During class this past week, there was a discussion about the subtle ways racism has been integrated into our society. One way is through the nursery rhyme “Eeny Meeny Miny Moe”. It was a shock to learn that the verse “catcha tiger by it’s toe” was really written as “catch a nigger by it’s toe”. I remember singing this rhyme as a kid while picking who was going to be it in tag. It’s crazy to me that innocent children are taught things like this that seem innocent, but at its roots are not. Changing a word in the song does not change the spirit of the song. It makes me wonder what other things look innocent in our society, but really has a hidden meaning or origin.
The first thing that came to mind for me was the school system in America. The majority of the great people we learn about in American history are white males. We learn about the great inventions created by white individuals, and the great impacts white men have had on society. However, the lack of black leaders, inventions, and impacts by African Americans shown in curriculum is not an accident. It is a strategy. In “A Talk to Teachers”, Baldwin writes, “…he is also assured by his country and his countrymen that he has never contributed anything to civilization” (679). The lack of teaching done on black excellence results in black youth assuming that they never have and never will do anything great. This is stunting their determination to change their society at a young age.
The way slavery is taught also causes problems. Baldwin states, “ He is assured by the republic that… his ancestors were happy, shiftless, watermelon- eating darkies who loved Mr. Charlie” (679). Slavery is taught in a watered down way that prevents the herendous truth of slavery from being told. Students, black and white, can easily walk away not realizing how terrible it was. In addition, there were many revolts that took place, however the educational system does not teach that. They do not want black youth to know that their ancestors were strong and fought back because then black youth will know that they are strong and can fight back. It seems innocent that the educational system is teaching slavery to students, and don’t get me wrong, I am grateful that we learn these things. However, the way they teach it secretly has another agenda.
Teaching majority white history may seem innocent on the surface, but there are darker tactics at work. It may seem innocent to “forget” about the black excellence in history or tell the full horror of slavery, but it is not. There are hidden origins to these tactics, and I am sure there are many other examples of false innocence in our society.
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.