In “Down at the Cross” and in the film I Am Not Your Negro, there is a complex discussion and presentation of what it is like being Black in a predominantly white society. In “Down at the Cross” especially, there is a clearer image of Baldwin’s views and critiques of white supremacy concerning “the Negro Problem.” When Baldwin began to explore the Black and Negro experience and the issues of race and identity in the United States he noticed that Black people were openly weeping about the oppression they faced yet they were “unable to say what it was that oppressed them except that they knew it was ‘the man’ – the white man” (Baldwin p. 298). Baldwin called this a “terrifying single-mindedness” (Baldwin p. 297). I believe using the phrase “terrifying single-mindedness” underscores the depth of Black people’s feelings about their inferiority and what it is like to live in a world that debases them. It suggests that the determination and intense focus of the Black community to combat their white oppressors is frightening and extreme and to Baldwin, very unsettling.
In this critique of the way Black people navigate white positions and power in America, I found that Baldwin was denouncing the Black experience by suggesting that their intense focus on achieving their goal and liberation was terrifying. The white culture and white superiority that dominates society has and continues to limit opportunities for many Black Americans. Whites reinforce and perpetuate the stereotypes and disadvantages of Black Americans by not only basing their identity on black inferiority but by maintaining their power and superior societal position so that Blacks cannot reach their status and so that they can maintain theirs. There are so many other things related to issues of race in the United States that support this argument. For example, as was shown in the film I Am Not Your Negro, the killings and beatings of Black men, police brutality, intentional discrimination and segregation, and more which all persist today. I feel as though this is more terrifying than the “single-mindedness” of Black people seeking equality and liberation.
I cannot agree with Baldwin’s view of Black individuals operating on the knowledge that it was the white man who was oppressing them as a “terrifying single-mindedness” (Baldwin p. 297). White people have treated Blacks horribly, and Baldwin has demonstrated this therefore in my eyes, I think Black people are justified in separating themselves from the whites that have separated themselves from them for so long and have the right to be so extreme in their goal to seek liberation and equality from the white oppressors. While the importance of being partial is definitely a great thing for society, which Baldwin appears to be stressing in “Down at the Cross”, promoting the idea to the Black community that what they feel about the white man, their desire to separate, and their unwavering dedication to freeing themselves from their oppressors are single-minded and terrifying, in my opinion, diminishes their experiences and their objective.
Baldwin’s On Being White and Other Lies and The Price of the Ticket left me with more questions than answers. I come from a mixed line of Irish and Filipino, but I’ve always called myself white. Upon coming to college, I joined the Filipino-American Student Organization, and my friends there encouraged me to embrace more of my ancestry. But I always came back to the question: what right did I have to claim my Filipino heritage? Baldwin seems to fundamentally disagree with that question. Baldwin bluntly states in On Being White and Other Lies that “White being, absolutely, a moral choice (for there are no white people)” (canvas document, pg 4). The claim that whiteness is a moral choice stems from the reasoning that being White means to choose safety and assimilation. To subjugate identity and subsequently accept an oppressive society for the purpose of subjugating everyone else. But Baldwin goes much further in The Price of the Ticket when he writes, “The price the white American paid for his ticket was to become white…I know very well that my ancestors had no desire to come to this place: but neither did the ancestors of the people who became white” (pg 842). I know this is true because all I remember of my Irish grandmother is how she pined for Galway. And the paintings on my wall of the Philippines from my great-grandfather’s memory. Reading Baldwin changed the question in my mind: why did I claim whiteness? In doing so, I inadvertently relinquished my heritage for the prospect of fitting in.
Furthermore, Baldwin offers a much deeper understanding of systems when he discusses politics. Baldwin states that “This necessity of justifying a totally false identity…has placed everyone now living in the hands of the most ignorant and powerful people” (canvas document, pg 3). The dissection of the political atmosphere, of which everyone has grievances of varying degree, struck a similar note as a section of a reading from a separate class. Donella Meadows’ Thinking in Systems points out that the respective purposes of individual people or groups may add together to form a system that does not match anyone’s interests. Thus, economic interests, corruption, capitalism, self-serving protection, and poor support for recovery can result in a society where crime and drug addiction are difficult to combat (Meadows, pg 15). Baldwin does an excellent job of pointing out a similar vein in systemic racism: “Those who believed they could control and define Black people divested themselves of the power to control and define themselves” (canvas document, pg 4). The action of “white” people to control Black people causes them to become White, in what Meadows’ labels as a feedback loop. White people rise by forcing Black people to sink. The similarities of systems are strange but ultimately convey one of the reasons racism is so extremely woven into American society.
On Wednesday, the groups presenting on Baldwin and Civil Rights posed the following questions: How are our identities related (Black vs white, male vs female)? Are they interdependent? How so?
In our recent class discussions, we have considered the question: what is the cost of whiteness?
To me, the answers to these questions are quite similar.
In Bodies That Matter, Judith Butler states the following: “Th[e] exclusionary matrix by which subjects are formed requires the simultaneous production of a domain of abject beings, those who are not yet ‘subjects,’ but who form the constitutive outside to the domain of the subject…This zone of uninhabitability will constitute that site of dreaded identification against which–and by virtue of which–the domain of the subject will circumscribe its own claim to autonomy and to life. In this sense, then, the subject is constituted through the force of exclusion and abjection, one which produces a constitutive outside to the subject, an abjected outside, which is, after all, ‘inside’ the subject as its own founding repudiation” (xiii).
In this excerpt, Butler is describing what it means to exist as a queer, trans, gender nonconforming individual, but I believe her understanding of these unlivable conditions also apply to being Black in America. She describes an articulation of a norm here as inextricably linked to the creation of the abnormal. In fact, she extends this to say that the existence of what is normal is actually reliant upon what is abnormal. Applied here, and in response to the original question posed by this group, I might ask: what would it mean to be Black in a world void of whiteness? Blackness fortifies the regulatory norm of whiteness. Whiteness cannot be without its direct opposition to and distance from Blackness–the abjected, unlivable, uninhabitable position in society. Thus, what whiteness costs is Black lives. Butler may say that the privilege of whiteness makes the site of the materialization of Black bodies devalued and endangered–quite literally not just figuratively, as we see everyday in our society.
I think Baldwin would agree with this application of Butler. I think he would understand Black bodies as abjected in society, as never existing as the subject but only as the nonsubject that grants the subject livability.
One of the things that stuck with me from our discussions this week – in a horrific, searing kind of way – was that of the post-mortem treatment of whiteness and blackness. We see this most precisely in Mary and Bessie, who, because of their differing races, face significantly different care post-mortem. During the courtroom proceedings, Wright chooses to include an explicit objectification of Bessie’s body in service of a white woman’s justice.
Bessie is neglected in life and in death. She explains the social death that characterizes her life to Bigger; she exists solely to work for white people and the white-benefitting systems that oppress her. Bessie’s neglect within the text is authenticated by Bigger, her rapist and murderer: his “eyes widened. He had not thought of Bessie but once since his capture. Her death was unimportant beside that of Mary’s; he knew that when they killed him it would be for Mary’s death, not Bessie’s” (Wright 304). He forgets, again, later on: “He had completely forgotten Bessie during the inquest of Mary” (Wright 331). Bessie’s social death is ignored during her life with Bigger, yet is corroborated in her actual murder by the same person. Not only is Bessie’s own death completely neglected as deserving of justice, but it is further demoralized when her body becomes a spectacle within the courtroom. “They were bringing Bessie’s body in now to make the white men and women feel that nothing short of a quick blotting out of his life would make the city safe again…Though he had killed a black girl and a white girl, he knew that it would be for the death of the white girl that he would be punished. The black girl was merely evidence” (Wright 331). Bessie’s “bloody and black” body is objectified by the coroners/judge/lawyers in justice-seeking for Mary. Bessie, then, is raped twice in death: once by Bigger after her social death, and yet again by the white public and courtroom, after Bigger has murdered her (Wright 331). Mary’s body, contrastingly, is burnt, in a near-cremation. Her corpse, thus, is free from post-mortem objectification. She carries freedom even in death.
This notion becomes further convoluted because a black body is being used to prosecute a black body. In other words, Bessie’s body, as black, becomes the proof of which to prove male black monstrosity and secure white justice. Bessie becomes an exhibition, for the eyes and cameras of the white people, whom she felt had killed her in social death long prior. An exhibition, in which she would have “resent[ed]” (Wright 331). When viewed through the lens of film critic Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”(1975), the female body is fetishized to displace anxiety of the male spectator. The mechanism by which we view Bessie’s post-mortem body is dissecting, dehumanizing, and objectifying. All processes of which continue in service of racism and whiteness.
When reading Native Son and coming across a character like Bigger, I want to feel empathy. I want to understand his plight and the way that his life as a black man in 1930s Chicago has contributed to his current position; however, I find it extremely difficult to do so with this character. He pushes the limit of what actions can be justified by a life plagued by poverty and the social consequences of blackness. His hatred of and treatment of women and relief in rape and murder are deplorable. I think this concept particularly shines through in Bigger’s rape and murder of Mary Dalton. Mary is a young, rich white woman. This country has a long history of white women engaging in sexual relationships with black men then claiming to have been raped by them. This trope is alluded to throughout the novel as well–even Bessie proposes that the police will think that Bigger raped Mary. When first meeting Mary’s character, I thought this might be the situation we see play out. However, that is not what happened. There was no affair, and Mary did not accuse Bigger of having been inappropriate with her or raping her. Bigger raped Mary, and she was written as having asked for it for having been drunk and promiscuous. There was no nuance here, and I myself did not see race relations as being as critical to the moment as I did gender relations, toxic masculinity, and male violence. Of course, there’s the fact that Bigger hated Mary for being who she was as a result of her identity as a rich white woman and feeling a release in her death as he felt that he had hurt the right person as a result of this identity, but it almost feels as though Bigger could have been of any race or background perpetrating the same kind of violence against Mary in this moment.
Maybe this inconsistency in Bigger’s character has been intentional–at least up to this point in the novel. Perhaps Bigger was made to be hated and irredeemable in order to demonstrate that race is still at play and still matters, even in the most extreme case. This oppressor, however bad, is still oppressed himself. It’s true that Bigger’s life could have been entirely different if he were born a rich white man, and thus, the chain of actions and circumstances that led him to the point of killing Mary and Bessie would not have taken place. However, using the opposite logic, I’m not entirely convinced that another black man in his same position, stricken by the same circumstances, would have made the same choices.