Question 9/22

Baldwin writes that, “All roles are dangerous. The world tends to trap and immobilize you in the role you play; and it is not always easy-in fact, it is always extremely hard-to maintain a kind of watchful, mocking distance between oneself as one appears to be and oneself as one actually is” (219).

How does this idea of roles being dangerous and trapping affect the formation and defining of identity in the African diaspora? How does this idea complicate when one considers the intersections of different identities?

12 Responses to Question 9/22

  1. Conor Amrien says:

    I do agree with this Baldwin quote that it is often not easy to distinguish between the identity that is being projected onto your person by society and your view of your identity. These intersections of identity complicate a person’s view even further, because people will often only see you as one identity or the other at a time. You can either be a man or a woman, gay or straight (God forbid something like a mythical bisexual), etc. It is exceptionally hard to identify as, say, a black queer man, because with each of those identities comes a separate identity is being pushed upon you. It is almost like a community is expecting you to behave a certain way in order to live up to each identity, as if that identity is not valid if you are not a constant figurehead for it. I think this definitely connects to the discussion of internalized homophobia today in class, in that often people will move towards a separate identity in order to stray from society’s stereotypes of that identity. Others will embrace the stereotypes of their identity in order to feel more at ease with an identity that is always being questioned by society.
    In the same respect, our perceptions of our own identity and its intersections can often lead to our own projections upon perceived members of a similar community. A member of the queer community may feel that there is a distinctly appropriate way to “be queer” or “act queer”, while another person may feel completely differently. It is frustrating that society often pushes us to act upon our identities in order for them to be recognized and perceived as valid.
    In relation to the African diaspora, many people have opinions on the right way to “be black”, yet the African diaspora is a resultant of many many cultures being dispersed from an entire continent made up of many countries. How can there be one way to personify blackness or the entirety of the African diaspora?

  2. Michaela Cabral says:

    I think this quote contributes the idea of freedom and the different paths people take to achieve it. Having a role and identity that leads to a sense of community can be a freeing act. But also, as Baldwin points out, these labels can “trap” a person by making them feel as if they must fit certain requirements and cannot be anything else, which can limit personal freedom. It is also very true that it is difficult to self-assess who a person believes themselves to be, without incorporating the views of the greater society. I think similar interpretations connect to the African diaspora. Although this is presented as a single group, the people within it are all vastly different. In some sense, a connection to African diaspora gives people a shared history and a point of empathy. The role in this history, however, varies greatly for all people of African descent; if the African diaspora is homogenized, it may in fact trap those who vary from others. Also, even if a specific role is ascribed to members of the African diaspora, these people have intersectional identities. Their various other identities have associated roles (which may be a problem in itself) that can conflict. By relying only on “roles” and “labels” as a means of identity, it erases those whose identities are believed by society to not be compatible.

  3. LaShawn Simmons says:

    This idea is very nerve-wrecking to think about but it is honestly a reoccurring force in my life to the extent that everything feels like a performance. There are certain expectations held of me that cause me to conform into whatever the world expects me to be, though this is not always true. As much time as I spend performing, I spend an equal defying the roles that are thrust upon me. It is important to point out those who usually “assign” these roles are those of the dominant culture, these “roles” typically become institutionalized and those affected feel as if they are normal but they in fact are not. Take for instance, Tish’s reflection on the young boys in her neighborhood and their vulnerability towards death. She states: “Though the death took many forms, though people died early in many different ways, the death itself was very simple and the cause was simple, too: as simple as a plague: the kids had been told that they weren’t worth shit and everything they saw around them proved it. They struggled, they struggled, but they fell, like flies..” Sometimes, depending on the context, intersections are not address rather the roles in defining of identity in the African diaspora are all homogenized. Intersection implies that complexity is being recognized though that is sadly not always the case.

    • Laura Katz says:

      I completely agree with La Shawn. I have spent so much of my time trying not to be what society says a girl should be but sometimes these actions can feel forced and I am not sure if I am shirking one role for another. Baldwins quote reminds me of Judith Butler and Simone de Beauvoir who both claim that gender is performance, that we play into our gender roles and how not playing into them can have consequences from society. Those within the diaspora similarly have certain ways they are expected to behave which for African Americans includes respectability politics. This creates roles for them that are not their true selves and thus, as in Invisible Man, their true identity can be very hard to claim against all these societal pressures

  4. ryanspencer says:

    The concept which Baldwin introduces here is one which nearly every individual can, in one way or another, relate to. What Baldwin seems to present is the conflict between cultural assumptions made based on identity and the truth of identity. To use myself as an example, I play the role of an English major. Due to my role as an English major it could be assumed (erroneously) that I like Shakespeare. Thus is half the problem with playing a role: the problem of false assumptions. This is the more obvious of the problems as it is troublesome to one’s identity to be falsely assumed, to realize that others don’t view you for who you are but instead based upon a stereotype. The other half of the problem with playing a role I would consider re-attribution of identity, the idea that you like something because you are the stereotype. Imagine, now, for sake of demonstration that I am in fact a fan of Shakespeare. Someone might attribute my admiration of Shakespeare to me being an English major in which case, in their eyes, I take on the dimension of an English major and they define my identity as that of an English major, and I might too, for isn’t it a trait of an English major to enjoy Shakespeare? But my supposed love of Shakespeare, to me, is not an attribute an English major but instead is an attribute of my identity. And this seems to be what Baldwin is getting at, all roles are smaller than identity. Relating any attribute or part of a being to a person’s role rather than their identity seems to summarize them as something smaller than they are and removes the attribute from their sense of identity.

  5. Noah says:

    In Princes and Powers, Baldwin says, “We are not Negroes by our own desire, but, in effect, because of Europe,” and earlier on, he asks, “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?”

    In these two quotes, we see identity being defined by external means, specifically place of origin and skin color. The larger idea is that the freedom to self-define has been stolen from people of African descent. Instead, they are categorized and marginalized by people that don’t know them, and their identity, becomes, in a sense, defined by this deprivation of freedom.

    The right to self-define is a supposedly American virtue, and for much of our nation’s history we have effectively limited this right to white men. But if we want to be truly modern, and reflect the free society we so often boast about, we have to let people define themselves.

  6. Siobhan McKenna says:

    I agree with Ryan that this seems to be a concept that everyone can relate to, no matter their identity. As Baldwin points out on page 131, especially in the United States, “identity became a kind of substitute for status”. With this idea in mind, it makes sense that our roles in relationship to the world trap us in a sort of box that doesn’t allow us to escape. We seem to have certain expectations for how everyone of a certain race/ethnicity/particular identity should act, and for some reason, when someone defies our expectations, it is difficult for us to handle. As a society, we push against these outliers, forcing them to conform to the stereotypes of their identity, which can be very restrictive, and almost claustrophobic in a way. In terms of the African diaspora, I agree with Michaela that this idea of locking someone in to a certain identity seems to be what causes us to think of everyone of African decent as one in the same, even though they’re all vastly different. This idea is even further complicated by the idea of intersectionality. An individual who identifies with multiple identities would have multiple sets of rules and expectations backing them into a corner of an inescapable box. Often times, these multiple roles to play can have clashing expectations, so an individual seems to always be criticized for what they do, no matter what they do because they’re are always breaking some part of some role they fulfill in society.

    • Aly Thomas says:

      Yes. I agree, and I think the use of the word “claustrophobic” is apt. Especially with code switching. Black people are expected to act “authentically Black” in some moments, and then to adhere to “respectability politics” in other moments, which requires a lot of stress and pressure put on the body and mind to continue switching between expected roles. This is felt throughout the diaspora.

  7. Madilynn Samus says:

    While trying to come to one cohesive identity, those under the African diaspora have to face the challenge of coming to terms with the identity that the white west has thrust upon them as well as the identities that each separate group (Africans, Europeans, and Americans) have put on each other. It is difficult enough to overcome these forced identities from the west and each other when it comes to being black, but they add onto this the desire for a male identity as well making things more complicated. It is unclear how they should go about merging their blackness with their maleness, keeping the things that they believe are their true identities while fighting against those that have been forced upon them.
    I think that the more intersections you add, the more difficult it becomes to draw out the pieces of your identity that belong to you and those that are put on you. As someone who is bisexual and gender queer(but usually perceived as female) , I often find it very difficult to separate what parts of this identity I actually feel are accurate to me and which parts of it I have adopted because it is what society thinks that I should be.

  8. Sarah Terrazano says:

    I agree with LaShawn’s point that because society constructs roles for people, sometimes it can feel like we are spending a lot of time not only fulfilling the roles we want for ourselves, but defying the roles thrust on us. Baldwin describes this as a “watchful, mocking distance” — the awareness of how you’re being categorized and trying to not fully conform to a false role. For instance, Baldwin later writes of the “myth of Negroes,” specifically regarding the “myth of the sexuality of Negroes,” and how he did not want to “play, in any way whatever, the noble savage” (220-21). The language he chooses — “myth” and “play” — is strongly tied to the debunking of identities that society inflicts on him. Similarly, Baldwin then discusses how white writers like Kerouac have portrayed black culture in a way that “does not refer to reality, but to a dream” (231). In the same vein, I also agree with Ryan’s point that roles are somewhat smaller than identity, but I do think Baldwin complicates this idea a little when he writes that “the world is not interested in anyone’s identity” (232). I think he believes that innate identity is much more powerful than roles, but the significance of roles cannot be discounted in a world that “is not interested in anyone’s identity” because of how people become trapped, and thus oppressed, due to the roles they occupy.

  9. Sydney Exler says:

    I think this is an extremely rich quote, and I’d actually like to respond to the quote itself, not focusing on its statement with regard to representation of the African diaspora. This is a highly important moment in Baldwin’s work, because it zooms out of speaking about African Americans, and focuses on all people. The notion of roles, and maintaining a balance between our external and internal selves, is a wholly relevant topic for all people, regardless of race, gender, or any other defining structure. I think that Baldwin’s recognition of such, and active mentioning of it, recasts him as an insightful and empathetic writer. This is important, as we come to perceive Baldwin’s representation of society as valid, because he understands ‘the human condition’. This, in turn, ultimately allows him to accurately articulate his perspectives on American society and its people.

  10. Alex Bordona says:

    I think in terms of being a Black American, when you are here you are Black, period. The dominant (white) culture is not concerned with one’s country of origin. First generation Black Americans and fifth generation Black Americans are lumped together in one category, forced into roles they may not want to play.
    There’s also the idea that Black Americans are expected, by white Americans, to fill a certain type of role. The roles are few and limiting: “ghetto” or “ratchet,” an entertainer, an athlete, maybe now a model. White people don’t allow Black people the freedom we give ourselves to define ourselves. We don’t give Black Americans individuality. I can’t theorize on Blackness or what it’s like to be a Black American, so I won’t. I just know that white Americans force people who are not like them to play roles to suit their enjoyment or comfort

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