Question 9/15

In his second essay titled “Princes and Powers,” James Baldwin says something very profound about shared experiences regarding those within the diaspora. On page 29, he says “What, in sum, black men held in common was their ache to come into the world as men. And this ache united people who might otherwise have been divided as to what a man should be.”

What does Baldwin mean when he says this? What is this other idea about what a man should be that divides people even within races? Is this shared idea of wanting to control the world’s vision of themselves strong enough to unite a people?

-Gilberto

12 Responses to Question 9/15

  1. Sydney Exler says:

    In this case, I believe that black men can be understood as unified because they all see the same alternative to their current reality. With regard to the inequality of races, and especially with regard to slavery, these black men were made to feel inferior – often, less than human (which directly connects back to our conversation in class today). Therefore, it is easy for them to imagine one reality in which they can “come into the world as men”. “Men” signifies the existence of an equal citizen, and recognition as a full and valid person. Therefore, we can understand this moment as his explanation that they were unified in their desire to usurp their current position in society in favor of a reality in which they are recognized as average men within society. The psychological effects of racial inequality are so strong that I do believe that their shared idea of wanting to control the world’s perception of them is indeed strong enough to untie them. Emotions are a critical dynamic within group scenarios, and this case is certainly no exception.

  2. ryanspencer says:

    I wholly believe that what Baldwin says is not only true of black men but of all men. In his first essay “The Discovery of What It Means to Be an American” he discusses how an American (African-American or not) writer is in a way set free by visiting Europe where there is not “social paranoia” (8) as there is in America. Everyone wants to “come into the world as a man” free of whatever may have bound them or oppressed them. What Baldwin finds at this conference is a wholly human sense of wanting to be free. Baldwin himself notes that “what they held in common was the necessity to remake the world in their own image, to impose this image on the world, and to no longer be controlled by the vision of the world… held by other people” (29). Europe and America are both regions of white history and thus largely white culture. Thus, the black man wanting to “come into the world as a man,” wanting to be free is restricted by the presence of the western world and western culture which is historically white. What Baldwin seems to say is that because all of these black men are living in world of western culture, they are united because they have that extra barrier of the prejudice of history to overcome when attempting to “come into the world as men.” What these people want to share with the world is something other than what has already been shared. Something different from conventional western culture and this unites them.

    I believe also that the existence of this conference is evidence that their shared necessity to overcome and “come into the world as men” is enough for them to control the world’s vision of themselves. Perhaps they have not controlled the world’s vision of themselves yet but they are uniting and creating a sub-culture within culture and thus they are beginning their influence.

  3. Noah says:

    Baldwin discusses this deep desire that all humans share, the want to be recognized and treated as human beings. When that’s taken away, the disenfranchised are given a common, visceral bond between a certain set of people who might otherwise have been divided.

    American society is unfortunately historically rooted in stringent ideas about who can be equal. For a large part of its existence, our country limited sociopolitical participation to straight white men.

    I wonder if the “common ache” Baldwin describes could transcend even race; if it could apply to anyone that’s been traditionally disenfranchised by society. In this way, does the oppressor define the oppressed? Are all people that are denied of true citizenship then deeply bound together?

  4. Aly Thomas says:

    Thank you for your question, Gilberto. Baldwin’s words on unity among Black men are pertinent and clearly very Pan-African, but also masculinist and possibly too idealistic. I agree that there is a shared pain among Africans of the world, because diasporic conditions have been very similar (violent) throughout the U.S, Caribbean, Latin America, and on the continent. Blackness does not have an essence, since it is socially constructed, but Black people throughout the diaspora share characteristics based on human responses to global anti-blackness. I am a Pan-Africanist, and agree with Baldwin, while I do think Black men are still left undivided due to intra-racial issues (transphobia, homophobia, classism, ableism). I don’t feel like I can be an honest Pan-Africanist without recognizing the problems among people of African descent, although, I do think Black men agree on one main thing- that a man should be human, which is a point of unity against white supremacist inventions of race and masculinity. I like to imagine that Baldwin’s masculinist choice of language is merely unintentional, although, I do think womanhood (or gender-non-conformity) and queerness, is absent from this, in ways that I know is evoked in his other work. It reminds me of how Black folk often have to put issues of gender and sexuality on the back-burner to deal with the violent nature of racism which often feels the most present and loud.

    And on a side note, I’m thinking about unity and language. Baldwin (as Toni Morrison beautifully says) has truly given us a language to live in, and that language is English. I’m thinking about how colonialism has created an occasion for Black people to rebel (in defense of themselves), but it has also connected peoples of African descent (especially on the continent) in ways that they had never been connected before, because now many Africana peoples speak similar colonial tongues (Spanish, English, French, Portuguese), which is far fewer than the separation and lack of unity in pre-colonial Africa. Colonialism was not a good thing, of course, but this book asks us “What had this colonial experience made of them & what now are they to do with it?” and I think Baldwin’s answer is that since we have been given this language (English, in this case), we can at least communicate in a new way and unite.

  5. Siobhan McKenna says:

    I think that what Baldwin meant by this phrase was that as the world moves forward in time, black men (and women) are trying so hard to fight this idea of being the minority, and make the world see them as just men, without immediately associating them with the baggage of the past and what it means to be a black man in a world seemingly controlled by whites. As Baldwin later points out in In Search of a Majority, that in the United States, as so many new groups of people entered the country, “the melting pot, as we like to say, but without any intention of being melted” (130) and tried to form their own identities, “status became a kind of substitute for identity” (131). Therefore breaking away from this “minority vs majority” has become significantly more difficult, and just viewing every citizen as equal with equal influence, has become nearly impossible. Therefore, blacks are united in their struggle for dominance in a world that refuses to view them as anything other than a minority. Although I do agree with Ryan that this struggle can be viewed as one that all men (and women) face, and everyone wants to be free of whatever weight their identity holds, but what Baldwin seems to highlight with this quote that our current society has placed blacks into this box and labeled them as minorities, yet has taken away any way to free themselves from this box, this identity that inherently limits their influence on the world and their society. Therefore, black men have united in trying to break free from this box, even if all their experiences with the situation are different.

  6. LaShawn Simmons says:

    I believe what James Baldwin is trying to say here is that even among their geographic differences, Black share a common desire to be seen as humans and not second class citizens. As we witness in his second essay, all the men don’t necessarily agree on every political and religious standpoint but they are all trying to fight against a system that is made to suppress them. In regards to the next question, I believe the divide is as a result of cultural differences that exist in their country. Baldwin illuminates this point using Haiti as an example. All of the members in the delegation are associated with a system that acts in unique ways to keep them subordinate. These unique approaches in maintaining superiority of the dominant culture looks different to others who are not directly affected by these forces. This in turn prompts a conversation about who and which country/nation appears to be more progressive or oppressive than the other. All things considered, this creates a divide, despite them trying to reach the same goal of liberation. I believe the shared of idea of wanting to control the world’s vision of themselves is a courageous plan of action but reaching this goal is much more complicated. For instance, in reflection of a speech by Alioune Diop, Baldwin restates that “a people deprived of political sovereignty finds it nearly impossible to recreate, for itself, the image of its past, this perpetual recreation being an absolute necessity for, if not, indeed, the definition of a living culture.” (15*)
    I have a different version of this text so my page numbers are different.

  7. ccalimlim says:

    Although Baldwin speaks specifically about Black men, he talks about the desire for Black people to be seen as equal humans and rise above the history of exploitation and oppression. This desire acts as a stronger force than the factors that would ordinarily divide people, such as the idea of what a man “should be.”

    The idea of what a man should be varies between cultures, locations, and eras. And because manhood is often such a dominant force, different ideas of manhood can easily come into conflict. For Black men, the idea of manhood has been especially complicated by a history that would often literally and physically destroy their manhood.

  8. Conor Amrien says:

    I think the idea of what qualifies as “manhood” is especially interesting. In “Big Boy Leaves Home”, Big Boy doesn’t ever really have a chance to live out his youth in peace. Young Black men, and women, especially during this period rarely had time for a childhood free from racial prejudice. I think that the “achieving of manhood” is something that has been forcibly accelerated for the young black male, and has been seen as something inherently dangerous by supremacists.
    Once a young black boy loses his childlike innocence, he is immediately swept into the category of “threat”, or the image the white man has created for black masculinity in order to both control and persecute them. I think Baldwin is speaking of a reclaiming of the idea of Black male manhood in reference to supremacists seeing the Black community as a threat. It is this fabrication of identity that creates a need for reclaiming the idea of manhood as well I believe, at least from the American perspective.
    I believe the same could be said, however, on an international scale as well. White colonizers have tried to force an identity of violence and anger upon the Black populace, threatening the empowerment that comes with claiming one’s adulthood for one’s self. This creates a frustrating relationship with manhood. The majority tries to take away the autonomy of the minority, which taints the empowering nature of adulthood.

  9. Madilynn Samus says:

    I think that the definition of “manhood” is something that is highly disagreed upon throughout groups of people. What jobs a “man” can have, what kind of activities are appropriate for men to do and how men should act in the world are all things that are debated about within groups. In this second essay, I think Baldwin is saying that these things are important and they exist, but at the end of the day the struggle for black men to be seen as men at all – as apposed to being seen as “second-class” or “subhuman” – is a force that is stronger than these disagreements as to what manhood is. It has to been able to unite them because if they don’t unite on this front and fight to be seen as men, then it won’t matter what their view of what a man is.

  10. Michaela Cabral says:

    I agree that this quote is extremely profound and connects to the struggle faced at the conference, where everyone seems to hold varying opinions. (It would be even more profound, though, if this quote was expanded to include women as well, saying that black people want to come into the world as people.) These people come from different countries, cultures, backgrounds, and ideas and make up such a varied group of people. But what almost reaffirms their connection, despite all of their differences, is “their unutterably painful relation to the white world” (29). Because of how they are treated and oppressed by white people, they have something in common. They have a desire to be viewed as men (people) by the world and no longer be seen as second-class citizens. It seems that these men seem to have very little in common, besides this common desire; they all have different ideas and how to bring them forth and what it means to be valued in society. In a way, this shared goal does unite, in that it gives them a common ground on which to empathize and strategize for change, and they rely on each other and this connection to fight against those systems and people that oppress them. They are united and understanding about this goal, but it’s impossible to say that they become a single entity, united completely. They share a common goal, but should in no way be homogenized.

  11. Laura Katz says:

    For me the common ache is their common subjugation by europeans and/or whites. The men he is referring to have all had their cultures and their citizenship taken away by colonialism and discrimination. What bonds them, then, is their desire to be able to be men in the fullest sense of the word. A man is not defined in relation to others, he makes his own decisions with out limitations, and his personhood is never in question. Black men, therefore have had their manhood, as above described, taken form them by white people. Although these black men are of different countries and situations, the oppression and emasculation they face is the same and that is what unites them in this white supremacist world.

  12. Abigail Gardener says:

    I believe the point Baldwin is trying to make here is that even a group of people who are separated geographically can still be united by a common cause, especially if that cause is an important one. I think that if those involved believe the cause is important enough, they can unify, but even within that shared connection I can see the potential for division. When, as Baldwin says, a group of people such as black men exists, which involves “so many millions of people who are divided from each other by so many miles of globe” (28), there are bound to be disagreements and differences of opinion, especially since this large group has split to such an extent that black culture cannot be described as any one thing. Each group, depending on geographic location, has formed their own habits and their own sense of unity and their own culture. Again, as Baldwin says, “For what, beyond the fact that all black men at one time or another left Africa, or have remained there, do they really have in common?” (28). Even the common goal that unites them could be problematic, as the various cultures would no doubt allow their beliefs and morals to inform the way the larger group went about achieving their goal, and there would likely be many disagreements about how to proceed in reaching it. With that being said, I still think that a history as deep as the one that black men share is all that is necessary to unite these men, even across the globe.

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