The Outsider-Within

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.

Strangerhood & Exile

After the thought-provoking presentations on Wednesday, Rae’vonne’s presentation about the idea of strangerhood in Go Tell It On the Mountain struck me. Her discussion of John’s and Baldwin’s experiences of strangerhood was a really powerful way of framing the themes of religion that run through these novels, particularly her insight that the church often creates strangerhood, rather than providing experiences of belonging. 

Kiera linked this idea to Jesus’s comment in the Gospels that no prophet is accepted in their own hometown. To this point, I think there’s a connection between strangerhood and exile. This is a theme throughout the Christian Bible. As we see in the book of Exodus, God’s chosen people are not those in power. Rather, God’s preferential option for revelation of Godself is to the dispossessed, the marginalized, the stranger. 

In Go Tell It On the Mountain, John’s otherness in his communities makes him feel like a stranger, but he is also cast as a prophetic character. These two traits are directly linked. John’s experience of being a stranger causes him to question his surroundings and try to understand where he fits. His transformation at the end of the novel describes God’s grace acting on John, and perhaps John can have this religious experience precisely because of—not in spite of—his identity as a stranger. 

Similarly, it’s not a coincidence that Baldwin writes this novel when he himself is in a time of exile: living in Paris, experiencing a fraught relationship with his family, and feeling othered by his race and his sexuality. Is it his very experience of exile that shapes his self-understanding as a prophet? Baldwin could see the fractures in Christianity and in the church with clearer eyes than those around him, because these institutions never provided him with a place of true belonging. In that exile, he found a prophetic voice. If neither the church nor America saved Baldwin from strangerhood, his stranger status may well have equipped him to be a prophet.