the oppressor.

Freire emphasises that our identities as human beings cannot be fully achieved when structures of oppression that harm and exploit oppressed peoples continue to exist, since such structures actively work to dehumanise them. Freire also highlights that oppressed people can regain their humanity in the struggle for liberation, but only if that struggle is led by oppressed people, which is something that Baldwin observed: “King really loves the people he represents,” (639) and King’s congregation (and the larger Black community at the time) were in fact the ones who “had begun the struggle of which [King] was now the symbol and the leader” (643). 

Participating in structures of oppression may seem to benefit the oppressed at first glance, but Baldwin highlights how this is an impossible standard. “The white man on whom the American Negro has modeled himself for so long is vanishing. Because this white man was, himself, a very largely mythical creation” (657). To model oneself after a myth does not contribute to liberation of the self or of their people. Additionally, Freire highlights that the oppressor also dehumanises themself when they participate in structures of exploitation and oppression, since they begin to see others as simply a means to their own ends, and as objects to be used. Baldwin writes that “salvation, humanly speaking, is a two-way street” (647), and even though this was used as a description for MLK Jr.’s upbringing, I think it encapsulates this notion very well.

Oppressors see the freedom of those who they oppress as a threat to their power, but Freire also writes that the oppressed also fear freedom because it could mean letting go of or admitting where one has power over others, or abandoning a self that has been modelled around internalised structures of oppression. “People seldom give their power away, forces beyond their control take their power from them,” (654) writes Baldwin, but Freire takes this a step further by positing a solution: encouraging dialogue and self reflection on both sides, and pairing it with concrete actions. I thought of this when Baldwin praises Martin Luther King Jr.’s ability to make “it a matter, on both sides of the racial fence, of self-examination” (657).

Patriarchy As a Double-Edged Sword

Even though I have not read Madeleine, the similarities outlined by Baldwin between this work and Giovanni’s Room are hard to miss. In my last blog post and in my presentation about Baldwin and queer identity, I alluded to the idea of inauthenticity through David’s inability to accept his attraction and love for Giovanni, and I will expand upon this theme further in this blog post.

In “The Male Prison,” Baldwin writes that “it is not necessary to despise people who are one’s inferiors — whose inferiority, by the way, is amply demonstrated by the fact that they appear to relish, without guilt, their sensuality.” This reminds me of the way David resents Giovanni and how he sees Giovanni as someone who is inferior to him just because Giovanni has accepted who he was and who he loved “without guilt.” This could also be compared to the characters of Jacques and Guillaume, but for them it is not so much “sensuality” as it is power and dominance over others. In fact, for them, “it is impossible to have either a lover or a friend” (The Male Prison) because of the ways in which their wealth is intertwined with their masculinity, and how that affects their sexual and romantic encounters: “the possibility of genuine human involvement has altogether ceased.” Jacques says that his “encounters are shameful… because there is no affection in them, and no joy. It’s like putting an electric plug in a dead socket. Touch, but no contact. All touch, but no contact and no light.” When one does not examine how their masculine identities influence their relationships with other men, therein lies a double edged sword of dehumanising others and being dehumanised themselves. 

Men uphold toxic patriarchal values that end up hurting themselves almost as much as it hurts women. Baldwin writes in The Male Prison: “when men can no longer love women they also cease to love or respect or trust each other, which makes their isolation complete. Nothing is more dangerous than this isolation, for men will commit any crimes whatever rather than endure it.” David is unable to fully trust and love Giovanni because being with him reminds him of this prison of heteronormativity that he ensnares himself in, because to leave the prison is to leave the majority and be isolated. To leave the prison is to be “dirty” and live a life of shame. In David and Giovanni’s confrontation, Giovanni phrases this perfectly when he says “You want to leave Giovanni because he makes you stink. You want to despise Giovanni because he is not afraid of the stink of love.” When David is in the prison he cannot fully love Hella, but when he “endures the isolation” outside the prison to be with Giovanni, he still seeks the comfort and familiarity of the prison in which he grew up.

“But I’m a man,” cries David, “a man! What do you think can happen between us?” to which Giovanni responds “You know very well… what can happen between us. It is for that reason you are leaving me.” In the end, David cannot endure the pain of an authentic life. He cannot see Giovanni as a lover or a friend, and is afraid of him because he embodies the acceptance and authenticity that David views to be impossible for him to achieve.

Queerness & the Roles We Play

As I finished reading Giovanni’s Room, I reflected on David’s fixation on how homosexuality is perceived by the general public and by himself. There are moments in the narrative where David does not seem to be experiencing his own life, but rather observing it passively, as if watching a play. It is also obvious that there is a disconnect between what he thinks and what he feels, which leads him to lead a life devoid of authenticity. I wanted to look deeper into how Baldwin portrays this dissonance in David’s character, and to examine how David’s inability to “act out,” as it were, the role he wants to play, leads him further into isolation. David’s first sexual encounter with someone of the same sex happened when he was in America, and when he was still very young. In the description of the night he and Joey shared, it is described as a night of purity and joy, perhaps the only moment in the novel to do so: “we gave each other joy that night. It seemed, then, that a lifetime would not be long enough for me to act with Joey the act of love” (225). This was short-lived, however, since the moment that snapped David back to reality is when he remembered that “Joey is a boy,” and that filled him with fear. He immediately thinks of how others would perceive what had happened, (“I wondered what Joey’s mother would say when she saw the sheets. Then I thought of my father…) rather than how he had felt. In the shame that others might have placed on him, he made his decision to do what he thought was right, even though it did not feel right.

Additionally, I also feel like David’s identity is inextricably tied to the fact that he is an American living in France. His American identity is brought up often by the people with whom he keeps company, and is also a large part of any conversation he has with Giovanni. I think this is the reason why he observes the fluidity of gender and sexuality in Paris as something abnormal, since he was not exposed to it back in America, where he formed the majority of his identity as a man and his perceptions on masculinity. David is still holding on to what he considers to be “normal” in a society where he is the one with ‘abnormal’ (“queer for women”) preferences. When Giovanni asks why David won’t tell Hella about them, David reminds Giovanni that “people have very dirty words for — for this situation… Besides, it is a crime — in my country and, after all, I didn’t grow up here, I grew up there” (286), as if the laws of another country would reach him here across the ocean.

David often feels like he is being observed like a “zoo animal,” but at the same time he engages in the same act of judging others based on his own prejudices and stereotypes. When he, Giovanni, Jacques, and Guillaume leave for breakfast one morning, he observes how “everybody, without seeming to, is looking at us and [he] is beginning to feel like a part of a travelling circus” (262). The quote that made me want to write a blog post about this is on page 263: Guillame’s suggestion had the effect — but subtly, as though a wind had blown over everything or a light been imperceptibly intensified — of creating among the people at the bar, a troupe, who would no play various roles in a play they knew very well.” I could not help but think that this motion — of people settling into roles which they knew very well, roles that they knew they could (and to some extent, should) play — highlighted the inner turmoil that David feels throughout the novel, since it is his inability to do so that leads to Giovanni’s death and to his despair.

On the Human Institution of the Church

The conversations we shared during the presentation this week made me reflect deeply on how I experienced the different elements of religion in Go Tell It On the Mountain. I feel like the discourse around an angry/wrathful God, the commentary on love and prophethood, as well as the analysis of the deep and structural flaws of the human part of the Church continue to be relevant time and time again. 

In these conversations, I am reminded of the Vatican’s (somewhat) recent statement of refusing to bless same-sex unions, stating that God “does not and cannot bless sin,” even though many Catholics (including many religious leaders) have acknowledged the holiness of love between committed same-sex couples, and recognize this love as divinely inspired and supported, which therefore meets the standard to be blessed. Instead of focusing on radical love, the human element of the Church is overly punitive and rigidly exclusionary, which in turn further isolates individuals since the Church is supposed to be a reflection of God and His divine will. All the characters in Go Tell It On the Mountain are afraid of God’s wrath, of the day of judgement, and are quick to condemn others as a way to project the fear and shame they feel for not being God’s perfect servant. Every step they take and every action they carry out is weighed down by the all-knowing, all-judging eyes of God, and there is almost no room left for love since everyone is too focused on, for a lack of better word, not messing up. Every character is also weighed down by the judgement of others, who are always quick to find fault in other people’s actions, so it’s not just a theology of an “Angry God,” but also one of an “Angry Church.” 

I believe that this is Baldwin’s main argument against institutionalised religion — there is so little room for love, since everyone is so focused on “getting it right” rather than nurturing one another and practicing empathy. The profound sense of isolation that so many of the characters in this novel feel (John, Roy, Florence, etc.) is a result of the disconnect between the love they are taught and the hate they experience. Institutions are primarily interested in maintaining power and social influence (something we can see during Gabriel’s observations of the high priests), and that is best enforced through fear and judgement. Love requires accountability and mutual respect, and is a completely opposing force of power that would force change at a level so radical that the Church as we know it (and the Church that Baldwin knew) would become unrecognisable.

The father and The Father

When reading Go Tell It On the Mountain, I could not help but make comparisons that John makes between his father Gabriel and how he views God as the Eternal Father. John’s world is steeped in shame and hatred, and the force that holds these two emotions together in John’s heart is intricately tied up with his perception of his father and the Father. Every time someone praises John, his mind immediately goes to his father — of Gabriel beating him, belittling him, calling him ugly — as if he subconsciously thinks of his father in moments of praise to humble himself in some sick way. This is much like how church teachings would encourage God’s servants to humble themselves, especially when doing God’s work.

One could infer that John cannot feel God’s presence (or even refuses to) because his perception of God as a vengeful, unforgiving, unyielding being converges with how he views his own father, Gabriel: “John’s heart was hardened against the Lord… John could not bow before the throne of grace without first kneeling to his father.” (19) This comparison is deepened by the language people would use to describe familial relationships: “your Daddy beats you… because he loves you” (21) is akin to the trials and tribulations that God would bestow upon his subjects and servants, most prominently in the Book of Job. John lives in constant fear of his father and of God, and he is unable to understand what love would look like from either of them since he is only taught to obey and endure, and this battle of what he feels and what he ought to feel remains the driving force for the tension within Baldwin’s writings.

Wright’s “Native Son” and the Incarnation of a Myth

In the past few weeks, we as a class have been talking at length about the significance of Bigger’s presence and narrative in American literature and society. We talked about him being a product of society, and suggested that everything that makes Bigger “monstrous” is a result of the inescapable oppression which he faces in his daily life. It wasn’t until I read Baldwin’s essay “Many Thousands Gone” that I understood why Wright’s depiction of Bigger did not fully resonate with me and with this particular story. 

In my opinion, I align with Baldwin’s stance that details Wright’s descriptions of Bigger as “dehumanizing.” Bigger embodies the rage, the pain, the confusion, and the despair that Black individuals feel living in America, but in trying to emulate all of these emotions within Bigger, Wright reduces Bigger to a vessel of representation for everyone’s emotions and motivations but his own. “Bigger has no discernible relationship to himself, to his own life, to his own people, nor to any other people — in this respect, perhaps, he is most American — and his force comes, not from his significance as a social (or anti-social) unit, but from his significance as the incarnation of a myth.” Baldwin states this problem clearly — when a writer reduces a Black character into something that is purely made up of other people’s assumptions in these “protest novels,” it leads us all to “believe that in Negro life there exists no tradition” since they lack intrinsic individuality and are only able to feel emotions and think thoughts that have been imposed upon them. 

In framing Bigger’s life around the constructs and myths perpetuated by society, Baldwin writes that the nature of these protest novels “reject life,” since the driving force behind these narratives are caught in cycles of rage and oppression. “Within this web of lust and fury, black and white can only thrust and counter-thrust, long for each other’s slow, exquisite death… Thus has the cage betrayed us all.”

Capitalism & Communism: the Framing of Ignorance and Prejudice

In reading Wright’s Native Son, one could infer the implications of ignorance and prejudice related to capitalist views of society. In doing some research, I found that Wright himself was a part of the communist party, and that Native Son was published right after the peak of the first “Red Scare” in the United States, which in my personal opinion cannot at all be named a coincidence. In reading his novel, I believe that Wright’s intention was to utilise the communist party and its philosophies as a tool to contrast and highlight the faults of capitalism.

The two individuals who were either explicitly communist or associated with the party in some way (Jan and Max) are normally treated with prejudice and contempt, even if the points they raise and everything else about them fits society’s norms of what an upstanding American man would be (white, male, straight, good job). Additionally, any mention of the communist party is also met with instant hysteria and immediate distrust in the novel.

We can see an example of this during the trial, when Max questions Mr. Dalton’s decisions to make rent higher for Black people and tries to have him acknowledge that his “charitable” actions are done only to appease his white guilt. This is also seen earlier when Max confronts Mr. Dalton about his decision to send ping-pong tables to the South Side Boys club, exclaiming “Will ping-pong keep men from murdering? Can’t you see?… This boy and millions like him want a meaningful life, not ping-pong.” These examples highlight Mr. Dalton’s ignorance and blindness towards the motivation for his own actions, and how he is inevitably further and perpetuating the cycle of oppression by trying to solve problems with money and helping Black people in a way that still maintains his status as a white saviour. 

A way that Wright uses communism to highlight the flaws of capitalism is in Max’s discussion about why Bigger signed the ransom note with a communist symbol. Max explains to Buckley that Bigger signed the name of the communist party to the kidnap note because he “got the idea from the newspapers,” and because “men like [Buckley] made him what he is… He had heard men like [Buckley] lie about the communists so much that he believed them.” Max ends this point with “if I can make the people of this country understand why this boy acted the way he did, I’ll be doing more than defending him.” From this last sentence, the reader can see the influence of Wright’s political beliefs in positioning the communist party to consist of those who could see through the ignorant and prejudiced schemes of capitalism, and that they recognise the structural motivations behind actions like Bigger’s because they can see the structural inequities and prejudices that drove his actions.