When I first saw Lil Nas X’s shoes on Twitter last Saturday evening (and then watched his music video in class on Monday), the first thing I thought of was John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Famously, William Blake, a Romantic poet, wrote that Milton was “of the Devil’s Party without knowing it.” The Romantics, and, according to Blake, Milton himself, had a particular fascination and even admiration for Milton’s depiction of Satan in PL. In Paradise Lost, Satan, the character first introduced in the epic, is appealing, attractive, and interesting in the opening books of the work. Milton gives the fallen angel some of the best lines in the epic, including the saying “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heav’n.” In this quote, Satan attempts to accept his reality rather than lament his fall from heaven. This attempt resonates with Lil Nas X’s approach to the music video of “Call Me By Your Name.” Seemingly, Lil Nas X accepts his reality and his identity in this music video, coming to terms with the notion that he is not “heaven-bound” from the perspective of many Christian denominations.
In James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin emphasizes this same acceptance of reality and identity as Satan and Lil Nas X. Though Baldwin would never willingly associate homosexuality and sinfulness, he shows through Jacques that the acceptance of identity, even an identity that may be condemned by society, is a necessary step toward self-love and love of others. As David considers what do with his initial attraction to Giovanni, Jacques advises him to “Love him and let him love you” (267). He continues by asking, “Do you think anything else under heaven really matters?” (267). Like Milton’s Satan, Jacques tempts David to eat the apple; he convinces David to commit the “unholy” act. Yet the rest of the text shows that it is not the act that is unholy but David’s unwillingness to love Giovanni fully and allow Giovanni to love him back. In Baldwin’s mind, the sin is trying to maintain a false sense of identity that prohibits loving anyone fully. In other words, David attempts to bite the apple and then put it back on the tree rather than accepting his identity. Baldwin poses the argument that homosexuality cannot be unholy if denying it and trying to hide it causes such destruction as when David denies it. If it is in fact better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven, the worst situation is trying to live in heaven when you can only find love in hell. Just like Baldwin’s critique of religion, his central argument in Giovanni’s Room is love. Even if others view that love as Satanic or worthy of the fires of hell, the love of self and, from that, love of others gained through accepting one’s identity is the only path to heaven anyway. Love is the only thing under heaven that really matters.
One of the biggest problems with the Black church is its fascination with punishment. You “stray” from the path God set for you and you are punished. You sin and you are punished. You make a mistake and you are punished. Punishment. Punishment. Punishment. There is little reprieve from the idea that we are all set for a fiery end if we do not live life in a way of Godliness.
Alongside this idea of punishment is the idea that you have to suffer. You have to suffer to get into heaven. God is testing you through your suffering. Satan is causing your suffering so he can tempt you. Many Black churches preach that to live in the way of Godliness is to suffer and if you are not suffering, then something is wrong.
I believe so much of this comes from the fact that Christianity was pushed and forced onto the enslaved. To make people comfortable with their own suffering during slavery, preachers taught that suffering was necessary to make it into heaven. A focus on punishment is such a Christian thing. Forgiveness plays a big part in so many other religions and it is just not seen in many Christian churches.
So when you have this fascination with punishment and suffering, you have this intersection where “sinners” are supposed to suffer the most and yet still get punished. And When a “sinner” is not suffering or does not seem to be being punished for their sin, people get up in arms. If you are happy and you are deemed a “sinner”, people will do anything to see that happiness destroyed and they will go out of their way to make you suffer as they do.
Which is weird because it is very clear that you are not supposed to cause harm to other people in the bible. You are supposed to love your neighbor. Yet, because people are so obsessed with suffering and punishment, no one is deserving of love. You see this kind of play out in Go Tell It on the Mountain where characters are constantly looking for love. I wrote about this before but it is really a weird thing where you do not see love in some Christian families because people have to earn love by being as holy as they can. Even when they are holy, they are still undeserving.
If Go Tell It on the Mountain was somewhat about James Baldwin and his faith, Giovanni’s Room is about his sexuality and all the complications included when one starts the journey of embracing their sexuality. Having left America, like so many other writers, Baldwin settled in Paris to escape American Society. Even though he didn’t set the novel in America, the American view of homosexuality and the guilt and shame that others attribute to it comes vividly throughout the first couple of chapters.
From the onset, the readers can see David struggling with his masculinity, self-acceptance, guilt, and everything in between with a lot of self-loathing. What was at the forefront was the focus on gendered expectations that David hinted at. After having his first sexual encounter with Joey, David describes being overcome by fear and realizing that Joey was a boy. He then states: “that body suddenly seemed the black opening of a cavern in which I would be tortured till madness came, in which I would lose my manhood” (226). David is internalizing the conventional notions of what it means to be a man (here, one can’t fault him, he was only a child, and this is what he learned), making it difficult for him to come to terms with what occurred, himself and his masculinity. Because he associates manhood with heterosexuality, he feels that his attraction to Joey is wrong and indicates some failure: “how could this have happened in me” (226). From then on, it seems like David was running away from his sexuality — from being mean and cruel to Joey to proposing to Hella and even to him lying to himself when he hangs out with Jacques. Through these relationships, Baldwin is attempting to show how difficult it can be to deviate from stereotypical norms of manhood and womanhood.
I find it interesting that some of the themes that we saw in Go Tell It on the Mountain still continue throughout Giovanni’s Room. The same loneliness that we see in John is apparent in David — though for different reasons. I have a feeling that it also exists in Giovanni but I haven’t read that far along just yet to make that claim.
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.
This week’s presentation on James Baldwin and Religion really got me thinking about community. As our lovely presenters shared with us this past Wednesday, Baldwin argues that some community-like aspect is integral to love. After all, John’s transformation throughout Go Tell It On the Mountain is largely dependent upon the people around him: Elisha, who guides John through his encounter with the “power of the Lord,” and Gabriel, who introduces John to organized religion in the first place, are each necessary components of John’s final metamorphosis from a position of self-loathing to the imperfect beginnings of self-love. (I’d argue that this transformation is more of a bildungsroman than a true religious epiphany, but that’s a post for another time.) In a way which directly opposes Richard Wright’s depictions of a solitary, isolated Black experience, Baldwin argues that humanity is bonded across all of its differing races and creeds through oppression, and that this collective suffering is important to the achievement of holiness and the attainment of love.
Now, I know that this is a class concerned with Baldwin’s commentary on the Black condition, but I can’t help but feel like a lot of these ideologies are applicable to the current Stop Asian Hate movement as well. In case anyone didn’t know, 2020 saw a 1900% increase in anti-Asian violence. The past few weeks, my Instagram has been inundated with all the relevant statistics and rebuttals of commonly held Asian stereotypes—specifically, the “model minority” myth, which perpetuates the idea that Asian-Americans, through years of hard work and perseverance, have transcended the socioeconomic barriers they once faced and now enjoy a position of relative wealth and success. This argument is problematic for several reasons: it inherently pits the Black and Asian communities against each other in its insinuation that the struggles of Black Americans stem from a simple lack of effort (read: “Black people are lazy and Asians are not”) when, in reality, Asian-Americans simply do not face the same depth of discrimination that centuries of slavery and systemic racism have inflicted on countless generations of African-Americans; it also further marginalizes an already-marginalized demographic of impoverished Asian-Americans who do not enjoy the aforementioned wealth or success attributed to their race.
It is the latter which I find particularly pertinent to our discussions of community and love. We’ve talked extensively about Baldwin’s criticisms of the overly simplistic white-as-oppressor/Black-as-oppressed narrative, as well as the weird American obsession with creating a Black/white binary which discounts the existence of any nonconforming parties (we discussed this in relation to the US Census on the first day of class). The model minority myth erases the racial injustice that so many Asian-Americans continue to face and exacerbates the perceived proximity to whiteness that, according to the racial binary in place, casts them as oppressors rather than oppressed and thus inhibits any opportunity for solidarity with other racial minorities. To synthesize this with Baldwin’s assertions that we are bonded through our mutual oppression and that only through our acknowledgement of this shared experience can we truly learn to love each other, I’d argue that stereotyping Asian-Americans as flourishing, contributing members of society thus alienates them from other communities of color. In masking a history of suffering and racial violence which should unite Asian-Americans with fellow BIPOC, we instead estrange them from other victims of racism. And so, not quite white but not quite un-white, we condemn millions to racial limbo where, denied community with their fellow man, they wait, loveless, for absolution.
For more information on the model minority myth and historical context surrounding the relationship between the Black and Asian-American communities, please feel free to check out these links(!):
Rae’Vonne focused on the idea of stranger-hood in Black America and how Baldwin was a stranger himself, both in America and within his family, struggling with his queer identity as well as his Blackness. This discussion reminded me of an idea I had come across while doing an assigned reading in a gender studies class. In Black Feminist Thought, Patricia Hill Collins describes the social location of Black women in America as outsiders-within. Specifically, she cites their historic position as domestic workers as endowing them this status. Black women were brought into the most intimate spaces of their white counterparts, giving them the ability to see, hear, and know everything that went on in these households. They were nearly insiders in terms of their accessibility to the private happenings of the white family life, but they would never be considered such as they were Black women being exploited economically for their work. Thus, their Blackness made them the “perpetual outsider[s]” (PHC 11).
I feel as though PHC’s analysis of the Black woman’s position can be applied to all Black people in America today. Collins quotes Alice Walker stating “the gift of loneliness is sometimes a radical vision of society or one’s people that has not previously been taken into account” (PHC 12). I think, in a sense, all Black people within this country experience this loneliness–or as we have labeled it, stranger-hood–that makes them remarkably aware of their position as oppressed in society.
As we have discussed in class, white people do not have to know Black people. They can go their entire lives without more than a few shallow conversations with a few Black individuals–if even that. Black people on the other hand have no choice but to know white people. They live in a white world run by and for white people. This is what makes them, and what made Baldwin, the outsiders-within, and by extension, this is what gives them the ability to see clearly how society operates to their disadvantage. I think this loneliness is what allowed Baldwin to become the ‘prophet’ that he saw himself as and that John became in GTIOTM.
This has been a recurring question throughout my reading of Go Tell It on the Mountain, Down At the Cross, and more generally in reality. While the Bible articulates that God will be the final judge of all humanity and all individuals, most people have unanswered questions and predictions about their own fate and others’ fate. A capacity for judgment exists in all humans, and Christians believe that the Bible provides moral guidelines to inform one’s judgment. Commandments are the first guidelines that come to mind, but also included in the Bible are stories about consequences humans face for not following God’s word. Humans have expanded upon the judgment terms offered in the Bible and instituted their norms, behavioral expectations, laws, and moral codes, many of whichChristianity and countless other religions heavily influence. These guidelines for human behavior result in consequences for those who do not meet them, such as discrimination, prejudice, and oppression, to name a few.
In Go Tell it Own the Mountain, which is a semi-biographical account of James Baldwin’s life and struggle with his identity and religion, John wrestles with questions regarding his fate because he did not fit within the confinements of the norms for his faith and society. Because Christian views on non-heterosexuality have always been divided and prejudicial, like his characters John, Baldwin struggled to meet his family and society’s expectations as a Black, gay man. His identity as a gay man did not align with common Christian religious teachings about morality and salvation. As a result, Baldwin not only faced judgment and questions about his access to salvation from broader society, but he also had many internalized fears about his fate throughout his life. In Down At the Cross, Baldwin writes of the contention between the Christian message of love and notions of judgment “And the passion with which we loved the Lord was a measure of how deeply we feared and distrusted and, in the end, hated almost all strangers, always, and avoided and despised ourselves (310).” Baldwin resented the religious confinements common Christian teachings impose. He considered these teachings to promote hate, and self-resentment, all problems that deeply affected him.
I was very moved to learn that Baldwin had Amazing Grace played at his funeral. It represents an acceptance of himself and his declaration of his own salvation and determination of his fate. While the Bible teaches that God is the final judge, it is clear that humans can make their own determinations about their fate despite ultimately not knowing the result. Baldwin pushed against narratives of prejudice, discrimination, and overall societal oppression that often stem from going against societal norms. His refusal to allow others’ judgments to determine his final judgment of himself is most inspiring.
“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 two protagonists in Go Tell It on the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room struggle with their queer identity and experience shame over their attraction to men. However, John’s anxiety is focused on his own moral salvation, while David’s sexuality impacts the men he interacts with and is culpable for any loss of their innocence. The Church portrays homosexuality as a temptation and fears gay individuals will lead the young and naïve into a life of wickedness. However, despite John’s feelings toward Elisha, we don’t see any signs that he fears he will corrupt Elisha. Elisha is older, bigger, and stronger than John, and could never be considered vulnerable to John in any way. Elisha is put in a position of high authority and is described as steadfast in his faith and incorruptible. John does not worry about his impact on Elisha’s holiness and only “wonders if he would ever be holy like Elisha was holy” (11).
John sees Elisha’s religious determination when he is reprimanded for walking with Ella Mae and John wonders, “Had he sinned? Had he been tempted?” as if such a notion was impossible (15). After the physical interaction between the pair, Elisha asks “I didn’t hurt you none did I?” showing that John is the weaker of the two and Elisha does not have to fear him physically (51). The sin John wrestles with is masturbation– an independent act that leaves only his salvation at risk.
This changes in Giovanni’s Room and we are introduced to themes of corruption and the queer guilt of hurting someone else. While John only masturbates to the images of men, David engages in sexual acts and we see the impact this has on his struggle with homosexuality. After his first sexual encounter with a man, he only feels shame when he sees “[Joey] looked like a baby” (225). While John holds no power over Elisha, David is very aware of the power he has over Joey: “I was suddenly afraid. Perhaps it was because he looked so innocent lying there, with such perfect trust; perhaps it was because he was so much smaller than me; my own body suddenly seemed gross and crushing” (225).
David feels his sexuality is monstrous, not specifically because he fears going to hell as John does, but because he fears the power and the mystery of his body and Joey’s. Baldwin opens his novel up to many queer spaces and many queer characters; some are described as wicked and some are seen as innocent. David reflects on this innocence and says, “It’s true that nobody stays in the garden of Eden” (239). I’m curious to see this theme of innocence continues with the rich older men that take advantage of the younger men and their financial vulnerability and the crime Giovanni will eventually be found guilty of.
In “Down at the Cross,” the part where James Baldwin tells his father that his Jewish friend “is a better Christian than you are” really stuck with me during my initial reading (CE 308). I feel like there are a lot of people who identify themselves as Christian but fail to recognize what is one of the most important principles of Christianity: to “love thy neighbor.” This brings to mind the difference between following the letter of the law (taking what is written in the Bible literally) and following the spirit of the law (working to understand the underlying messages in the Bible). I would guess that David Baldwin was much more of a “letter of the law” kind of man based on how James Baldwin wrote the character of Gabriel in Go Tell It on the Mountain. Gabriel (David) seems to care a lot about his image in the church and about doing whatever will make him appear to be a holy man, but the lack of love and kindness he has for his son, whether that be because of John’s (James’s) sexuality, his intellect, his illegitimacy, his friendships with white people, or a combination of these and other factors, shows just how much he does not understand the most basic tenet of Christianity. David cannot get over his own pride and anger, so he takes it out on others instead of treating them with the love and compassion that the Bible demands of Christians. I think David Baldwin needed a reality check in that just because he considers himself a “holy man,” this does not make him a good person; one does not have to belong to a certain religion or claim a specific identity in order to live a good and virtuous life. She can still attempt to “love her neighbor” even without thinking about it from a Christian perspective, and I think that the effort and actions matter more in this case than the specific reasoning for that effort.