Monday, October 6, 2014

Talking Social Justice with Son of Baldwin

This is the transcript of a recent interview I had with the admin of the Facebook page Son of Baldwin. In it, we discuss the origins of the Facebook page, online social justice activism, and problems in the LGBT community.

Why have you named the page Son of Baldwin? What kind of impact has James Baldwin had on you personally?

James Baldwin was the first black gay male intellectual I had ever encountered. His work was really the first time I had seen myself, my identity (as a black gay male), and my point of view represented in art and public discourse in a way that was not meant to be mocked, dismissed, minimized, or dehumanized. His was the first work that started me on the path to thinking critically about myself, the world around me, and my place in it. In tribute to that consciousness raising (which may have come much later, if at all, had it not been for him) and in an effort to answer his final call to dig through the wreckage and use what he left behind to continue the work of trying to make the world a more just, livable, peaceful place, I named the blog “Son of Baldwin.” I have been told by friends of Baldwin’s family that the family is quite pleased by the work being done and they believe that I am indeed honoring his legacy. That is overwhelming and I am overjoyed.

What made you want to make a Facebook page in the first place?

Son of Baldwin originally started out as a blog via blogspot. But that space wasn’t really conducive to conversation. Facebook allows for a kind of direct and extended interaction and dialogue that many other sites, including other social media, don’t. And for me, the conversation is the most important part. Despite how I may sometimes come across, this isn’t about me. This isn’t about being able to proselytize from on high and have everyone applaud the pronouncement. This is about starting conversations and engaging other people in various communities about these causes and concerns in the effort of finding solutions to some of our most pressing social justice issues.

You talk about a number of topics, from LGBTQ rights to racism, through a critical progressive lens. How did you come to this political awakening of sorts?

I think this awakening started in my childhood. I grew up during the 70s, 80s, and 90s—a child of both Black Southern Baptist and Nation of Islam traditions—in a section of Brooklyn called Bensonhurst (infamous for the racist attack against and murder of Yousef Hawkins in 1989).
Bensonhurst, at least at that time I grew up there, was a neighborhood of primarily Italian and Irish first- and second-generation immigrants. In this neighborhood, I lived in a housing project of mostly black and Latin@ peoples right in the middle of things. We were thus surrounded, if you will, in hostile enemy territory. This made everything tenuous.

As a child and a teen, I had to plot routes home from school that would help me avoid running into the mobs of white children, teens, and adults who--with bats in hand, violence in heart, and death in mind--made a regular ritual of chasing kids of color back to the projects.

What was different for me when I got back to the projects, having often but not always escaped the battering from racists, is that the battle didn’t end there. I had to then contend with the other black and Latin@ peoples who wanted to pound on my head because they perceived me as gay.

When you are not safe in any of the worlds you inhabit, you sort of don’t have a choice but to become politicized. You kind of don’t have a choice but to "wake up" because if you don’t, you’ll be murdered. Reading the works of authors like Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Octavia Butler, Audre Lorde, and others helped to direct these concerns and grievances, and made me feel less alone and more empowered to do something about my circumstances.

Something that I have noticed about you is that you actively allow yourself to be called out by others and acknowledge when you messed up and allow yourself to be corrected. Why do you think that this does not exist in larger political circles, especially liberal or progressive spheres?

My opinion is that this willingness to be wrong and be corrected doesn’t happen in larger political circles and spheres because many of the people working within those areas actually think this work is about them. They believe that in order to be trusted and effective, they have to feign perfection and position themselves as above reproach. Can you imagine?

Many people doing this work think that in order to be trusted they have to lie. The truly sad thing about this contradiction of a strategy is how often it works, and how often complicit audiences are willing to believe the lie if it confirms their system of reality. I guess what I’m saying is that many people doing this work are politicians in the most cynical sense of the word, and that occupation is not something I have any interest in whatsoever. I’m a writer by purpose, training, and profession, and I’ve never pretended to be anything other than that.

In short, I think ego is at the center of this unwillingness to be incorrect.

You recently made it a requirement that people who post photos on the page to provide a written description. What prompted this?  

This comes from a desire to ensure that as many people as possible are able to participate, as fully as they can, in the conversations and discourses happening in the space. Blind and Deaf/Hard of Hearing people are active members of the Son of Baldwin community and this policy makes it possible for them to be even more vibrant participants in discussions. This is one of the ways I’m trying to address my own collusion in institutionalized ableism/disableism.

What are your thoughts on online social justice work? Do you think that it can make a serious difference in people's lives and on a larger scale? (I often hear people saying that tweeting or writing doesn't really do anything.)

For starters, I think online social justice work has been a blessing in the sense that it has given a voice to many peoples and communities whose voices were often missing, excluded, or silenced in sociopolitical discussions. Additionally, the Internet has made it possible for many more people to have access to these debates and discussions, such as disabled people/people with disabilities who are often unable to access on-the-ground events because many organizers are unwilling to make accommodations, or poor peoples who simply cannot afford to travel to these events.

There are many absolutely amazing and brilliant online social justice activists doing work that honestly, truly matters, and are, despite narratives to the contrary, affecting the discourse and changing minds.

But like everything else, there is a deeply disturbing dark side to online social justice work.
One of the things I deeply dislike about much of the social justice activism and social justice spaces I've encountered is how intentionally vicious they are. And I'm not talking about viciousness between social justice activists and trolls. I'm talking about the viciousness between peoples with the same goals, but who might have different strategies for obtaining those goals.

I've seen some really hateful, ugly, deeply dishonest and self-serving stuff happening in conversations in these spaces—including my own. I'm not talking about disagreements or even heated disagreements. I'm talking about full-on attempts at destroying each other—from credibility to personhood. I'm talking about people who truly get off on making others feel as small as possible so they can feel big.

I'm talking about intentionally committing violence against and silencing other people. I'm talking about people lying and slandering others with the intent of spiritually murdering them as though they were opposing a concept rather than a person. The Internet often helps with the depersonalization of people.

When you think you’re arguing with, and trying to obliterate, digitized images and typed words instead of a living being, it’s easier to be joyfully inhumane, spiritually toxic, and intellectually genocidal, then reward yourself by calling it “social justice.” It’s easy to be gleeful about shitting on an opponent (an opponent that you, yourself, manufactured for your own dubious purposes, by the way) and high-five each other about the havoc you wreaked when you can treat the carnage as a concept rather than reality.

I'm talking about people who wear the cloak of victimhood like a Trojan horse in order to sneak into the village, get close to you and- surprise- become the victimizers you never expected. There are people who use their marginalized identities and communities not for the purposes of liberation, but as a hustle, as masturbation, as a way to elevate themselves to a place where they are above reproach. I'm talking about the people who have the audacity to use “trigger” not as a real expression and sign post of lived trauma, but as a strategic pretense to silence any opinions they don’t like.

It's like they play this game where the more marginalized identity boxes they can check off, the more they can't be criticized for any behavior they engage in, no matter how abusive and counterrevolutionary. Therefore, the goal is to check off as many marginalized identity boxes as they can—even if they have to invent them or pretend to belong to them. Whoever has the most, wins.

To me, that's the original pimp strategy and I guess what I'm saying is that I don't like pimps. But I have discovered that there are so many of them in this arena. Some folks are out here big pimpin’ and calling it “radical” of all things.

I don't know why, but that shocked me. I did some research to determine whether this was a new phenomenon brought on by the anonymity of the Internet. What I discovered is this behavior pre-dates the Internet. Shirley Chisholm, for example, was the target of disgusting attacks by people who should have been in solidarity with her. Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison said such despicable things about James Baldwin that it would make your skin crawl. Much to my dismay, I learned this in-fighting and hostility isn’t novel in any respect.

Sometimes, I've been accused of being egotistical, which, okay, fine if that’s your opinion. But the truth of the matter is that I’m not trying to be a pimp at this stuff. Part of why I don't do public speaking gigs, etc. is because I'm not trying to become some kind of object of celebrity or fame. I'm not trying to become some kind of some kind of commercial figure or commodity.

I’m not trying to be that person who maneuvers themselves closer to the president in group photo opportunities because they are trying to climb some political ladder. Those people want to be “The One.” Not me, though. I'm not trying to be the “go-to” expert. I'm not trying to be in the spotlight. I'm not trying to be anyone’s leader. I'm not trying to make money off of this work. I'm not trying to play like I'm perfect and have all the answers. I'm learning right alongside everyone else. I'm not here to be worshiped like some god-thing, but regarded as a human being who is growing and evolving, falling down and getting back up again with increased knowledge. I'm a participant in this conversation.

But increasingly, these aren’t conversations anymore. Increasingly, these are encounters with people with not-always-legit agendas trying to push those agendas as liberation strategies.  These people are about switching places with the oppressor and will use whichever of the“master’s tools” (as Audre Lorde called them) is necessary to do so. However, I’m not interested in being chained and I’m not interested in chaining anyone else. That, for me, is the politics of inertia and I’m interested in progress. I want everyone to be liberated.

Part of the genius of this violence-strategy that some people who call themselves marginalized employ is that it's difficult for the victim of the violence to discern whether the violence is legitimate or illegitimate. Because many of the people in this work are so committed to justice, they err on the side of it being legitimate even when it isn't. So they endure the emotional, psychic, psychological, spiritual, and sometimes even physical abuse because they're afraid if they don't, they will be labeled as a part of the problem. Speaking for myself,  I've allowed people to abuse me, even flat-out lie about me on an ongoing basis, just so I wouldn't be perceived as an oppressor and anti-justice (because of the ways in which my identities intersect, in and out, with privilege and oppression and marginalization). To save my "reputation" among the social justice crowd, I've been a masochist. It’s so incredibly complicated. And I do not have the answers for it. But I do have the bruises.

So, I'm no longer engaging the brutality. I'm moving away, not from the difficult and needed conversations, but from the egotistical violence. If your concept of social justice is about amassing power at the expense of other victims of hegemonic abuse, I cannot be down for your cause. And if that makes me “bad” at doing this social justice stuff, then so be it.  If you need me to be the villain so you can feel like the hero in your own story, play on playa. But you'll be playing sans me. I won’t give you the attention you’re seeking. I will absolutely refuse to see you no matter what tricks you employ. I've got other work to do.

You are quite critical of the race and class politics of the mainstream LGBT community. Due to this split on multiple levels, from racism to ignoring transgender people, would you say that there is even a real LGBT community? How can people work towards having more inclusive spaces for marginalized LGBT members?

I would say, currently, that there may be LGTBQIA communities, plural. But the singular community that is commonly addressed in media and conversations is one that is actually serving the needs of one particular subset of the communities—namely, white, middle-to-upper class, cisgender, non-disabled, gender conforming men.

James Baldwin said back in 1984 that the gay movement was really about white people who lost their white privilege struggling and petitioning to get it back. I see no lies in that statement if the national platforms and conversations, if the faces of the movement are any indication.

I witness tons of conversations about why “black people are so homophobic” (which we can actually trace, ironically, to white colonial intervention) but relatively few to none about “why white gay people are so racist.” The answer, as Baldwin surmised, was because white gay people are still, at heart, white and Whiteness, which is inextricably linked to the idea of racial superiority, is at the root of most of our problems.

To get to a more inclusive space, people (of all races and creeds) have to give up their addiction to Whiteness and white supremacy. People (or all genders and sexualities) have to give up their addiction to patriarchy and narrow-minded views of masculinity, femininity, gender identity, and sexuality. People of all physical realities have to give up capitalism and incessant materialism, which are commodifications of humanity, and stop treating human bodies as machines that are valuable only for what they can produce for the State—a deeply ableist point of view.

The problem is convincing people to give up the things that define their current comforts. We have to get people to be willing to be uncomfortable, at least for a while, until we can figure all of this out. This may be a continuous journey, rather than a destination.

At the end of the day, what do you want people to get out of your Facebook page?

 My dream for Son of Baldwin is that it serves as a place where we can have uncomfortable conversations about social justice issues without dehumanizing one another. We might occasionally yell at one another. We might occasionally have to be corrected for our errors and apologize for them. But I hope out of the consternation come viable solutions and a greater respect for each other’s humanity.

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