“A Human Affair: James Baldwin’s Philosophy of Optimism and Active Love” SwatTalk
with Paul Cato ’14, doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago
Recorded on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021
Dina Zingaro '13 Okay. We will get started. So, welcome again, everyone. My name is Dina Zingaro. I am the class of 2013. As many of you know, SwatTalks is a speaker series brought to you by the Swarthmore Alumni Council. I'm a member of the Swarthmore Alumni Council, and I also help to run SwatTalks. So, again, thank you all for coming tonight. So, tonight's session will be recorded so you will be able to find it on the SwatTalks recording webpage on the Swarthmore College site within two or three weeks. If you're interested in watching previous talks, you can also find those on our SwatTalks page, including our first SwatTalk from September with NASA scientist John Mather from the class of 1968. So, tonight, I am thrilled to be joined by Paul Cato, a graduate of the class of 2014. He majored in religion and minored in black studies. Paul and I were actually in the same class together, Professor Steven Hopkins. I think it was the love and religion seminar, and I can remember it like it was yesterday, and I remember Paul's deep insights and his presence in class was characterized by a kindness, a deep listening, an open-mindedness, and a humility. So, I'm just so thrilled that Paul is here with us this evening. So, Paul is currently pursuing a PhD from the University of Chicago, the University of Chicago's John Nef Committee on Social Thought. He studies philosophies of love and intersubjectivity, particularly those developed by American author James Baldwin. Much of his research focuses on conceptions of love found in cultural works and those that speak to the world's social and political realities. In addition to studying Baldwin, he has investigated discussions of love in the work of Audre Lorde, Dostoevsky, Emmanuel Levinas, and Plato. He dissertation outlines the discourse of active love, which is a decades-long conversation on political love comprised of explicit or implicit discussions between several 20th century African American intellectuals. Paul's dissertation proposal was the first to focus on members of the African diaspora in the Committee on Social Thought's history. His work also extends into the more practical field of human sociality, such as race relations, disability studies, and social justice. In addition to Paul's scholarly endeavors, he's heavily involved in fights against racism and ableism. He's a founding member of an international epilepsy awareness organization and is an active alumnus of the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship and diversity program. For those of you who are new to SwatTalks or for our regulars who just need a reminder, tonight will go like this. Paul will present for the first half hour followed by our usual 30-minute question and answers. Please, we welcome your questions. Please use the chat feature and please do include your name and year. We love seeing what class years you guys are from. And I will ask those questions of Paul during the question-and-answer period. So, with that I'm gonna pass it over to Paul. Thank you, Paul.
Paul Cato '14 Thank you, Dina, and thank you to all of you for showing up tonight. I'm so excited to go and share my research with all of you, especially since so much of it actually began back at Swarthmore in various classes I took. So I wanna thank the alumni council, Lisa Shafer, Dina, and I also wanna give a special shout-out and thank you to my partner Asia, who in the past several months has helped me contextualize a lot of these ideas and has served as a great conversant on these topics. Just for the sake of just explaining my progress through this I'm gonna do a big effort to both go through Baldwin's thoughts, but I'm also gonna go and contextualize the ideas by going and offering testimonies from my own life, especially from Swarthmore just to show you the ways in which Baldwin really illustrated a philosophy of love that's meant to go and be practiced in the real world. So, with that, I'm gonna begin. Okay. So, last year in May as I was stuck sitting in my apartment in Woodlawn, Chicago, I felt trapped as due to COVID and quarantine. I spent most of the day going and watching TV shows on Netflix and Hulu and YouTube and such, and then one day I woke up in May and I was alerted through different Facebook alerts and Instagram alerts that a murder had taken place of a black man who was knelt upon and was suffocated to death as a result. Because I had nothing else to do at the moment because we were stuck inside in quarantine, I saw comment after comment commenting on this situation. Just based on my social circles there was nothing but disparaging of the actions of the police in the murder of George Floyd, and while I would have thought that there'd be some kind of solidarity around this, something resembling a Black Lives Matter ethos that would make me feel inspired to push against this, I think there was something of the mix between being trapped inside because of quarantine but also just being tired of seeing these videos over and over again that led to a state of certain despair. I couldn't really define what my reaction was at the time. I lacked the philosophical categories to describe it. I couldn't decide if I was having an existential crisis, or if this was just political frustration, or if I was just bored and sad and this was not the right event to take place, and at the same time, I felt both compounded and isolated at the same time. I felt like I was one amongst a great number of black people who were tired of seeing this happen and were definitely alienated, but at the same time, I felt alone and separated, and I couldn't reconcile how I could feel both lonely and crowded in and swarmed at the same time. I don't wanna speak to anyone save for my father and mother, who had both passed in years prior, and I felt, again, just despair and alone. Several months later, this repeated itself on January 6th when quarantine had ended but I was back home in the D.C. area, and I saw the Capitol get swarmed. Again I didn't know how to describe my emotions. They were a mix of isolation, but also I felt crowded inside. I use these two examples just to illustrate the constant sense of paradox that we're trapped within as residents of a modern society. It goes and it brings a certain skepticism. No matter how much we might wanna go and believe that the future can change, it seems nowadays we're constantly reiterated with situations that make us feel this group that we're standing in opposition to just doesn't wanna change or see our side. Why would we go and have faith and take up a kind of assumption that we can rely on them to change ourselves? The most sensible action and course of action is to go and give up on taking that sort of attitude. Not in a despairing and frustrated, immature way, but just to be realistic but still understand that the world can't go and change easily. Let's be reasonable and practical. Let's take what might be called a skeptical or pessimistic attitude. And it seemed quite sensible to do this. I have a number of friends who have done so, and I understand entirely their motivation behind this. However, this is not the attitude taken by one of the foremost thinkers in the history of 20th century American thought, black author James Baldwin.
[Playing James Baldwin video clip] I can't be a pessimist, because I'm alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter. So, I'm forced to be an optimist. I'm forced to believe that we can survive whatever we must survive.
Paul Cato '14 As far as Baldwin's concerned, that sort of skepticism that I mentioned, the one turned to, again, by so many of my loved ones, is a matter of pessimism, and it's problematic because it undercuts our ability to survive. In Baldwin's eyes, going and taking up such a pessimistic perspective is the assumption that we can go and come on and create different categories and labels for what's going and disparaging us. Okay, we can go label a group of supporters of Trump as going and being authoritarian or being fascist, or if we stand on the other side of the political spectrum, we can see highly progressive individuals as being anarchist and so forth, but as Baldwin would see it, these labels that we're gonna go and take up that can justify our skeptical attitudes, just don't fit. Someone might have a progressive mode and understanding of the world in one aspect, but that might change on another social location or positionality, and these things fluctuate over time in life. All the more, if we go and take an attitude of skepticism, we're gonna go and reach a place in which we can cope with the difficulties of life. We're not gonna necessarily thrive or survive. In Baldwin's eyes we can't go and reduce ourselves to these categories. They aren't a useful way to exist as human beings. In Baldwin's eyes he traces these kind of responses, this skepticism, to a certain flight from reality. As he understands it, the reality of human life is marked by uncertainty, and chance, and vulnerability. We're going around walking through life without being able to predict what's gonna happen, and it scares us as human beings because as highly rational creatures, we want control over what we receive and what we understand. So, Baldwin sees and he outlines a general cycle in which we go and undertake this flight from reality and from vulnerability, and it's something we can see repeated over and over again throughout the history of America, especially in terms of anti-black racism. First we see that fear of reality that I just mentioned. A fear of not knowing what's coming. Here in this picture of Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryan, Hazel Bryan being the white woman yelling at her. Bryan is afraid of what might come next once her school gets integrated in Little Rock. So again, she's gonna go and create a category that will go and disparage that. But these categories are false. Like I said before, any label we try to put on an individual will fluctuate. It won't go and encapsulate every one of who they are. So many times we've seen social locations and markers fluctuate. We've seen racial categories shift decade after decade, and these categories, while they might give us a sense of control, they're not a true understanding of what reality is like. This goes and it onsets a sense of misguided institutions and ideology, and so now we're gonna go and understand this sense. Okay, well, this political view is correct because it's based on this category, but if we remember the categories are false, so those ideologies can't properly go and sum up society. This is the same of the institutions that come through them. Baldwin ties this to political parties and so forth. As a result, those institutions are gonna go and they spread bad messages what happens about citizens. We see this time and time again as political organizations go and push messages to go and increase participation, but even in educational systems those messages get put on and taken on in the wrong way, and this happens again and again, and it goes and spreads the wrong message, especially to children and young people as they're gonna go and try to find their place within a society like the United States. This goes and this will just go and entrench social divides. Again the divides would be pushed up, and it doesn't even take an institutional divide like segregation to operate this. We can see this in the classroom or in the hallways of a high school as people go and separate into different cliques and try to rationalize and justify this. And then sadly this will result into a form of hate and dismissal, and as a result, because people go and lack understandings of the people around them, it's gonna scare them from reality yet again and just onset a constant cycle. I went and I experienced this a lot back when I was in high school. I saw this occur over and over again at my private elite high school that I went to because my mom taught there. I didn't fit within the categories that my patriarchal all-boys school set up, and I found myself deeply resentful, but what I wasn't aware of was that by internalizing this, I went and I projected a lot of my resentment and pain onto people around me, especially the women at the sister school tied to us, and especially onto my family, my parents and brother and so forth. I didn't see it at the time, but my spiritual discontent was going and manifesting in a way that led me to participate in that cycle. It would take ten years for me to see this, but Baldwin would describe the archetypal person experiencing spiritual death in the person of his father, David Baldwin Sr.
[Playing James Baldwin video clip] I understand much better now. Part of his problem was he couldn't feed his kids, but I was a kid, and I didn't know that. And he was very religious, very rigid. In fact, in a word, he wanted power. He wanted Negroes to, in effect, what he imagined white people did. That is, to own the houses, to own U.S. Steel, and this is what in effect killed him because in the end he could not bend; he could only be broken.
Paul Cato '14 This kind of situation of David Baldwin, while at its most extreme in the case of that person, is just something we see constantly, and while Baldwin's going and testifying as to its manifestation in the life of a black American at the time, we can all step back and think of situations in which we've felt that kind of spiritual death, in which we'd gone and questioned who we are because a category doesn't work for us and we are deeply despairing because of our treatment. I see this with my students now in undergrad as they feel insecure about whether or not they deserve to be at the University of Chicago or the School of the Art Institute, and we see this time and time again. In a great way, I think, Swarthmore, we kind of mock ourselves for this case, and that's somewhat good, but even still, it's not a good way to go and sustain this, and this comes to be just an expected part of life, especially for young people, but that shouldn't be the case at all. We should never question who we are and assume that a category should be the right rigid amount. If all of these things are social constructs, as we tend to say over and over again, then why are we so reliant on turning to them to understand who we are? Well, the answer to that is that seems to be all we have as an answer. So, I graduated from St. Albans in 2009, and again, I say I was deeply bitter and frustrated, and then I visited Swarthmore at what was then called discovery weekend in fall 2008, and I had a strange experience. At first I thought, "Okay, I'm not gonna fit in in college. "Here I am. "I don't listen to the same music as my classmates. "I'm stuck listening to The Beatles and Stevie Wonder "and so on and so forth," and then I went and I had a conversation with various hosts. All of them were freshmen experiencing their first year. They were only a few months into their time at Swarthmore. And I got a different perspective of what it meant to go and just be a student. I didn't have to hide my particular interests. People were curious and interested in what I had to say, and the biggest marker, I didn't have to constantly identify how I fit in within a category. I didn't have to go and push against the marker of what made a man, as I had been told was the case at St. Albans, and I didn't have to go and, as a result, project my frustrations onto the people around me. This marked itself even more so once I attended Swarthmore the following year. If I have to go and be honest, I've never been in a space that goes and embraces and pushes against categories more than the Black Cultural Center. In Baldwin's eyes, reality, it's marked by a sort of sensuality, and when he talks about this he doesn't mean it in terms of sex or the erotic. Instead, he's talking about a certain vibrancy. He uses the example of jazz in "The Fire Next Time" to mark this up, but I think we can all think about moments in which we've listened especially to black music and heard a vibrancy that just gets us all wanting to tap our feet or move around. Or when we see pictures like this painted by Kerry James Marshall illustrating it. There's just a sense of soul and vibrancy. We don't need to go and rely on finding ways to categorize it. It's not academic in any sense of the word. People have gone and they've tried to define and restrict what might be described as the sensual time and time again, but that doesn't work, and that's because the sensual, this idea that Baldwin's speaking to, it transcends all these categories. Baldwin's push is for us to go and embrace that. In doing so, we're gonna go and experience vulnerability. I don't know what a sensual moment might go and encounter. I might end up at a party or go walk into the BCC, and I might find, "Okay, well, "I don't seem to fit in there today," but within spending 30 minutes there, I'll go and feel, "Okay, wow. "This is a home to me." This is something that occurred time and time again, and it went and assuaged stuff especially as I dealt with my insecurities over the course of my time at Swarthmore. I gave up on trying to figure out a category and a label except when trying to go and navigate the outside world, because I didn't need to rely on them. I could go and embrace just a raw, authentic life, and while I'm being somewhat vague and metaphorical, that's because you can't encapsulate the sensual. Again, it's something we need to all experience and monitor, and I guarantee all of us, regardless of how rigid we might be or the kind of background we spent, can all go think of a moment in which we've just wanted to jump out and just feel the reality and raw reality of the world. Baldwin says this stuff is always accessible to us, and this is what it takes to go and overcome. You go and embrace the sensual. You're going and forgetting that skepticism. You're throwing it aside, and this is an optimistic look forward. And at the same time, Baldwin says this sensual, this sensuality, it's an illustration of something that goes back deeper than that, and that's the sense and degree to which we live in a world that's metaphysically defined by love. People hear Baldwin's talk about love, and various thinkers like Grant Barrett and so forth have tried to go and argue that Baldwin's pushing for some kind of Christian anthropomorphic god that's known as love. With all due respect to those academics, they're wrong according to Baldwin himself. When he talks about love and that aspect that defines how the world works, he's talking about something more metaphysical, something that pierces through. He uses metaphors like fire, wind, something like this to go and convey this. And the sensuality that we experience, that I felt in the BCC, or that my friends have described experiencing when they're going and playing sports, or my friends who have now become parents go and describe when they're seeing their young children, that sort of expression and that engagement with that fire-like love, that's the sensual that Baldwin says we need to appreciate and accept. Again, we don't know what it might bring. It might disappear at one moment. It might force us to go and consider a set of emotions that we typically wanna avoid, but when you embrace this, you look forward instead of looking backward or doubting the future, and it can go and put you into a position in which you're not reliant on categories. As nice and as comforting as categories and identity markers might seem, they'll never completely go and help us understand who we are, but we can always go and react to the emotions we're feeling. I can always stop and feel what I'm feeling in the moment, to practice a sort of mindfulness like we might hear in Eastern religions, and come to understand who I am, and in touching that, Baldwin says we're experiencing love. And at the same time, it's not just enough for me to go and experience this. I left Swarthmore with this new inspiration about the sensual, and it took me time to step back and realize this, but the sexism and all the patriarchy I was showing have been cured because I had received love from various friends in the BCC who called me out on my inappropriate behavior. They exposed me to the ways in which I had practiced that sort of internalization of the hatred I was receiving from white supremacy, and they called me out empathetically over and over again. They showed an acknowledgement that they understood that I was experiencing pain and discontent as a result, but at the same time, they held me accountable, oftentimes through concrete acts of good will, on a daily basis saying, "That's not okay, Paul, "you can't do this," so forth, but always making clear that it wasn't from a place of judgment, but rather from a place of love and care. Baldwin's argument is we've gotta go and take this up, that embrace of love, and we need to hold other people accountable, show them that they have that responsibility too to go and hold others accountable and adopt this sort of love. It's gonna be a scary thing to do. Baldwin compares it to a war, to a sort of growing up. When he writes a letter to his nephew talking about how his nephew has the responsibility to do this for white people, he talks about how his nephew can see himself as a kind of older brother. In my case, I'm gonna be honest, the person who can illustrate this best is my younger brother Charles, who has had to call me out on things like this even though he's three years younger than I. But this point goes over and over again. When a family member goes and holds you accountable for what you're doing, they're loving you concretely and specifically, but at the same time, there's no excusing or letting you off the hook. They're pushing you because they want you to be a better person. And Baldwin's attitude is we need to carry this beyond. It's not enough for me to love myself and embrace the sensual. I need to go and push this further. When I went and left Swarthmore I found myself outside the Swat bubble, and I was deeply frustrated. Suddenly I came in and society was looking frustrating again. It was 2014. Black Lives Matter was pushing up as a movement, and I looked for any place I could to go and just push my protest mindset and push it in. I went and I was working in an AmeriCorps program at a nonprofit, and I looked for every single situation of racism to go call it out. At the moment, I thought I was going and living out a great representational mode, but now I see I was being foolish. The moments in which I made the biggest difference was not when I was going and speaking on behalf of the black employees working in the warehouse, but when I went and just showed compassion and care for them on a concrete, individual level. This sort of act of love on a daily basis, it doesn't call attention to itself. Those moments I didn't even register as active love until I started doing my research and dissertation on this. And that's what Baldwin wants us to push. It's a strange paradox. He wants us to be intentional by showing care, but he doesn't want us to go and mark those acts as a form of active love. Instead, his better thought might be this. If we go and see a person in need, someone who feels disconnected from whatever the reality of the world might be, maybe they've lost a parent, maybe they're just sad for the day, maybe they've been discriminated against, and we show them concrete care, "Okay, friend x, here's how you can go deal with it," or, "Let's go get a coffee," or "No, let me help you go and put together your taxes "so you don't have to stress out about this," those kind of moments, they might not register as love in our book, but this is helping them go and live in the reality. It's pushing them away from all these distracting things that modernity brings, and it's helping us move forward in this. Baldwin sees his task as going and bringing about this. His mode of doing so is called witnessing. He calls himself a witness, and in doing so, his idea of going and preaching that love, it's his specific purpose. He's gonna tell a concrete illustration of how love can operate. He's gonna offer reflection on that. In most of these cases that's about how love can operate in response to race and racism. But then he's gonna offer a moral message that can appeal to all broad people. This is why we see Baldwin quoted time and time again constantly, especially in moments of high social media, which we see now. Unfortunately, a lot of the quotes that are taken on social media by Baldwin are inaccurate and he didn't actually say some of the things, but regardless, he's a highly quotable author because of this witness practice. But Baldwin's not alone in this. There's a wide variety of people who have gone and taken up this mantle. We've seen a kind of Baldwinian renaissance in the current moment, started first because of At-Nehisi Coates's book "Between the World and Me", which was inspired by "The Fire Next Time". It serves as a letter to his son, much like "The Fire Next Time" starts out as a letter to Baldwin's nephew. We see these ethos even more so in Jesmyn Ward and Barry Jenkins, who really do demonstrate that kind of Baldwinian optimism. You can't watch "Moonlight" and go and see any sort of category. Jenkins makes clear he wants us to throw those aside. And Jesmyn Ward throughout all of her books are constantly questioning these categories. And then in a movie like "I Am Not Your Negro" by Raoul Peck we're supposed to constantly question the categories, though someone could argue Peck does not share that same sort of optimism that Baldwin preaches. And then this idea to see his ideas pushed forth we might say okay, Baldwin's going and starting up a tradition and a discourse. My question I'd ask us is, if Plato and such can be seen as philosophers with long traditions, maybe we should see Baldwin the same way, but understanding, however, that Baldwin never intended to create an ideology. It might be better to think of ourselves as going and taking up a practice through it. So, in summarizing, I think we should go and consider what our role is. We have to remind ourselves that we're here to be loved. Going and taking up that skepticism that I referred to at the beginning, it shows that we've given up and just accepted that a connection with other people, as different as they might be, is just unlikely, but that's not so much true. If I go and ignore certain categories, I might find coincidences and spaces of collectivity that I never would have expected. It's dangerous and can be very vulnerable to do so. Baldwin doesn't justify going and putting one's self in harm's way, but if you constantly remember, okay, I need to go and consider how this person is different than me but might also share some certain perspectives, to remember that their difference might lead them to go through pain that I don't understand, you can remember that they might show you love even if you're not expecting or understanding it. At the same time, you have to push and remember that it's your duty to go and demonstrate that love, as frustrating as it might be. Thinking back to the story I told earlier about the Floyd moment, it took me a few days to reflect after this. I went to a cookout held by a friend of mine, Antwan, as he and his wife got ready to pack up and move back to Quebec. At it, their friends Amy and Saralai were there, and Mayor Lori Lightfoot of Chicago had just imposed an order for all people to return home before it got dark. With all due respect to the police in Chicago, I knew that meant danger for me and not for my other friends. I was terrified of going home, and while the cookout went on and on, I didn't wanna walk home even though I lived blocks away from Antwan. Amy and Saralai gave me a ride home. There was no questioning about it, but I remember distinctly being looked at by them. Whatever categories distinguish me from them, the fact that they weren't black, they were irrelevant, and that kind of care and concern, "Oh Paul, let's give you a ride," and a lack of necessity to justify it, there was no need to get credit as woke white liberals or anything, it was just a kind gesture, it went and stuck with me and probably will stick with me for a while. All that confusion and alienation that I described earlier about dealing with George Floyd, it disappeared. All the anger and the righteous anger stayed with me and I remained frustrated with society. I didn't go and put myself in opposition, and by result of them showing me that kind of small, individual care and love, it put me in a place to retain a certain optimism. With that, I'm gonna end with a reflection that those moments inspired me to do and one that I think speaks to the optimism in its own way. This was written after the Floyd murder and was spoken at a collection at University of Chicago. It seems to me that our current moment is marked by two equally dangerous forces. On the one hand, a sort of imminent violence, and on the other, an insurmountable isolation. Both manifest on an existential level. They affect how we currently navigate the world, see ourselves, and recognize others; and they both seem out of our control. The first, that imminent violence, is a visceral and disorienting force. Images of police brutality, statistics on COVID deaths, and a curfew serve as a constant reminder that death is inescapable and that pain is an unavoidable part of life, especially black life. Yet on the other hand, the latter phenomenon, that insurmountable isolation, is defined by all the ramifications that accompany a never-ending delay. The waiting and uncertainty brought about by the pandemic has trapped us inside with our thoughts, and as a result, all the fear, angst, and impatience we experience is intensified by our inability to leave home. Working together, these two forces are devastating. While one minute we're forced to imbibe the horrors of the world, the next, we find ourselves locked inside with those horrors imprinted in our mind. Given all this, it seems sensible to look at our moment and see it as a time of spiritual death or despair, but succumbing to despair is not the marker of black life in America; survival is, and remembering this is key to the sort of self-care needed in times like this. Despite hundreds of years of oppression, black Americans have overcome insurmountable odds, and our history and culture has moved our country forward in more ways than one can imagine. Rather than see each new day as another mark of an endless tally of racial oppression, we might choose to see each day as another demonstration of our survival, and when death befalls us, whether naturally or imposed, it is better to think of that loss of black life as the end to a narrative of survival rather than an example of defeat. There would be no white supremacy if black survival were not such a powerful force, and our governments would not resort to racial violence if black life was not a constant reminder of the nation's moral failings. Thinking in terms of survival does not mean ignoring oppression, especially given that one cannot think of survival without remembering the challenges being overcome, but by flipping the script from death to survival, perhaps we can disallow that oppression to be the defining marker of black life in America. And so tomorrow I'll try to flip the script. I'll wake up, check my phone, be solicited by an array of stories and posts about racial oppression, and I'll try my best to smile. Not as some perverse reaction, but rather as a loving nod to all the black people whose time on this Earth, whether finished or unfinished, serves as an exemplary reminder of the human capacity to overcome. Audre Lorde said it best in 1980, "The only answer to death "is the heat and confusion of living; "the only dependable warmth is the warmth of the blood." Thank you for listening to me go on about this central topic of my dissertation project.
Dina Zingaro '13 Thank you so much, Paul. That was so powerful, and I can tell by the comments that are already coming in on the chat that I'm not alone in just feeling how powerful that was. A quick and easy question from Angie Chapman. She just wanted to know who wrote the last essay that you just... the reflection that you just shared, and I'm pretty sure it was you who wrote that. Am I correct?
Paul Cato '14 Yeah, I wrote that after George Floyd's murder for a reflection at UChicago.
Dina Zingaro '13 Thank you. So, I'm going to give everyone a chance to get their questions in. We have a bunch coming in, but selfishly I'm just going to ask one that I had. Interestingly enough, today I had a class that was focused on cancel culture, which seems incredibly at odds with James Baldwin's active love, but you did note that Baldwin did speak of the importance of holding people accountable, and I'm wondering if you could speak a little bit more about how he thought about how do you hold people accountable with that active love. What does that look like?
Paul Cato '14 Just to use the example of cancel culture without commenting specifically on Chappelle's behavior, I'm just gonna use that as the most recent example since that's fresh in our mind. Baldwin's central point would be that Chappelle needs to go and speak his ideas but that he needs to be prepared for being held accountable when called out about it. It's the discourse from the back and forth that renders the active love. To even go and see one's self as needing to position a resistance of what Chappelle might have done is an active love in itself because you're showing an investment in the betterment of that person, even if it's not intentional. So, the Netflix employee who called Chappelle out, even if it might not have seemed that way to that person's detractors, they were demonstrating, as far as Baldwin would show concern, an exhibit of active love. Those people who later responded to the whole dynamic and declared that Chappelle should be canceled and we shouldn't listen to his work and we shouldn't hear what he has to say, those people are again fitting into a box and a category. They're restricting Chappelle's ideas to a label that might not suit what he's actually doing, but that individual who went and called him out said, "Chappelle, no, what you've said is inappropriate. "You need to consider x, y, and z." That's that sort of illustration of active love. It's contentious and it's very uncomfortable, and it can incite great dissent, but that kind of discourse and debate is exactly what's needed for us to question our assumptions.
Dina Zingaro '13 Hm. Thank you. So, this question comes in from Gabrielle Taju. I'm sorry if I mispronounce your last name. Gabrielle is from the class of 2003, and Gabrielle says, "Beautiful talk. "How would you resolve this philosophy "of loving those who would discriminate/persecute "against Baldwin/us "because of race and sexual orientation "with Baldwin's own decision "to spend a large period of his life abroad "in order to escape that discrimination?"
Paul Cato '14 So, interestingly enough, some of his most profound writings on love came while he was in exile, especially in the latter end of his career when he went to his final exile and lived in Saint-Paul de Vence. The central attitude is that he was sending these messages, and they were still messages of his love. If he really had wanted to go and step outside and not deal with it entirely, he would have gone and just cut off all communication with Americans. He would have sat with Lucy and his French partner and just enjoyed life in a sort of retirement. But the fact that he continued to go and engage in discourse was him showing love in it. I think a key aspect is that Baldwin is against all kind of self-sacrifice. Just referring to that Dostoevsky idea, he's against a sort of love in dreams. It's easier for us to think of some heroic social and political love where you go and throw your life on the line and take it away, but Baldwin would argue that real courage takes being willing to show that love and resisting to survive so that you can keep showing it over and over again. This doesn't mean putting your life at risk so much that you could die, but finding clever ways to go and keep holding people accountable, and there's an infinite number of ways that it could happen. For Baldwin it came through spreading messages through writing and interviews and so forth, but for a teacher it might go and be in the classroom in a position that doesn't isolate them too much or too stressful. For a classmate at Swarthmore it might just mean reminding someone to go and hold themselves accountable. Active love can take all different forms, and one need not go and put themselves in a position to experience too much death, because then they're going and giving into that very structure that they're supposed to be subverting.
Dina Zingaro '13 Thank you. We have another question from Indigo Sage from the class of 2016, and she asks a question that sort of gets a little bit more at some specific boundaries or practices that you have in mind, Paul. So, her question is, how do you or how do you... "How do you imagine Baldwin "would encourage us to embrace "and seek out the sensual "and practice this love "while still remaining aware "and engaged with current events? "Have you found a balance in your own life?" The last... Right, so, she expresses loving the reflection that you shared but is interested in sort of specific boundaries or practices that you have, Paul, in mind.
Paul Cato '14 Hi, Indigo. It's great to hear from you. Just to be quite honest, the performances you've shown with regards to your art is Baldwin's most direct example of how to go and engage in the sensual. We all have some connection to go and make us feel most alive, and I think Baldwin's argument is that we need to tap in to those as a form of what we'd now call self-care. We might think about some of our favorite political artists and musicians, figures like Kendrick Lamar and so forth, who've gone and taken their passions and illustrated that as a mode to go and hold people accountable, or in the case that just strikes me at most is my mother as a teacher, who spent 44 years teaching some of the most privileged students in the D.C. area, people who later become politicians and major policymakers. Essentially, you can go and embrace that and enjoy what's going on and use that as a mode to hold people accountable. That being said, it doesn't need to be one's chief means of going and making an income. We can do this through community service, or if someone wants to participate at their church, or simply by going and getting to know one's neighbors, but if one can find a way that they feel most alive, there's almost always a way to translate that to make that into some kind of intersubjective activity. Simply by going and demonstrating one's love of life, that can serve as a reminder to someone who sees it to, "Okay, let me go and embrace this optimism too." Optimism and love, that's a contagious aspect. Like I said, I've felt that in the BCC every time I went in there, and that's just a perfect example of that kind of stuff operating.
Dina Zingaro '13 We have a question from Marcus Mello, who's from the class of 2013. Hey, Marcus. So, Marcus's question is, "It seems that in recent years "many people have found their self-love and a sense of pride "through labels and categories "that have been forced upon them. "What are your thoughts about this, or Baldwin's thoughts? "Can labels help people love themselves, "or would you say people can and should find self-love "and love towards others in other ways?"
Paul Cato '14 To be quite frank, I'm against identity politics of that form, and Baldwin would be as well. There's an interview... Most of these ideas he revealed in interviews with British journalists; he didn't share this with American journalists so much, where he just made explicit in one case, "I don't believe in race." We'll talk a lot about how race is a social construct, as is gender and so forth, but at the same time, to navigate our world we have to take on markers to just get and communicate who we are, but some of the most memorable figures that just stand out in our mind are people who kind of transition between that, where we don't really know how they position themselves. If we just think of the label how to identify the descendants of slaves, we've gone through and used colored, Negro, black, African American, the list goes on and on, and it might be more useful, Baldwin would say, to go and acknowledge your heritage and your culture but not to reduce one's self solely to that identity and category. The biggest reason being that suddenly you have to go and define the outlying markers of what counts and doesn't count. Suddenly, if you've gone and asked what the marker means, I have to go to another black person and go and designate what it might mean to be black. In an alternative way we might think about blackness or other markers like that in terms of just how one lives their life. If I'm going and feeling it through cultural markers that come from the descendants of black people, if I understand myself in positioned relation to that, not according to some definition but just in terms of a sense of feeling and identity that still traces back historically to the culture, that might be a better mode of existence, and I think one of the modes that he- one of the means by which he best appreciate this is now we see the ways in which the trans community has gone and really brought Socratic questioning about what it means to possess a gender identity, the ways in which that's gone and self-defined without needing to go and have a rigid category according to someone else. This is gonna flourish, and we're seeing it already flourish with regards to race and understanding, but a big aspect is that can't be the only determinant marker about who you are. And again, just to keep championing the BCC, this is what I saw so flourish within there. I don't think one could find any singular definition of blackness. Instead, it was something that was felt simply in terms of how we engage with the reality of our lives. There wasn't a need to define what it meant to be black, and there was no questionnaire or label before joining SASS or anything like that.
Dina Zingaro '13 Hm. Thanks, Paul. We have a question from Ben Postone from the class of 2015. Ben asks, "Baldwin is often claimed "by those working within an Afro-pessimist frame. "What about his work lends itself "to informing such radically different positions "like your own and the Afro-pessimist tradition?"
Paul Cato '14 With all due respect to any Afro-pessimist out there, Baldwin is explicitly not an Afro-pessimist, and individuals who used his words to do so are acting in a fallacious manner. There are so many quotes and there's so much text in his writing that goes and offers an accurate depiction of the horrors of anti-black racism, and this is what's taken up. One can take out of context his description of how his dad felt his spiritual death, but if you go and clip that out of context from the rest of the essay such as "Notes of a Native Son", when Baldwin is saying this isn't a good thing and this is a false reality, "Yeah, my dad had internalized social death, "but he shouldn't have done that. "He could have resisted that," that shatters the connection to Afro-pessimism. What might be a better way of justifying it is people are going and saying Baldwin has some useful insights, but Baldwin's philosophy itself does go explicitly in contradiction with it. He declared himself as seen in the Kenneth Clark interview that we looked at at the beginning that he was resolutely against pessimism. Just to speak very briefly, Afro-pessimism is based deeply on a sense of academic categories and terms of ontology and the state of being that ties to race, and Baldwin would dismiss all those categories and even the use of those. He'd see them as getting the way into a fourfold existence that transcends racial injustice. So, there's an inconsistency there, but it has to do with how well Baldwin describes racism more than anything else.
Dina Zingaro '13 Our next question is from Gene Akkerman, class of 1976, and Gene asks, "Paul, could you comment on how cultural appropriation "fits into Baldwin's ideas on active love?"
Paul Cato '14 So, Baldwin's most explicit discussion of cultural appropriation comes in the essay "The White Negro", which is his response to Norman Mailer and his writings. It's one of the first discussions we have of hipsters and the issues with them, and Baldwin's argument with regards to that is that these so-called hipsters as just marked by the archetypal Norman Mailer are going and they're taking the cool, exciting, sensuous parts of black life and adopting them in a useful way to go and live vibrantly, which Baldwin would agree with, but they're not acknowledging the extent to which that sensuality also comes at the expense of not being accepted by society. Baldwin would argue that Mehler and all these white hipsters should go and find their own version of sensuality, sensuality as it might mark them in their suburban homes. It will look radically different than people living in the urban ghettos, as he describes them, but sensuality can be found anywhere. An active loving existence would go and acknowledge, "Okay, your sensuality is over there. "It's separate from mine "just because of what I've been brought up to "and where I've experienced these things, "but I can still go find it. "I don't need to pretend "and adopt these other sort of things." He would commend Mailer for going and appreciating sensuality, but the idea that you can appropriate the sensuality that defines another person's existence, since the things are so individual and distinct, that's where the failures of cultural appropriation come. You can learn a lesson from someone else's experience, but you can't go and mirror it into your own case because we're all so different, even if we're living in a collective space.
Dina Zingaro '13 Thanks, Paul. This question comes from Yvonne Harris. Yvonne asks, "How do you reconcile Baldwin's thought "with the civil rights movement "and now, Black Lives Matter?"
Paul Cato '14 Something... At one point Baldwin said he described, he felt he was a sort of Jeremiah, referring to the Biblical prophet, and now that marker has just been used over and over again to describe him. I think whether or not Baldwin wanted to be in this position, his central role was to go and express a sort of underlying ethos that people felt and go communicate it across boundaries and lines. Malcolm X spoke explicitly to a black audience. Martin Luther King spoke to a Christian ethos within the country. Baldwin took those different mindsets using testimony and explored beyond that. He could describe something going on in the lives of black people but show how the lessons there could go and apply no matter what to all different sorts of context. I could flip open to any page in "Notes of a Native Son" or "No Name in the Street", find a quote, and share that with a friend who's dealing with issues with regards to socioeconomic strife, or gender identity, or even just issues with their parents. And this sort of prophetic element showed that the civil rights movement had lessons for people even beyond racial dissent. I think the same thing goes with regards to Black Lives Matter. These are issues that go and they shine light on all of our existence. Yes, we need to focus on the particularities of the assaults on black life, but if we read Baldwin's ideas as they relate to Black Lives Matter and the issues being brought up now, we can learn lessons to go and be better people in all sorts of things. We need not go and separate Black Lives Matter from the sentiment all lives matter, because Black Lives Matter is teaching us this, and this is the emphasis Baldwin wanted to push. I'm not isolating and alienating white people from going and talking about black life. If anything, I'm teaching you all more about yourself. This was the prophetic message he sent over and over again, and we can keep this in mind as we hear the messages from contemporary Black Lives Matter activists.
Dina Zingaro '13 So, our second to last question comes from Chinyere Odim from the class of 2017. The question is, "Paul, when you talk about Baldwin's active love, "I can't help but think about the ethic of care "present in black feminist theory. "Do you see a conversation "between these areas of thought in your work?"
Paul Cato '14 So, for the longest time, Baldwin's writings were marked by a deep masculinism. Despite the fact that he was queer, black, impoverished, so on and so forth, he failed when it came to attending to gender, and he was called out for this multiple times, and in the '70s and in the '80s he finally had to reconcile with this, and there's a beautiful conversation that was transcribed between him and Audre Lorde called "Revolutionary Hope", where he finally had to acknowledge, okay, his views on love as something willful and intentional did not also include the aspect in which sometimes the lover has to step back and, like you said, just show an ethic of care. It's unfortunate that it came at the end of his life that he couldn't integrate it, but he finally acknowledged that this ethic of care was a fundamental aspect of it. If we go and take active love solely as the execution of our duty to go and love people, we can forget, "Okay, "sometimes I need to soften the love I'm showing. "I can't always hold people accountable and yell at them." This is the kind of ethic of care I got received at the BCC. It's entirely active, and it shows Baldwin isn't the only person engaging in this discourse on active love even if he's one of the most eloquent articulators. So, there's definitely a conversation, and in the '70s Baldwin started speaking to Nikki Giovanni and Angela Davis and Audre Lorde, acknowledging, "I missed this whole aspect "that black women have been seeing from the get."
Dina Zingaro '13 Thank you. We'll squeeze in one more before I ask my final question. So, Javier Lee, class of 2017, asks, "Would you consider Baldwin's philosophy of love "a kind of post-racial humanism?"
Paul Cato '14 Absolutely, Xavier. Baldwin had to discuss and operate within discourses that relied on social categories including race because he had to speak to a society that was so entrenched in them, but if you step back, especially just given the testimonial dimension whereby he talked about a concrete issue, offered a lesson about that, and then offered a greater moral message, he wanted to offer perspective in which we just didn't have to rely on these categories, which would stand post-racial. Again, like he said in that interview, he didn't believe in race. The love should just exist in and of itself. We should just recognize people as people. I think that's the ideal he aimed for, and that's what he remained committed to, but at the same time, just given the politics of the situation, he did have to address it in terms of the categories, always with the desire to eventually erase them, and that's where the optimism stands out. It's a look to the future in which case we can go and exist in a post-categorical, post-racial situation, but what makes his situation great is it's always applicable because he speaks to the realities of the world. He's not fooling himself pretending that race doesn't exist. He knows it does operate in our world. The optimism is looking past that and not relying on it. We can take up behaviors that entice us to push past it and not rely on that race so much. We can go and acknowledge difference and operate fully, but there's definitely the extent to which it's post-racial and post-categorical.
Dina Zingaro '13 Thanks so much, Paul. So, the last question I was thinking about, I'm gonna bring us back to our love and religion seminar like about eight years ago. Where does religion fit in here for you? Because as you were speaking I was thinking religion could be a source of, you know, of despair in terms of, like, creating categories that one does not feel like they fit into and the pain that that can cause, but also I can see religion being a source, a way to get in touch with the sensual and the vibrancy. I'm really curious to hear about what your thoughts, yeah, about where religion plays in here for you.
Paul Cato '14 So, Baldwin was raised in the church and spent his early years living as a-
Dina Zingaro '13 Oh. Wait, Paul. I think you accidentally muted yourself.
Paul Cato '14 Oh. Sorry about that.
Dina Zingaro '13 The last thing I think you said before you muted was that he was raised in the church.
Paul Cato '14 Yeah, he was raised in the church, and he had to operate within the confines of that. He was an amazing preacher, and he was taken all around New York and Harlem to go and demonstrate that, but as he came to reconcile the fact that he was gay, he found that there was no place for him to actually live out the principles he was preaching. He saw that he believed deeply in the love ethos that he was being taught, the love your neighbor as yourself and realizing that God is love and we need to commit to that, but all the markers that he was seeing, I guess theologically explaining that, were so institutionalized, and they relied on those categories that religion, the Christian church as an institution was not a mode to exist through it. The sensual might be thought of as his religious space, and again he compares God to a sort of love. So, engaging with that is a religious exercise that's exactly what people should do whether or not they call it Christian or so forth, but the issue was with that institutionalization of what it means. Someone can go and experience a church service and feel that, but they need to remember that okay, a set of rules about who does and doesn't count with regards to experiencing salvation, those are made by human beings. They're not reflective of how the sensual operates, which is accessible to all of us in different ways. So, religion is absolutely at the core of his views. His religion is love, but it's the use of an institutional practice that fails him. So, he had deep connections with all sorts of people. Despite his political dissension and disagreement with wealthy Jewish people, he had deep affection for the Jewish community and the ways in which they embraced these sorts of things through tradition as opposed to strict registered rules about who was and wasn't gonna receive salvation.
Dina Zingaro '13 Thank you so much, Paul, and to the questions that we weren't able to ask because of time, I'm so sorry, but thank you all so much for coming, and Paul, thank you for such a powerful talk. Really just wonderful. Thank you.
Paul Cato '14 Thank you for giving me the chance to speak and share all of this. This has been great to see you all again.
Dina Zingaro '13 Wonderful. Thanks so much, everyone. Good night.