As you read Phillip Lopate’s The Art of Personal Essay, you take a stroll in London with Virginia Woolf and listen to her honest confessions. Then you discover why Max Beerbohm hates walks. E.B. White will take you on a journey to a lake and you’ll dip your toes into the frigid water while realizing the contractions and expansions of his philosophy as he re-experiences childhood. But wait until you get to James Arthur Baldwin (1924-1987), “the most salient, sublime, and consequential American writer of the twentieth century” and Adrianne Rich (1939-2012), “one of America’s foremost public intellectuals” (Poetry Magazine). From Baldwin, you’ll hear the true confessions about the cruel realities that faced this mid-20th century African American. Baldwin and Rich bring you along their journey of facing cruel reality and claiming identity, while painting their experiences with subtle humor and stark imagery. This will entertain you as dive into their minds, trying to fathom their philosophy and self-conflict.
As a great African American writer, James Baldwin struggled to gain his prominence as a leading figure in the Harlem renaissance. He struggled with severe judgment and criticism from his father, in addition to society. Nevertheless, he became the voice of his race and one of the finest advocates for racial, and social and sexual equality through his essays, novels, and poems. More specifically, Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son” allows the audience to dive into the mindset of an African American writer who not only challenges society’s expectations but also his father’s expectations by hitting back at the reader’s expectations with his anger. His personal essay captures the time frame from childhood till his father’s death, as he antagonizes his father and struggles to understand his expectations. However, the epiphanic downturn of his father’s death allows him to search for answers, “which only the future would give me now.” Baldwin captures the audience with cheekiness, which upon first view, seems to be overflowing with resentment and spitefulness towards his father. The simple and casual jeering throughout the essay can be further interpreted as Baldwin’s attempt to identify this conflict as generational. When his father dies, Baldwin undergoes a shift.
Baldwin humorously depicts his father as, “Handsome, proud, and ingrown, ‘like a toenail,’ somebody said…” (Lopate, 588). The cheekiness comes with the last detail, ‘ingrown’, as it casts a reverse light upon his handsome face. Ingrown could be stubborn, nasty, painful, everyone’s nightmare. This seems to be a jeering remark, but it isn’t: it cuts to the heart of this essay, which revolves around his father and his father’s generation. Baldwin’s essay gradually shows the audience his growth and maturity. He shares his experience in coping with his father’s death slowly, and in stages. I feel the genius of his craftsmanship as he writes, correlating time and maturity. As I read each word of essay, I can feel Baldwin’s maturity growing. Indeed, the writing progresses as if the essay was written at different times of his life. The essay succeeds in representing Baldwin authentically during the different stages. For instance, when he recalls his anger and violent feelings before his father died, he is able to express these different stages. The essay is a direct expression of all previous emotions, expressing Baldwin completely. At the start of the essay he conveys a strong sense of resentment and fury towards his father, but that conflict is mitigated and immediately transformed, once his father is gone. Baldwin comes to a revelation and expresses his understanding of his father: “When he died I had been away from home for a little over a year. In that year I had had time to become aware of the meaning of all my father’s bitter warnings, had discovered the secret of his proudly pursed lips and rigid carriage: I had discovered the weight of white people in the world” (589). Their father-son relationship was one of strife and conflicting mindsets. Baldwin felt repressed by his father’s expectations to become a minister, while his father believed he was protecting Baldwin from repression. In particular, “Notes of a Native Son” exudes an authenticity for each period covered, presenting a transformation. How does Baldwin do this?
James Baldwin held out two requirements for effective writing and understanding racism. The first is acceptance of the world as it is: “But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength” (604). Although Baldwin could be seen as self-contradicting about racism, he alerts the readers to accept racism and fight it. In other words, he is telling his audience they must be aware, understanding, and accepting in order to be conscious of the racism. Furthermore, part of accepting the racism is being understanding… and becoming the bigger person. This does not mean ignoring the racism, nor does it mean turning the other cheek. It means acknowledging the cruel reality of the ignorant. Lastly, he encourages the audience to fight these injustices no matter how big or small the instances may be. I think of what Martin Luther King Jr. said: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. We find racism at every corner, and we must be wary of it getting to our better natures.
As an Asian American minority, I have lived my whole life upholding Baldwin’s stance on racism. I accept and fight. There will always be ignorant people in this world, there will always be people that do not like you, there will always be people who are prejudiced against you for who you are, no matter what sex, race, or religion you have. We cannot expect people to magically change their minds or drastically become less ignorant in a snap of a finger unless we eliminate every single person that is racist. But wouldn’t that be everyone? So, what is racism? It is this man-made, imaginary, heinous institution that has been created for the sake of upholding superiority and self-esteem. Almost everyone, if not every one of us, has fallen victim to some sort of racism, and more importantly, has taken part in some sort form of racism. And I admit, I am not an exception, whether it’s accepting what role and stereotype I play in the eyes of others; feeling ashamed of my culture; making jokes about my race (and saying “it’s okay because I’m just making fun of my OWN race”); or letting simple ignorant thoughts float in my head. This is not dissimilar to your flinching when you see a man in a hoodie, your letting a racist remark against any race other than your own drop from your mouth, or your being aggressive toward an individual, fueled from an extra little twist because of their race. Face it: racism has been ingrained in minds, from our family, friends, school, and media. So be mindful of yourself, help yourself before you try to help others, acknowledge that racism persists. Objectively, without emotions attached, (or keeping them in control), take it in. Then act and fight. Acceptance is necessary to prevent passion from reeling you away from your mission of righteousness. Dispassion is a virtue.
Some civil rights activists falsely believe that they uphold a balanced stance, and fight without challenging their first reactions. In this seemingly just mission, some skew it – they do not accept, but just fight, sometimes blindly. While their mission is to fight for rights and ostensibly, for mankind to be more righteous, they instead become more radical and even act unrighteously themselves, as their emotions begin to calcify.
I attend Boston Latin School, the oldest high school in the USA. This institution has recently made national news, coping with an unforeseen event, causing both my headmaster and a legendary assistant headmaster, who were BLS employees for over half a century (combined), to resign. A school group calling themselves B.L.A.C.K. (Black Leaders Aspiring for Change and Knowledge) raised awareness on social media by challenging black students to share incidents of racism that they’d experienced at Boston Latin, with the hashtag #BlackatBLS. At the same time, the Boston Public School District was preparing to launch an investigation into the events. The movement of #BlackatBLS gained attention, and the leaders were interviewed on media. The leaders said the headmasters were not punishing some perpetrators of what seemed to be racist bullying, enough. Then, with social media it blew up, and the overall situation became an unrooted commotion, distracting hardworking BLS students, and causing deeper divisions to appear. It is important to note that in an interview with Ebony Magazine, one of the two students who started the campaign said, “We just want to be students and not worry about race. That’s what this all comes down to.” Indeed, both students were surprised at the impact of their activism, Ebony reports. It is difficult to affix blame on any individual for what followed. Perhaps the blame can be placed partially at the media’s feet. Perhaps the media can be at fault here where the #BlackatBLS is nothing but a signpost. We can see the consequences of young adults feeling empowered to use the levers of power which is normally approached more careful by educated, experienced adults rather than by youths using Twitter. I am not trying to defame this group but rather pay respects to the wisdom of those who have come before us.
Although this campaign was an amazing idea, allowing the voices of victims to be heard, it became unscrupulously out of hand and terribly flawed. Accusing innocent people of being racist, being prejudiced towards white people, and excluding Asian minorities from the campaign were some of the events that I experienced. In my view, the leaders and supporters of this #BlackatBLS movement allowed their emotions to get in the way of their mission, and somewhat blindly pointed fingers at both the headmaster and assistant headmaster for allowing the school’s racism to happen. They failed to see things from the headmaster’s side, and found no reason for commending, or even acknowledging the headmaster’s efforts. When the racist incidents happened, the headmaster punished the perpetrator according to Boston Public School codes, and conducted racism prevention talks, interventions, and workshops.
You can imagine the awkwardness and quietness that sweeps the room now, as no one wants to offend, by even discussing, or handling this taboo subject: racism. Those who speak up are usually the daring, the brave, the radically righteous activists, but the words that come out of their mouths hurt the ear, sounding unbelievably disgraceful. In the workshops the Headmaster presented, I have seen and heard the following: “All white people are racist”; “I feel unsafe being in a classroom full of white people”; “There should be less white people in this school”. Now if you replaced the word white with black, wouldn’t that be a little racist? To those who have said those things, it is VERY racist if it is towards black people but if I impose the question, why is it okay to be racist against white people? I get the response, “…because white people are the majority, they are superior”… !? The individuals who have uttered these disgraceful and hurtful words do not realize that their campaign has put an enduring, vile label on Boston Latin School: RACIST. I can’t even talk to another student outside of my school without being plagued with the question, “ARE YOU RACIST?” Most stunningly, I found that the B.L.A.C.K. leaders tell us they are fighting for minority’s rights, but they excluded Asian Americans! Why is that when an Asian girl tries to voice her experiences of racism, that she is immediately shut down because she’s not black?
During the 2016 graduation, African Americans were allowed to wear special purple and gold ribbons that were given to them for being the minority. ARE WE NOT MINORITIES TOO? We should fight racism, but not like that. To Baldwin, accepting racism is key to preventing radical instances like these, which create harsher divisions between races. How are we going to fix divisions if we are simply blaming and being negative towards all white people, all males, all other power identities, acting on the instinct that all white people are racist, and all males are sexist? Accepting doesn’t mean being quiet. It means being able to understand where and how racism lurks, and it means being respectful, and being able to discriminate wisely between options as you choose your battles.
As Adrienne Rich ponders on her identity, she peers at her reflection and finds nothing but confusion, contradiction, a million identities without a single identity she’s comfortable enough to classify herself as. Identity. Race. Sexual orientation. These are all processes – never static. Adrienne Rich, a Jewish lesbian woman, realized the importance of equality and put aside her fear and shame in order to embrace her own identity. At age 53, she continues her lifelong struggle to slowly unravel herself as she begins “Split at the Root”:
“For about fifteen minutes I have been sitting chin in hand in front of the typewriter, staring out at the snow. Trying to be honest with myself, trying to figure out why writing this seems to me so dangerous an act, filled with fear and shame, and why it seems so necessary.”
In this personal essay, she resolves her conflicts by embracing every aspect of herself: “…When I was 31 years old I described myself as split at the root, neither gentile nor Jew, Yankee nor Rebel…’I was still trying to have it both ways: to be neither/nor”. Finding one’s identity is as hard as peeling an onion: the truth of our problems are at the very core, and in order to get there you must peel the layers, and as they peel away every fleeting moment, Adrienne Rich writes. She peels the first layer by rebelliously watching a Jewish film and the next layer by joining a Jewish community at Harvard yet she becomes reluctant to fully accept her identity and sexuality as a Jewish Lesbian. But she realizes that one cannot be neither/nor, one must accept their identity as a mystery, but must not give up their search. Adrienne Rich’s father is Jewish; her mother is Christian. “If I call myself only through my mother, is it because I pass more easily through a world where being a lesbian often seems more like an outsiderhood?” She seems to be a victim of identity theft: her father hides his identity, and the Jewish religion is passed on matrilineally. Although Adrienne Rich bares the social advantage of being half Christian, the Christian and Jewish sides of her become a true disadvantage as Adrienne feels she is “neither” Jewish “nor” Christian: “In Jewish law I cannot count myself a Jew… [but] according to Nazi logic my two Jewish grandparents would have made me a Mischling first degree-non exempt from the final Solution.”
Despite the differences of color and sex, Adrienne Rich bares great resemblance to James Baldwin. Self-doubt persists throughout the essay and her futile search for identity is not funny but rather ironic. There is this sense of tragic irony where she must deny her community and family in order to be respected among others; but is denying your identity respectful?
Rich suffers through Baldwin’s common conflict, where her parents provide her a “safe way” of living by abandoning her roots. In the midst of Rich’s conflict, her tone becomes increasingly sardonic as she describes the treatment of Jews: “
In the same way that Baldwin has to both accept and fight, Adrienne is confronted with her parents providing her a “safe way” of living by abandoning her roots. In the midst of Rich’s conflict, her tone becomes increasingly sardonic as she describes the treatment of Jews: “Jews might be ‘fascinating’ as individuals, but came with huge unruly families who ‘poured chicken soup over everyone’s head’ (in the phrase of a white southern male poet). Anti-Semitism could thus be justified by the bad behavior of certain Jews; and if you did not effectively deny family and community, there would always be a cousin claiming kinship with you, who was the “wrong kind” of Jew” (648). Through denying the restraints put on her, Adrienne Rich becomes the voice and strength of women. She smashes the social boundaries and bravely reveals the taboos with her mighty pen. Both Baldwin and Rich exhibit the heroic quality of speaking up for the oppressed and not being ashamed nor fearful of embracing their identities. Although both authors were once bound, not only by society but by their parents who truly believed hiding and suppressing the voice of their people would reassure a peaceful life, Baldwin and Rich paid a small price for breaking their rules, receiving a great reward of gaining their identity, and paving the stepping stones of equality.
Every day I ask myself, how will I peel my layers; how will I find my identity; how will I choose what to fight? James Baldwin and Adrienne Rich had foes directly stemming from bias, in mid-century USA. In 2016, much of my fighting for my identity has been within myself: I didn’t have important authority figures who held me back but who instead encouraged me to embrace my culture and background. In the end, I was the only one holding myself back from attaining my identity by being ashamed of my culture and submissive to those who were prejudiced against me. These civil rights advocates and leaders were like Olympic athletes compared to me. They were strong, resilient, and their personal essays portrayed them to be rebels and fighters. And I? I was that loser who paid for a membership to the gym but never went. I let the words and prejudices break me down. I became ashamed of my culture: when someone once told me that my Vietnamese lunch was weird, I begged my mother to buy me school lunch the next day; when someone once told me my eyes were too small, I practiced widening my eyes with my fingers gouging my eyelids; and when someone told me my skin was yellow, I only wore hoodies and sweaters that whole hot summer. I lived in neighborhoods from the projects to suburban areas and I was always that one Asian girl. I felt like my family was the only Asian people in this whole entire world and as the black sheep, I felt ugly.
Like Baldwin and Rich, I, too have faced racism from being accused of bombing Pearl Harbor, when I am not even Japanese; to being accused of eating cats and dogs, when I once had a dog of my own that I cared for; to being thrown rocks at, when I was defenseless. All of these insults wore me down, but secretly strengthened me. My tears from words became my sweat from a workout, the slurs and names were like the weights that I had to lift above my head, and the heartaches and embarrassment were like the strains and aches of my muscles. I remember wishing for there to be a day where I was strong enough to not let the words and weights strain my heart and muscles.
All I had to do was peel at the layers. Accept the racism, accept my identity. Although it once made me feel insecure by imposing western beauty standards on me, media showed me that there are other Asian people and communities out there. I owe some of my pride in Asian culture to Youtube and Kpop. Both Youtube and Kpop have shown me that you don’t need to be white with big eyes, blond hair, and sharp noses, to be beautiful.
As recently as my mom’s generation, the USA media and film industry had small Asian representation; in fact white people often played Asian people instead of Asians themselves. In the 1990s, only one sitcom featured an Asian-American cast. Starring Margaret Cho, “All American Girl” was canceled after one season, for a variety of reasons, one of which was the conflict between Cho’s free expression (her comedy routine as a source) and the production goals of ABC. The result was a flop. “Fresh Off The Boat” hadn’t appeared, and there certainly weren’t any Asian Youtube communities. But, amazing brave souls like Baldwin and Rich have paved the way for the future generations to become more comfortable and more proud of their true identities. JK Films and Wongfu productions from the Asian Community on Youtube make content and videos with the mission to show what Asian Americans are capable of. Phil, Wes, and Ted (founders of Wongfu) are doing it all, they’ve shown that Asian Americans are capable actors, producers, scriptwriters, cameramen, and musicians. They have shown that Asian Americans can play roles beyond that stereotypical nerdy kid or your awesome kung-fu master. These are the true activists and heroes who abide by Baldwin’s doctrines on racism. They accept and fight, not by insulting nor discriminating, but by working hard and making a name in the film industry in order to explode these stereotypes. It is ironic that the same media distanced older generations from their culture but now liberate us. For me, Adrienne Rich, identifying as lesbian, Jewish, and Protestant; James Baldwin, a black man fighting for a voice during the Civil Rights era; Wongfu Productions, busting Asian stereotypes by freely expressing themselves successfully with their own videos and content; the citizenry who absorb the actions of these civil rights leaders and entertainers, and we who try to follow through: we have all paved the way for a more peaceful and righteous world.