I found the conversation between Lorde and Baldwin quite illuminating. Baldwin reacted to Lorde with some resistance. At one point in particular, Baldwin asked, “But you don’t realize that in this republic the only real crime is to be a Black man?” and Lorde responded, “No, I don’t realize that. I realize the only crime is to be Black. I realize the only crime is to be Black, and that includes me too.” I loved this response, and I was sort of surprised by this comment from Baldwin. Given the impression of Baldwin that I have gotten throughout the course of this semester, I suppose I would have expected him to empathize with the position of Black women, but it seems that even he too lacked a deep understanding of it. This conversation reminded me of the mission of the Combahee River Collective–which Audre Lorde was also a part of.
The 1977 Combahee River Collective Statement, written by Black feminists and lesbians, states the following: “We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation are us…Although we are feminists and Lesbians, we feel solidarity with progressive Black men and do not advocate the fractionalization that white women who are separatists demand. Our situation as Black people necessitates that we have solidarity around the fact of race, which white women of course do not need to have with white men, unless it is their negative solidarity as racial oppressors. We struggle together with Black men against racism, while we also struggle with Black men about sexism.” Occupying arguably the most oppressed position in society, Black women are truly the “outsiders-within,” as Patricia Hill Collins described them. We have had extensive conversations this semester about what it means for Black people to be strangers in America, but as we can see from this conversation, Black women are even strangers to Black men. Baldwin states, “There’s a real difference between the way a man looks at the world…And the way a woman looks at the world. A woman does know much more than a man.” Lorde responds, “And why? For the same reason Black people know what white people are thinking: because we had to do it for our survival…” It is interesting that Baldwin incorporates this idea so heavily into his work, yet seemingly fails to understand how it operates between Black women and Black men.
Reconsidering Baldwin with intersectionality in mind had me thinking about Baldwin’s biggest message being love as a means to liberation, and Lorde’s being anger as a means to liberation. I had never had doubts about Baldwin’s message until now. Perhaps taking up love as arms is only a possibility for those in a more privileged position. Perhaps anger is a means of achieving love.
While the history curriculum taught in school has been fixated on the overarching themes that map Martin Luther King Jr.’s character, insights into what truly made him extraordinary are harder to find. The “I Have A Dream” speech has been continuously referred to, studied and recited as a signal of his incredible ability to convey meaning and emotion just through words. However, this truly unique talent was honed over many years in Black churches and in front of Black audiences. Martin Luther King Jr. was able to influence and connect with listeners in ways others could not. He was, in fact, gifted in this area and led to his ability to change lives.
In “The Dangerous Road Before Martin Luther King”, James Baldwin begins the essay with a deep examination of a Martin Luther King Jr. Church service. Church in the Black community was a staple. It was a place of refuge, fellowship, renewal, inspiration. In many cases, it served as a refueling station for the battle – a place to hold one over until next Sunday as one endure the constant fight of being Black in America. Preachers attempted to serve congregants in the best ways possible but also knew the suffering first hand. Martin Luther King Jr. truly brought something different to the struggle of his churchgoers. When Martin was preaching, he brought something different to his audience. Martin embodied the plight. He held himself on the same plane of struggle with the congregation and thus could truly walk with and inspire them. Baldwin knew something was different. Baldwin describes the “joy” within the church: “The joy which he filled this church, therefore, was the joy achieved by people who have ceased to delude themselves about an intolerable situation, who have found their prayers for a leader miraculously answered, and who now know that they can change their situation if they will.” This was a condition that could only be found when love, strength, and community were mixed together for an end cause. Martin’s preachings transcended the constant pressures placed upon the people by the outside world. The congregation was not simply receiving the sustenance to go another week but was receiving the strength and ability to believe that their situations will be altered. He gave them tangible hope. He gave them a roadmap to a better life. The ability for Martin to relay the ideas and hopes of change inside his congregation provided the groundwork for his public appearances and famous speeches.
Additionally, the importance of James Baldwin’s description of Martin Luther King’s congregation is poignant and informed. He was no amateur listener. As the stepson of a preacher, Baldwin attended many sermons but did not find the love he hoped to get from the church. The constant themes of judgment and punishment turned Baldwin away from the Church of his youth. However, in King’s Church, he saw that love filled the air. Love was an essential ingredient in the inspiration that Martin provided for his people, and it showed. He cared for all those who heard him and provided a message that lit a spark in all those that listened. Through this love, he was able to help his congregants, his community, the world fight for a better way.
The contrast of hate and love has been a constant theme in Baldwin’s work. In “The Dangerous Road Before Martin Luther King”, Baldwin writes, “… Martin Luther King really loves the people he represents and has-therefore– no hidden, interior need to hate the white people who oppose him…” (639). This is a powerful statement. A cycle of racism is really a cycle of bigotry. Eliminating hatred from the cycle simultaneously eliminates racism. Martin Luther King and James Baldwin both preach a gospel of love because both understood that accepting the white man’s description of a black man, is the biggest mistake. It only results in hatred for oneself, which is expressed by hatred for others. This does nothing but continue the cycle of bigotry and racism.
An understanding of true identity is needed (on both sides) in order to get over the disease of hatred. Whites need to have an understanding that they are not superior, and blacks need to see that they are not inferior. This takes the white community opening their eyes to the truth of America, and the role they play. Often, the message stops here, but Martin Luther King addresses the black community as well. He states, “We can’t keep on blaming the white man. There are many things we must do for ourselves” (Baldwin 644). This cycle of racism and bigotry is a two way street, and MLK sees that the black community has an important role in the matter as well. Blacks must replace the hatred in their hearts with love. When true love is found for oneself and one’s community, hatred thrown does not have the same effect. It is seen that what the white community is selling is not something necessary to buy. Internal freedom is received, and hatred for the ones feeding the lies is no longer necessary. It is seen that the hatred thrown is not a reflection of the receiver, but of the giver. When true love for one’s identity is found, true change can come forth.
After learning about Baldwin’s history with the church, we can see that he is heavily influenced by religion through his writings and even throughout his life as a queer man. One could say that he had a complicated history because of what the Bible says about homosexuality, and his complicated relationship with his Father who was a preacher. However, in “The Dangerous Road Before Martin Luther King,” we can clearly see the adoration of Baldwin towards Martin Luther King Jr. and we also see the way Baldwin’s view of the church changed being in King’s presence. It says a great deal about King’s influence on individuals, but his influence on the Black community, as well. In a way, if King could have Baldwin see churches in a new light, he surely could lead the community to a new future.
Reading Baldwin’s works, it is prominent that he writes about love: loving oneself, loving thy neighbor, and searching for loving relationships. It is clear in this essay that Baldwin is writing his love for King and the way he could garner hope and love from, and for, Black people. Baldwin writes that the newfound joy and power in the church was because King was not creating a space of protest and condemnation but of hope and love. The very thing that Baldwin, one might argue, was always looking for in the church, other people were looking for, as well, and they found it in King. He was a great speaker and a figure that people looked up to, but what distinguished him from others was that “he suffered with them and, thus, he helped them to suffer,” (Baldwin 643). Now, was Martin Luther King Jr. perfect, no, and Baldwin writes of this and we know of these things now. However, it cannot be disputed that King affected change in Baldwin as he did for the rest of the country. One question I ask is, although Baldwin saw the new change in the church and many others did, as well: would it have been the same if they were not looking for it? Baldwin was always searching for love, in everything, but what if he had already found it, would King have had the same effect on him. Would Baldwin be judging more of his actions instead of his words?
As I mentioned in class, I remembered reading a book titled Dancer from the Dance by Andrew Holleran in my Gay and Lesbian America class freshman year. *Spoilers*: The whole novel talks about the way gay men search for love and eventually fail to do so and end up in mainly sexual relationships, addicted to hard drugs (such as poppers and heroin), and stuck hanging around gay clubs.
In Gay and Lesbian America, we also watched movie (the name of which I cannot remember) where the premise was a closeted Catholic gay man struggles with his identity as he has dinner with his friends (who I cannot remember if they were out and gay or not). In both these stories, the men end up unhappy. There is no hope for them. There is no love for them. This reminds me very much of Giovanni’s Room.
Jacques lives a loveless life where he finds no comfort in the arms of young boys that he pays to keep him company and sleep with him. Similar to Jacques, Guillaume pays young boys to keep him company and attempts to add Giovanni to the mix (unsuccessfully) and dies. Giovanni is left behind by David, sexually harassed by Guillaume, and eventually sentenced to death without David even making an attempt to visit him. David, the penultimate character, finds that he can never love another person again and ends up alone.
What is so interesting about all of these stories is the holding on to the staunch idea that gay men cannot find love. That whether they are actively looking for love (like Dancer from the Dance) or are not looking for love (the movie I watched) and stumble upon it (Giovanni’s Room), it is impossible to keep the love that they gain, it is impossible for them to love another man fully or for another man to love them fully, and love does not exist for gay men.
I wonder if these works of art are just works of art of the times. Giovanni’s Room was published in 1956. Dancer from the Dance was published in 1978. The movie I watched was in black and white, suggesting it came out around the same time as Giovanni’s Room. I know that those times were very much different from today, but, I’m left wondering why that even in fiction people could not imagine gay men being happy.
We have recently discussed Lil Nas X’s new music video and recent events in class as they correlate closely with Baldwins experiences. Baldwin and Lil Nas X are both gay men who end up leaving the church. Both also question their sexuality and how that fits in with what the Christian church teaches. Lil Nas X posted a tweet towards the Christian church basically saying that he was taught to hate himself in a community that was supposed to stand on love (variety.com/2021/music/news/lil-nas-x-montero-video-twitter-1234939496/). As a Christian who has grown up in the church, I have been asking what can be done better to help everyone know they’re loved.
In “Down at the Cross”, Baldwin writes “When we were told to love everybody, I thought that meant everybody” (pg. 310). That hits hard because it’s true. Jesus certainly teaches us to love everybody, yet we consistently see division in the church. There are so many divisions that it can be hard to keep count. What I believe is important to remember is that the church is not perfect. Yes, people should be able to look at Christians and see the character of God, however there are people who do not represent the love of Christ correctly.
While there are many scriptures in the bible that address homosexuality (Rom. 1:27, 1 Tim. 1:10, etc), I believe that the church often seems to use these scriptures to judge rather than uplift and remind people of grace. However, there is a difference between disagreement and judgment. Often, when Christians disagree with something it is seen as judging rather than providing opinion and biblical evidence. God is the ultimate judge. I find that disagreement and judgment are often considered the same, leaving many, such as John in “Go Tell it on the Mountain”, hating themselves. Referring to John’s naked baby picture, Baldwin writes, “But John could never look at it without feeling shame and anger that his nakedness should be here so unkindly revealed (26)”. Similar to Adam and Eve when they hide their naked bodies from God, John hates when people are able to see him without coverings to hide his secrets. This passage is pertaining to the physical body, however I believe it correlates with the internal body as well. John feels ashamed of himself externally and internally. However, God came searching for Adam and Eve even when Adam and Eve were ashamed of what was exposed in their vulnerability. And God is still the same, searching for us all. The angry God theology needs to be put to rest. The love and desire God has for his children regardless of what is revealed in their nakedness has to be made known.
After reading Part One of Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, I was left haunted by the wisdom and counsel that the character Jacques offers to David at the bar David, clearly eaten alive by self-loathing and internalized homophobia, deplores Jacques “lifestyle,” seeing his encounters with men as shameful and loveless acts that only come and go in five dark minutes. Jacques returns with a condemning warning to David about the mask that he is putting up to preserve what he thinks is it dignity, safety, and cleanliness. He pushes David to open himself up to Giovanni, in hopes that David can find love and take one more step toward defeating his own shame.
Jacques warns David, “… ‘you can make you time together [with Giovanni] anything but dirty, you can give each other something which will make both of you better—forever—if you will not be ashamed, if you will only not play it safe’… ‘You play it safe long enough…and you’ll be trapped in your own dirty body, forever and forever and forever—like me.’” (Baldwin 267).
Ultimately what Jacques fears is that David will delay his own reckoning with his sexuality until much later in his adult life, when he has much less time and spirit to make the most of his experiences as an openly queer man in the world. He fears that David will surrender to his shame, going on to consider his own natural desires and urges as “shameful” for years and years in order to preserve a pride that can really only be observed from the outside.
But what I find most compelling is the way that Jacques empowers David with the agency to decide for himself what is dirty and what is clean. David sees his own queerness (and the queerness of others) as something dirty because of the shame that he attaches to it. Tt is unclean, perhaps, because it is hidden; it is that “love that cannot be named” that Baldwin writes of in his Go Tell it On the Mountain. What he sees as clean is a long relationship with a woman, likely Hella. He sees it as clean because it is not hidden; it is named and publicly admired. Jacques pushes David to recognize that he has the power to redirect and reject his shame. David has the power to name his love. He has the power to decide what is dirty, and thus worthy of shame, and what is clean.
I wonder if Baldwin, in Paris, believed these words himself. Did he see dirtiness and cleanliness as relative classifications as it came to sexuality, or did he believe something more objective depending on the queer identity?
In our last in-person discussion, I was very flummoxed about not being able to empathize with the religious perspectives and themes in Go Tell It On The Mountain. I think that I got too wrapped up in the community aspect of John’s life being a purely religious one rather than some other form of community. But I think I am starting to understand Baldwin’s beliefs in a joint communal-individual salvation. In Giovanni’s Room, the first bar scene illuminates both the goals and desires of an individual (David) and the greater community around him. This bar certainly does not present salvation in the traditional sense, but it presents Giovanni, who gives David an opportunity to love and be loved, and it gives the rest of its patrons a similar opportunity.
I did not comprehend John’s salvation because I don’t think John really comprehended it either; him being saved goes completely against his beliefs throughout the book that he cannot be saved because he is attracted to men. The religious dogma being taught to John (and at the same time Baldwin) made me upset, and my feelings of anger toward the institution of the church blinded me to the opportunity for growth that religion presents to individuals. While the institution of the church itself is flawed, its tenets of love are actually beneficial for those who cannot learn to love on their own. There are those in the church who choose a path of living in and teaching fear rather than love, but if love is taught effectively, people can live happier through learning about it. But again, the church itself is flawed and sometimes love is not presented as the end goal of its teachings. But the bar in Giovanni’s Room, while traditional viewed as an institution of sin and lust, actually brings the David towards a true love with Giovanni.
While I have not finished Giovanni’s Room, and thus do not know the result of David and Giovanni’s love or how Giovanni ends up arrested, the love is currently presented as pure and true. At first, it seemed Jacques was roping David into going to a bar purely out of lust; his goal seems to be simply sex. But David ends up having a rather meaningful and lovely conversation with Giovanni. Nothing overtly sexual occurs, yet they find themselves infatuated with each other throughout their entire evening together. The bar gives them this opportunity to do so. Like the church, it brings people together and places them in an environment where they can begin to express love. Obviously, this is not always the rule in a bar, and in fact many people at bars simply end up lusting after others like Jacques. But the bar does not instill the same dogmatic fear of not being saved in David that the church does to John. It is a place that is explicitly secular, yet gives David the ability to find love with Giovanni. Again, I do not know how the novel proceeds after Part I, but as of right now I see both David and Giovanni living through love rather than through fear.
In class, the curse of Ham has been brought up on several occasions. I have read Genesis 9:21-27 several times throughout my life, yet this was a concept I was unaware of. After digging deeper into this ideology, I further understand Baldwin’s point of view on Christianity as described in his writing, specifically “Down at the cross”.
In Genesis 9:25, Noah curses his son Canaan for seeing him naked. Noah states, “‘Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.’” This story has been used for decades to validify slavery and the putting down of people of color. According to Time Magazine, “In its boiled-down, popular version, known as “The Curse of Ham,” Canaan was dropped from the story, Ham was made black, and his descendants were made Africans” (Rae). In reality, all the brothers had the same father and were the same race. However, Africans being seen as the descendents of Ham is accepted, and blacks are deemed as less than due to fate.
The curse of Ham is a concept that Baldwin is taught and continues to struggle with during his time in the church. In “Down at the Cross”, Baldwin writes, “I knew that, according to many Christians, I was a descendant of Ham, who had been cursed, and that I was therefore predestined to be a slave” (Baldwin 307). Baldwin believes that he is meant to be less than according to the word of God. He does not understand how God can be loving to some people and not loving to others. Therefore, Baldwin not only doubts the love Christians show, but the love of God resulting in his loss of faith.
In Go Tell It on the Mountain, Baldwin sees the possibility of love both within the theological as well as a physical aspect. Love is something that John Grimes struggles to find throughout the novel and I’ve been wrestling with this question — besides his mother, where does he get that love?
Love should have come from Gabriel, John’s step-father and God’s messenger (going off his namesake), but it didn’t. Rather, John receives the minimum and only that — he is fed. clothed, sent to school but he doesn’t receive the love and emotional care that is necessary for one’s growth. What Gabriel presents is a message of sinfulness and eternal punishment in the burning fires of hell. To be saved from the wrath of this fearful God that Gabriel preaches about, one needs to be humble and leave behind all earthly things. Gabriel’s God is not one of love and compassion — may be because Gabriel is projecting himself into the theology. Gabriel projects a lot of hate, fear, and guilt into his theology and it’s impossible to have a loving relationship to arise from such a cancerous atmosphere and heart posture. God, after all, is about love, acceptance, and compassion. One notable point as well is that loving God and one’s neighbor in a Christian point of view requires the relinquishment of the self and power — Gabriel (and John) refuses to give up that power — rather, he is attracted to the pulpit partly because of the power and importance that it would bring him — “he wanted to be master, to speak with that authority which could only come from God.” As a father, husband, and brother, Gabriel’s legacy is one of fear and hatred rather than love.
But there is a bit of hope for the redemptive powers of Love in Go Tell It. I believe that there was real love between Richard and Elizabeth. The cruelty, however, lies in the outside world (the white world), unable to hold love for black people, taking away Richard from Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s relationship with Richard shows that there is a possibility of love but that it lies outside the “normal” and expected avenues. I see this through Elizabeth and Richard because despite the fact that Richard wasn’t “saved,” he and Elizabeth thrived and were happy in the world they created. Whereas, when Elizabeth interacted with those within the church (speaking of men), she got nothing but heartache.
The strongest possibility of love lies in the relationship between John and Elisha. However, that relationship is tense and deals with a kind of sexualized spirituality. This is not yet a fully formed thought and I’m still formulating it — I will continue expanding upon this during our presentation this week.