A response to “James Baldwin’s Topoi”

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(Note: I spent a whole two days putting the below together for class, and thought I could post it here, despite most people not having read the document it is a response to.  For those wanting to look it up, “James Baldwin’s Topoi” is the title of a chapter written by James Dorsey in New Approaches to Rhetoric by editors Patricia A. Sullian and Steve R Goldzwig, copyright 2004 by Sage Publications Inc.)

This reading reminded me why I feel like an anachronism so often. It also branched in so many directions that I often had trouble being certain which direction or point was being made.

Sullivan and Goldzwig talk a lot about Baldwin’s attempt to establish his sense of place, or lack thereof, within a world that denied him the sense of place he expected for himself and imposed a different one upon him. Much of the reading details his struggle to break out of the imposed sense of place, and his attempt to establish a new one, while still maintaining that ultimate sense of place as an American.

The questions I am to answer are: How does the James Baldwin reading inform the way you understand your identity? How about your understanding of the identity of others in your life? What is one way that you could communicate with yourself or with other people to take advantage of what this reading offers?

This reading has a lot to say about our sense of place, or lack thereof, and our awareness of the same, or lack thereof. It also talks a lot about that sense of place changing.

There were many places in the reading that reminded me of various images and readings from my past. I am going to mention some of them before I directly answer the questions.

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See the above picture. I took this picture back in 2013 while in Barcelona, Spain. After all, where else would you go for good Tex Mex food but Spain. Apologies, Barcelona, Spain. This is an example from my own life of the line in the writing about that restaurant with the “Buffalo, NY wings, Southern style”. (p 8)

Next, I want to bring in my favorite quote about sense of place. It is quite a long one, from Heretics by G.K. Chesterton, but I think it gives a good context and contrast to the Baldwin writings about place:

Mr. Rudyard Kipling has asked in a celebrated epigram what they can know of England who know England only. It is a far deeper and sharper question to ask, “What can they know of England who know only the world?” for the world does not include England any more than it includes the Church. The moment we care for anything deeply, the world—that is, all the other miscellaneous interests—becomes our enemy. Christians showed it when they talked of keeping one’s self “unspotted from the world;” but lovers talk of it just as much when they talk of the “world well lost.” Astronomically speaking, I understand that England is situated on the world; similarly, I suppose that the Church was a part of the world, and even the lovers inhabitants of that orb. But they all felt a certain truth—the truth that the moment you love anything the world becomes your foe. Thus Mr. Kipling does certainly know the world; he is a man of the world, with all the narrowness that belongs to those imprisoned in that planet. He knows England as an intelligent English gentleman knows Venice. He has been to England a great many times; he has stopped there for long visits. But he does not belong to it, or to any place; and the proof of it is this, that he thinks of England as a place. The moment we are rooted in a place, the place vanishes. We live like a tree with the whole strength of the universe.

The globe-trotter lives in a smaller world than the peasant. He is always breathing, an air of locality. London is a place, to be compared to Chicago; Chicago is a place, to be compared to Timbuctoo. But Timbuctoo is not a place, since there, at least, live men who regard it as the universe, and breathe, not an air of locality, but the winds of the world. The man in the saloon steamer has seen all the races of men, and he is thinking of the things that divide men—diet, dress, decorum, rings in the nose as in Africa, or in the ears as in Europe, blue paint among the ancients, or red paint among the modern Britons. The man in the cabbage field has seen nothing at all; but he is thinking of the things that unite men—hunger and babies, and the beauty of women, and the promise or menace of the sky. Mr. Kipling, with all his merits, is the globe-trotter; he has not the patience to become part of anything. So great and genuine a man is not to be accused of a merely cynical cosmopolitanism; still, his cosmopolitanism is his weakness. That weakness is splendidly expressed in one of his finest poems, “The Sestina of the Tramp Royal,” in which a man declares that he can endure anything in the way of hunger or horror, but not permanent presence in one place. In this there is certainly danger. The more dead and dry and dusty a thing is the more it travels about; dust is like this and the thistle-down and the High Commissioner in South Africa. Fertile things are somewhat heavier, like the heavy fruit trees on the pregnant mud of the Nile. In the heated idleness of youth we were all rather inclined to quarrel with the implication of that proverb which says that a rolling stone gathers no moss. We were inclined to ask, “Who wants to gather moss, except silly old ladies?” But for all that we begin to perceive that the proverb is right. The rolling stone rolls echoing from rock to rock; but the rolling stone is dead. The moss is silent because the moss is alive.

Chesterton talks about sense of place as a rootedness that encompasses the entire world. Baldwin was attempting to change a sense of place into a cosmopolitanism that Chesterton would describe as exclusive – Just as Baldwin would see the “parochial” view of Chesterton as exclusive.

Okay, one more piece of evidence before I start to answer the questions. Let’s lift another line from the Baldwin reading:

“What happens” Schlesinger asks “When people of different ethnic origins, speaking different languages and professing different religions, settle in the same geographical locality and live under the same political sovereignty… Unless a common purpose binds together, tribal hostilities will drive them apart.” (p 9)

The description by Schlesinger about is the Middle East for the past millennia, most specifically for our purpose, the past century, when it was allowed out of the box of great powers to go its unfettered way. I know, Schlesinger is warning us about the USA, but I think it is well worth noting that we have another example, one we could do well to heed.

A very good example and defense about what America is and could be, can be found on this post by author Sarah A. Hoyt at According to Hoyt. In this piece Hoyt expands a sense of place beyond geography, to a philosophy.

She starts by quoting someone she believes in, who says:

Patriotism is good. Nationalism through a patriotic lens, seeing your country as worthwhile, as having prospects and things to be proud of, is not only acceptable but necessary for the health of any nation. But MOST especially the United States, because it’s one thing for the French to be ashamed of being French, but at the end of the day, they’re still going to be French. France is established on ethnic and historical foundations, and even if the French think they suck, there can still be citizens of France. Just not very long, since self-loathing aligns you, first metaphorically, then inevitably in practice, with enemies who ALSO loathe you.

But an American just CAN’T believe in nothing, CAN’T reject the philosophy underpinning America, and be one. Philosophy IS America. There’s nothing else to base it on, and there’s no “philosophy on the side” option. There’s no “shared values” or that bullshit. There’s a piece of paper that lays out precisely how the government functions, tells it what it doesn’t get to do, and tells YOU to go shift for yourself. Now yeah, maybe you can quibble with a point or two of it. Lots of people did then, too. But people who reject, wholesale, that that makes sense as the foundation of a country- who complain about negative rights, who call the constitution outdated- de facto, aren’t American, the same way you couldn’t be a Catholic but not believe in G*d. Aphilosophical American is a contradiction in terms. The most they can do is live somewhere between Mexico and Canada. We’ve got a lot of that kind of “American”.

Then she expounds:

Let’s go back to what Sam said “Philosophy IS America.”  If you don’t believe in the founding principles, you’re not an American.  You’re at best a permanent resident who grew up here and behaves generally within the law.

We’re a volitional citizenship.  Yes, if you were born here, you are LEGALLY an American.  You can legally be a lot of things that you’re not even close to being in reality.  Take all the college people running around screaming they want to be protected from micro-micro aggressions.  They are legally adults.

Hoyt establishes the sense of America as a place in Philosophy, and I feel, pretty much, that sums up where all senses of place ultimately end up, rooted in a person’s philosophy.

So maybe I’m starting to answer the questions.

The first question is how does the Baldwin reading inform my sense of identity. I think it helps me understand my sense as an anachronism, being out of place from where the world expects. Baldwin felt himself out of place, perhaps born before his time. Me, I’m from a time that never existed to most people today – buried and forgotten under the epithets like “White, Anglo-Saxon, Puritan Protestant.”

It also helps me understand how my sense of identity shifts as the world around me shifts, they shaping me, and hopefully me shaping some of them. And yet I still retain that sense of place that Chesterton posed, where caring for something deeply makes the world “the enemy”.

How it informs my understanding of other people’s identities  (question #2), is in realizing that other people have that same sense of place, or lack thereof, where they are either defending something that they care deeply for, or are else dilettantes adrift without a place. When I was a religion editor for my hometown newspaper I often found devout people of vastly different religious  backgrounds had more in common, through their sense of caring, than those with none. Rootedness, again.

Third question, one way I can communicate with myself or others to take advantage of what the reading offers: I think the answer to this one encapsulates both communication questions. Ask myself how their sense of place impacts my sense of place, changes or challenges it? Then ask how they see my sense of place impacting their sense of place, how it changes or challenges it? What conflict and benefit might their be in the understanding of each.

Now that I have answered the three questions, let me get radical – if I haven’t already managed to be radical enough.

As both Chesterton and Hoyt have indicated, it is the people who have come to America without being here that is at the heart of much of our current cultural issues. Someone like Baldwin was here – even when he was abroad, fighting to make better that which he loved. He accepted our philosophy. But those who come here without being here, without leaving their prior sense of place behind to join us, are the ones who “Balkanize” us, as the saying goes, though by “Balkanize” I really mean the entire sense of chaos that I previously alluded to as the issue in the Middle East.

And now for the final radical statement. Which starts with the below quote from the reading. The authors wrote: “Being all that society denies and denigrates, he contains all that society embraces and values.” (p 28). They wrote this meaning Baldwin. But today, I want to propound the idea that the holder of this marker is actually the White Heterosexual Male – the one denigrated through White Privilege for all the evils that anyone not a White Heterosexual Male experiences, and yet at the same time subtly envied by them for the mythos projected about him.

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