Final Thoughts – Barbaza

I have thoroughly enjoyed this class and the content in it, but my favorite aspects were the discussions we had and how difficult they were to broach at times. Baldwin has long been one of my favorite writers, but I hadn’t read or understood much of his writings on Civil Rights and sexuality, so experiencing those taught me a lot. It was even more enlightening to hear our class’s thoughts and reactions as we moved through the content together. 

The main takeaway I got from reading Baldwin and other contextual works was nuance. Baldwin has a habit of stripping away all pretenses and getting to the heart of the sickening, dark, internal thoughts and feelings people have and talking about them in a, I guess human, way. Baldwin talked a lot about self-love and acceptance, and his gospel of love made regular appearances in his work, but in order to fully understand self-love he had to dive into the deepest recesses of self-hatred. Baldwin’s ability to experience, feel, and communicate multiple conflicting views and feelings simultaneously is simply astonishing.

Personally, this class was difficult for the express reason that it made me face things I’d rather not talk about. And, with no intention of pretense, I am very good at talking about difficult things. I am a straight, white, man. I had my reserves the entire semester about opening my mouth at all on the topic of race, gender, or sexuality. I personally think expressing my opinions about race draws attention away from people who actually need to be heard. But I understand my role a bit better now, especially after reading Baldwin’s essays The Price of the Ticket, My Dungeon Shook, and Nobody Knows My Name. So here. Acknowledging my privilege was not the most difficult part. I’ve known and talked about that for a while. Acknowledging my ignorance was also not the hardest part. Admitting I was and am guilty about those aspects of my life and identity, and that I am often blind to true action because I’m worried about them, is high on the difficulty chart. But hardest of all was admitting my deep-seated love for horrible things. I have tried to pick and choose aspects of the South that I love and hate, but they are all tied together and I am inextricably bound to it. I have tried to distance myself from the bad things. I do not mean to say those bad things must be accepted themselves, but they must be accepted as part of an identity. The same feeling applies to my family, to relationships in my life, to the morals I try to live by, and to myself. It seems dangerous to be proud of an identity so flawed, but I think now that it is far more dangerous to repress that identity, lest it manifest in more unhealthy ways. 

Talking about this didn’t make it any easier to accept, but it did make it easier to understand. And for that, I am incredibly grateful to be in such a messy, complicated, nuanced, and tough conversation. Thanks y’all.

No Name in the Street 

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

A Different Approach: Anger and Guilt

I was most struck by the connections Lorde draws between anger and action, as well as between anger and guilt. Lorde rightly calls out many instances of white people’s, women’s in particular, reactions to her anger and the stereotyping of “angry black females”. She points to their distancing from her “tone” and how she expresses her frustration with racist systems. This rings true with the Civil Rights sentiment that the white liberal is the most dangerous threat to Civil Rights. Only sympathetic but distanced people pressure Black activists like Lorde to water down her message and accept contritions, and I’m really glad Lorde refuses to cede ground on this point among women. 

Lorde quickly moves into talking about guilt and how her anger is meant to prompt action, not invoke guilt. Yet the response to her anger is often guilt and here, Lorde falls very much in line with Baldwin’s previous accounts of guilt. She claims that guilt and silence perpetuate racism and ignorance because people are more worried about their own conscience and security. Lorde and Baldwin seem to approach the same problem from different directions. While both see guilt in the White community as one of the main inhibitors to change and progress, Baldwin argues that the key to this is universally to accept oneself and love oneself. Lorde takes a different tone, arguing that guilt is reactionary and often used as a shield to protect oneself from change. It is used as an excuse to do nothing and simply feel bad. This is the other side of the same coin of white sympathies. Feelings, but ultimately useless. Lorde finds anger more natural and more spurring, and I think a combined approach of Lorde’s heat and Baldwin’s love would be the most effective over time. 

There was one other thing that stood out to me, which is Lorde’s statement that “anger between women will not kill us”. This struck me as particularly profound and somewhat indicative of the social differences between men and women. Anger between women is something Lorde views as healthy because at least the anger is being expressed and not repressed. While I make no arguments for men repressing emotions, anger between men definitely will kill us. Whether that anger is directed at a system, at oppression, or a personal vendetta, men fight over it. I do not think that makes men or women more or less deserving of empathy, but it is an interesting difference where patriarchal society is impressing the idea that anger in women is outwardly dangerous but anger in men is socially accepted. The double standard is obvious, and it is a veritable triple standard in regards to women of color.

Nobody Knows My Name: A Letter From the South 

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

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

MLK/FBI: James Baldwin and Civil Rights

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

My Final Blog Post

As I reflect on this class, the many readings I have done, and the various blog posts I have written, primarily on the work of James Baldwin, I am happy to see how I have grown as a writer and have grown in understanding the complexities of race, sexuality, and identity throughout literature. 

From beginning with Native Son and exploring the character of Bigger Thomas to reading the multiple representations and renditions of James Baldwin that he presents in his essays and books, one common theme is present. Throughout all of Baldwin’s works, there is a complex exploration of identity and a demonstration of the profound impact that societal norms, prejudices, and expectations of individuals have on that identity. Baldwin’s perspective on the societal issues of race in America, homosexuality, identity, and more serve as a powerful lens through which I can now view many of the complexities of race, sexuality, and the human experience outside of his works. Although Baldwin’s perspective on society that is seen in his work is one from long ago, many of the topics he covered and the insights he provided are still extremely relevant today. I am glad that Baldwin’s writings continue to serve as a timeless guide, sparking crucial conversations about social justice, equality, diverse identities, and the ongoing struggle for human rights. 

I am not going to lie, before this class, I had no clue who James Baldwin was and what his contributions were to the world of literature and social commentary, especially concerning the Black experience. However, through the pieces we read, I found myself immersed in Baldwin’s writings and found myself captivated by all of the things Baldwin had to say. As our class comes to a close, I feel as though I have a much richer understanding of James Baldwin. During the semester, oftentimes I failed to comprehend the things I read and failed to connect what we were reading to the larger picture but now, things make a lot more sense. 

From grappling with the character of Bigger Thomas to dissecting the relationships in Giovanni’s Room, each of Baldwin’s works taught me something new. I am glad that this class has expanded my understanding of literature and expanded my appreciation for Baldwin’s intricate storytelling and the layers of meaning embedded in his work. 

Northern Attitude

How’s the foreigner?

Blair, Gabriel is from North Carolina. That’s in the United States.

Not by choice. Let me remind you of a little thing called the Civil War.

Gossip Girl, Season 2, Episode 23.

Every year in the days preceding Thanksgiving, my hometown friends and I get together to watch reruns of our favorite television series, Gossip Girl. Half engaged in a conversation with the group and half paying attention to the show, I turned my full attention to the screen when I heard the conversation (quoted above) taking place between two of the main characters, Serena and Blair. In this moment, I was instantly reminded of our discussion in class on Monday about assumptions made about the North in contrast to the South, and, more specifically, my own biases against the South. Though Gossip Girl is by no means the most academic example of Northern antipathies towards the South, I was struck by this random episode’s coincidental relevance to our discussion of this very theme in James Baldwin’s Nobody Knows My Name. It is worth noting that, while my judgements of the South are undoubtedly primarily a product of my upbringing in the North, it is clear that they have been reproduced and reaffirmed by various forms of media, making this supposed North/South divide even more pronounced, widespread, and, ultimately, concerning. 

Despite all our efforts in the North to present racial bigotry, discrimination, and violence as “unique” to the South, James Baldwin reminds me that we are guilty of the same problems in the North. In “Faulkner and Desegregation,” Baldwin insightfully captures the relationship between the North and South in writing, “The North escaped scot-free. For one thing, in freeing the slave, it established a moral superiority over the South which the South has not learned to live with until today; and this despite– or possibly because of– the fact that this moral superiority was bought, after all, rather cheaply. The North was no better prepared than the South, as it turned out, to make citizens of former slaves, but it was able, as the South was not, to wash its hands of the matter” (213). I find the phrases “moral superiority” and “wash its hands of the matter” to be especially appropriate in describing the North. Not only do we often express disdain for the South’s history of racism with a paternalistic tone but we also consider ourselves to be absolved of any similar sin. In doing so, we ignore the gentrified neighborhoods like Hyde Park in Chicago that push low-income Black residents into unsafe and unsanitary public housing, police brutality resulting in the murders of Black people like George Floyd in Minneapolis, and mass incarceration of Black men like my Inside-Out classmates at Westville Correctional Facility in northwestern Indiana. This reality is further evidence of Baldwin’s contention that “the racial setup in the South is not, for a Negro, very different from the racial setup in the North… Segregation is unofficial in the North and official in the South, a crucial difference that does nothing, nevertheless, to alleviate the lot of most Northern Negroes” (203). Baldwin emphasizes that racism is thus an American problem, not one contained to the South, as much as Northerners, myself included, would prefer to think (for the sake of our consciences). How can we ever move forward as a country if White Americans, no matter where they live, deny the long and continuing history of denigrating Black people?

Baldwin and the Family

While reading No Name on the Street, I found the way Baldwin talks about his family to be very interesting. Baldwin has talked about his family a lot in his past essays, as well as hosting unique family dynamics in books such as Go Tell it on the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room so similar to his own.

Baldwin writes, in some of the few opening lines of the book, ”I was so terrified of the man we called my father; who did not arrive on my scene, really, until I was more than two years old.” I feel as though this adds to the ongoing view of Bladwin’s family. In Go Tell it on the Mountain, seeing as Roy and John were not related by blood and had an stiff animosity that surrounded them. It is an overall on going relationship inside of Baldwin’s books/essays. With No Name on the Street sort of touching on the Civil Rights movement, it made me think to another reading that I did in another class.

In that class, we talked about the effects of slavery on the black family. For example, the last names were taken away from the mother and children because fathers would typically be sold for the highest bid and were highly unlikely to see their children again. In this sense, the woman were expected to care for not only their children, but the children of their masters as well. They then become the maters property, stripped of their heritage and roots and most importantly, their name. They did not have the power to continue on having the family that they might have had in their home, they had to all live with the fact that they (black slaves) were not their own anymore. This set a course for the matriarch inside of the black family. Mothers and children were typically kept together and in turn, a sense of the mother only family became widely accepted. Today though, we hear about how more often it is the mothers choice or fault to be the one who raises the children alone. Baldwin writes ‘I knew – children must know – that she would always protect me with all her strength. So would my mother, too, I knew that, but my mother’s strength was only to be called on in a desperate emergency.’ Baldwin is talking about his Grandmother and his mother in this line and I feel that you ge the sense of the importance of the matriarchy in this line.

In another section, when Baldwin visits his friend, he writes ‘This was no revealed by anything she said to him, but by the fact that he said nothing to him. She barely looked at him. He didn’t count.’ Granted, this was another view of the stepfamily that Baldwin had. I just found it to be interesting that Baldwin almost defends his friend by saying ‘I always think that this is a terrible thing to happen to a man, especially in his own house, and I am always terribly humiliated for the man to whom it happens.’ I find this interesting because of how Baldwin typically writes about the fatherhood relationships in his books and essays as a negative. This is almost making me question if in other of his works where Baldwin mentions he hates his father, does he truly just find unjust father/son relationships to be wrong, or in the case of his friend and the stepdaughter, did he just find the lack of respect to be wrong.

The “Angry Black Woman”

While we have talked a lot about race and Blackness this semester, one specific group of individuals within that discussion that we have not touched on is Black women. Just like Black men, Black women have faced many, even more, challenges to achieving racial and sexual equality and their stories and voices are just as important.

Audre Lorde was a key figure in the Black feminist movement that sought equality and liberation for Black women. In her essay “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism,” Lorde explains how during the Black feminist movement and the Civil Rights Movement, women responded to racism using anger. Lorde writes, “Women responding to racism means women responding to anger; anger of exclusion, of unquestioned privilege, of racial distortions, of silence…stereotyping, misnaming,” and more (Lorde, 1981). For Lorde and many other Black women at this time, anger was the only response that would be productive to their activism and their fight. Black women faced a unique set of struggles because they were disadvantaged by being Black and were disadvantaged by being females. Nevertheless, they were able to challenge the systemic inequalities and prejudice they faced, not only pushing the boundaries of the Civil Rights Movement but the Feminist Movement as well, advocating for their unique equality and justice as Black females. Through anger, Black women were able to defend their rights and demonstrate the seriousness of their struggles. Furthermore, because Black women were denied equality, rights, and justice even longer than Black men were, they had anger built up in them that would be strategically used when they would eventually advocate for their liberation. Black women “have lived with [their] anger, ignoring it, feeding upon it, [and] learning how to use it,” and it was, in fact, used against “oppressions, personal and institutional, which brought that anger into being” (Lorde, 1981).

When reading Audre Lorde’s essay, I could not help but think of the stereotype of the “angry Black woman” and how perhaps that stereotype was derived by instances like this where Black women were forced to use anger to elicit some sort of response and change that focused on their inclusion and equal rights. I find the stereotype of “the angry Black woman” to be quite demeaning. Even in the context of Lorde’s essay, using such a stereotype is done in an attempt to undermine Black women and the sacrifices they have had to make to fight for their rights and justice. It almost is like labeling a Black woman, when she tries to express her disdain for the challenges she faces in society and when she is trying to liberate herself, as an angry Black woman is a form of silencing her and many other women’s voices which is what the anger, the Black feminist movement, and more aimed specifically not to do.

It is sad to see that no matter how hard they try, Black women and their valid emotions are often dismissed and their experiences are not given the full recognition and empathy they deserve. Audre Lorde’s essay is incredibly insightful in seeing why anger is necessary for Black women to use as a response to the racism and sexism they confront. Unfortunately though, not many understand the role and significance of anger in the activism of Black women and how essential it is in their work towards fighting oppression, inclusivity, and more.

Old Wounds and Southern Pride

Aside from the usual prose and profundity, Baldwin’s Nobody Knows My Name left me even more surprised than usual due to the simple fact that a Northerner somehow depicted the South more accurately than most Southerners can. Baldwin’s account missed a couple details, but in general, his understanding of Southern nature is incredible. 

Baldwin describes many aspects of the south that are still overwhelmingly true today.  Details like Black communities in Southern cities are situated on the far side (usually East side) of the train tracks are still relevant in every Southern city I have been to. In Durham, you can walk down the railroad tracks with high-rises on the left and projects on the right. It’s the corner of E Main St and Angier Blvd, conveniently where the police station sits. That corner is also where two of my dad’s students got shot when I was twelve. 

Baldwin also accurately recounts how pointless Southern education feels, and some forty years later this is what I remember from my school. All of the boundaries, mostly from money which is inherently tied to race in America, meant that all that time studying was useless. Even with a greater emphasis on college and going to higher education, a lot of people didn’t see a point. Anyone who got out alive and with a plan was either lucky or privileged. So much of what Baldwin talks about is still very much the case in Southern cities. 

Eerily, Baldwin described the status quo in the South perfectly. If I were to pick a single detail about the social structure in the South, it would be the status quo. Nothing ever changes meaningfully, it’s all about keeping the peace and keeping things quiet. Baldwin describes this as dealings between the Mayor and the wealthy Black community, each playing the game of ceding publicly but resisting privately. In my hometown, the status quo is maintained by the police and the gangs. Shootings happen weekly, especially on the East and North side, and there’s no backlash, no action from the police. The Durham Police keep most things under wraps, they monitor the “dangerous areas” and they throw their weight around, but never publicly enough to incite any more than a few people. And if the shootings get bad enough or if they cross that line on Angier where the police station sits, then the raids start, the public action, the media broadcasts and the investigations. Just the way it goes. 

But aside from the city descriptions, education, and status quo, the thing that stood out to me the most was Baldwin’s understanding of Southern nature. He touches on this most in regards to Faulkner and how Faulkner’s idea of a middle-of-the-road approach is nothing more than wishful thinking. Baldwin’s objections to this are as always pertinent, and a lot of the well-meaning, older white men I know take the middle-of-the-road way. As Baldwin rightly points out, this is emotionally dishonest at best. At worst, it is a middle-ground between hatred and love, which is ultimately ridiculous. But Baldwin gets to the very heart of the matter when he says, “Men who knew that slavery was wrong were forced, nevertheless, to fight to perpetuate it because they were unable to turn against ‘blood and kin and home’” (213). This might seem dramatic at first but there is nothing more accurate of a Southerner than this. That does not mean that Southerners weren’t motivated by hate, fear, and racism, we absolutely were, and are in some cases still. But it adds an extra layer as to why the South is the way it is. Because a Southerner will always choose blood and kin and home. Even if that Southerner hates their kin and home and disagrees with all of it, nothing is more important to a Southerner than home. That is still relevant today, in the people I grew up with, the people I worked with, and in myself. There is something about being a Southerner that means being resigned to suffer for home, that I have yet to see elsewhere. 

And I don’t think most people understand this, or understand why it leads to Southerners hating the North so much. Cause we still do. I say we because as much as I would like to distance myself from that hatred, I am still part of the culture I was raised in. I don’t think the North understands how much the South still hates it. As Baldwin writes, “The North was no better prepared than the South, as it turns out, to make citizens of former slaves, but it was able, as the South was not, to wash its hands of the matter,” (213). Southerners still see the North as condescending, uncaring, lazy, and corrupt. Because even though the South was wrong (which it definitely was/is), Southerners will take being wrong, being hurt, or being dead, over revoking their home. And the North destroyed our home. Rightfully so, again, I am not qualifying or trying to reclaim any morality in the South’s positions throughout history, there is no morality in this pride. This pride does not justify anything. But it exists. Because as much as I hate what my home stands for, hate what it has done to me and the people I care about, I would still die for my home. And that notion allows for so much ignorance, hatred, manipulation, and stubbornness to be overlooked, all in the name of home.