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To Be Here October 16, 2007

Posted by alexis in Uncategorized.

       I used to imagine that my brain had its own set of parents seperate from those people who gave me my face.   I imagined that those parents were James Baldwin and Audre Lorde…so I painted my window frames with sentences I stole from them.   I wrote their insights on toothpaste and asprin bottles.  I started every essay with a quote from one of them and I brought the sacred texts (Collected Essays of James Baldwin, Collected Poems of Audre Lorde) with me in carry on bags to everywhere.  My love for Lorde and Baldwin was heavier and a million times more valuable than anything that I owned.   It is a wonder to me that James and Audre aren’t the only authors we’re reading in this class at all.   But here we go.

 I’m still not over my first encounter with James Baldwin on video.  The technique was the same (repetition, pentacostal rhythm), the outrage was the same (unblinking, indelible) and the message was the same. “Love is the only thing that can save us.  Love is the only thing that we have.”  Baldwin was screaming, his eyes themselves were about to fall into tears.  He was railing against the murder of the girls in the 16th Street Baptist Street church…blown to bits “In a church.  On Sunday morning.  In a Christian nation,” he said, “and we do nothing!”   And I recognized my own definition of the sacred scared and the political and the possible.   James Baldwin never blinked.  He never pretended things weren’t as bad as they were.  He saw the deadliness of the American status quo every second and still he was surprised, and never did he accept what he himself had prophesied and still he formed his mouth into the word love.   Desperation and hope can be the same thing.

The essays that you will be reading by Baldwin were mostly written in the late 1950’s and they are about what it means “to be here”.  Baldwin is famous for being an black American writer in exile, but always present to the urgency of American politics.  For Baldwin to even identify as American as often as he did is bravery worth monuments.  As you read his essay on what it means to be an American (a distinction he learns or sees from across the Atlantic) think about who you are? And when?  When are you American? When are you Southern? When are you African? If ever.  What of the political moves with you, replicates itself through small battles in your chest…

As you read Baldwin’s essay on his “home” Harlem meditate on what it means to be trapped.  What it means to be home.  What it means to be gentrified away.  What place marks the stopping point of your soul? What map reflects the limit of your imagination.  If Kameelah asks, “what is the choreography of death”, let us ask ourselves about the geography of survival.   What does it look like. What are the building?  (Only a few years later June Jordan would create an architectural plan for Harlem designed to make love, hope, thought and health more possible.   If you have been to Harlem you might have noticed that this plan has not been implemented.)

   Audre Lorde looks different in every picture.  I think that means that Audre Lorde grew and grew, I think it means her face, like her vision was incompatible with a box, I think it means her defiance was successful.   By the time Audre Lorde wrote “Scratching the Surface: Notes on Some Barriers to Women and Loving” it was a decade after “Nobody Knows My Name”, black people on the African continent had waged and were waging irreversible revolutions.  Take some time to contrast and compare Baldwin’s use of Europe as a place for a different vantage point, and Lorde’s use of particular tribal practices in Africa to disrupt the binary between heterosexuality and homosexuality, to open possibilities for what could be natural and freedom making for black people…remember that Lorde is speaking in the language of, but away from the limits of black cultural nationalism as it was being practiced at the time.

Whereas Baldwin is interested in the dynamics and relationships between different groups of people that he can name (between Black people and white people…between Americans and Europeans…between the American Negro and the Algerian subject) Lorde is interested in what happens “Between Ourselves”….how does the practice of “lesbian baiting” foreclose freedom WITHIN a black intellectual community (Lorde first published this essay in The Black Scholar)?  And what is at stake.  I see this essay as a study for what Lorde will express in the poem Need (which we read already…but which she wrote later) and for what she will express in Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred and Anger.  I love the fact that the title is honest.  In this essay Lorde scratches the surface of something that she will deeply inhabit and investigate in her later work.  She kept that promise.   What does Lorde teach us about how we can lovingly and critically inhabit a struggle that we are IN.

I’m glad you’re here.  Let me know what you think.





1. Lyndsey - November 10, 2007

i am going to make two responses for the To Be Here readings. the first one is about Lorde’s piece and is here:

second one about Baldwin is coming soon!

2. alexis - November 11, 2007

Thanks so much for this post Lyndsey! I am thrilled to here about your ALERT project. It sounds amazing…and I’m so glad that reading Lorde was helpful in your work. I also love the quotations that you put Lorde in conversation with here…none of which I had ever read before.

I think Lorde is doing what you suggest she is doing…trying to develop a way of critically belonging, revising a struggle from within.

Also…to provide some context for the statement about lesbians not being the ones committing violence against women in this essay…I think it may not live up to the ideals she is setting forth…but I a also see it as an attempt to create accountability. Lorde is not just talking about the pervasive domestic abuse that occurs within communities and movements routinely (though she is talking about that), she is specifically addressing a wave of murders of black women during this time period. The murder of 12 women in Boston is sometimes seen as the culmination of this moment but as Lorde mentions at the end of the essay she is also responding to murders of Detroit and New York that were going on during this time period. The language she uses here in “Scratching the Surface” leads into the language she will develop in “Need”, which we read earlier. I think she is trying to point out that lesbian-baiting is part of a broader devaluation of women, is part of what it means to transpose the received hatred of racism onto the bodies of women. I didn’t assign this…but a couple years after this essay was written James Baldwin and Audre Lorde have a conversation at Essence Magazine where she is specifically asking black men who are committed to black freedom to prioritize the task of teaching younger men approaches to masculinity that are not violent towards women. Baldwin has trouble with this. He seems to believe that the racism black men experience is so pervasive that their actions are completely determined by it…making this form of accountability impossible. Again, Balwdin’s analysis is sharpest when address what happens “between” (intra) separate communities. He is eloquent on the subject of how white people can be accountable to black people. But when it comes to this question of men’s accountability to women within the black community he goes to a surprisingly heteronormative and defensive place…trying to explain that black men are frustrated because of how it feels to have “my woman and my child” taken away from “me”.

Lorde is trying to counter the argument that black lesbians, simply be “being” or identifying as lesbians are killing the black community by refusing the normative family, by pointing out how the violence of patriarchalism, the violence of ENFORCING family upon women and girls can be much more deadly.

The other essay that this one folds into is “Eye to Eye:Black Women Hatred and Anger” where she explicitly talks about the ways that women enact the hatred they have experienced on each other. She is calling for accountability here as well. In each instance (abusive action from black men towards black women and black women towards black women) she is insisting that the hatred we experience through racism does not have to result in rage and violence towards each/other.

Anyway, I hope we can hear more about your series of workshops and how it is going. What is the range? There have been 10 workshops so far…how many will there be…or it ongoing indefinitely. How can those of us in the class support your work..learn more about it.
Thanks again for all of the thought that went into the post.

3. Lyndsey - November 13, 2007

and here is To Be Here, part 2

4. alexis - November 13, 2007

Peace Lyndsey,
Thanks for this! I continue to appreciate the way you are connecting the Baldwin to the Kara Walker piece and to your growing work. Your reading of this piece allows me to see another connection between Lorde’s work and Baldwin’s work. Baldwin uses cynicism to demonstrate divisions with the black community in the distancing moment that you point to here, disrupting the supposed coherence of the representative “black” person that he will later allow to listen to the white “ally” with pity. Reading this I remember that Baldwin’s challenges to blackness often come in this way, not as a “between ourselves” exhortation a la Lorde, but as a bitter reflection on a specific example. Much of this is refracted by Baldwin’s interesting navigation of the ways many members of the black intelligista pathologized him. He reconstructs love to sit in all the grooves, but Baldwin wasn’t only in exile from “white america”.
And you don’t have to tell me twice about that good old yankee racism. Thanks for staying in the conversation and keeping the conversation with you.

5. Iresha - November 21, 2008

Love it!

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