“Let’s Not Be Stupid Together”: The American Delusion

Thomas Chatterton Williams’ column “Equal in Paris? On Baldwin and Hebdo” discusses the illusive perception of French (and, likely, greater Europe) as a non-racial/“equal” society. Williams connects his experience living in France for five years as a Black American with James Baldwin’s time in Paris. He notes that, just as its history is vastly different from that of the US, France’s handling of its own structural racism, islamophobia, and xenophobia is strikingly unlike the US’. French #JeSuisCharlie culture seems to be misguidedly and idealistically post-racial; there is an awareness of the structural inequities, but it is overshadowed by the desire to speak and criticize without an attention toward sensitivity. Bigotry is just accepted as free-speech, and perceived liberty through free-speech is framed as more important than actual social justice. In my opinion, the romanization of this seemingly-liberated free-speech culture does of the work of enforcing the illusion (into which Americans and non-Americans can buy) that Europe is a more culturally “equal” society…the same illusion that likely inspired Baldwin to travel there in his time.

            While it is certainly true that the United States and the Americas have their own work to do to establish equity in societies founded on land bought with the lives and culture of indigenous peoples and Black people…America is not the only nation that must work toward social redemption. But how did the opposite become the myth? I’ve had a number of discussions with my peers on this matter. On social media, individuals from outside the United States often offer up [totally warranted] critiques of the United States’ history of antiBlackness/racism. These critiques are typically rooted in a hope for a better American and a better world, which is ultimately wonderful! However, a good number of them also reek of a sort of arrogant and destructive nationalism that does not do much good. Pointing to the United States as the “unequal” nation is what solidifies the delusion/myth that other countries are “equal”. It is as if American is the only nation tainted with a history that is beyond redemption…

So do we just buy into the delusion and move to Paris? Or is the “American in Paris”/American-in-Paradise-vibe just rooted in a desire to turn a blind eye to reality?

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.