jamesbaldwinsketch

As some of you may know, my 2014 New Year’s Resolution has been to read at least one book without pictures every month. In January, I read Kay Larson’s Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists, which was a Christmas gift from a fellow ethnic Jew. In February, I reread Neil Postman’s Technolopoly, a book that one of my dearest friends had recommended to me back in 2003, a decade after it was written, and a book that remains relevant in 2014. In March, one of my friends from WonderRoot lent me James Baldwin’s Notes of A Native Son. I hope to continue this tradition of reading recommended books as the forces of chaos and friendship seem to putting the exact book I need to be reading into my hands.

Notes of A Native Son is largely a book about traveling. Baldwin relays his experiences exploring the United States and Europe while confronting the frustrating and rewarding struggle to understand the American identity. Baldwin’s working definition of what it means to be an American is something like an imaginary number, practical in certain cases but somewhat impossible. Unlike other noted writers who detail the American experience  like Tocqueville or Baudrillard, Baldwin is, as stated clearly in the title of the book, a native son. My own experiences as an American may appear very differently from Baldwin’s; some obvious differences relate to time, space, and race, but there is also a kinship I feel with this man from the past that stems from shared alienations as writers, expats, outsiders, and Americans. While being an American of any race in the United States can be alienating, I’d like to discuss Notes of A Native Son‘s final essay, “Stranger in the Village,” which details his experience visiting a remote Swiss village and encountering the locals who have never met a black man before. These villagers were not unaware of the existence of black people. They simply hadn’t met one before. These villagers had, however, contributed funds to “buy” some Africans- this “buy” terminology is taken from Baldwin who takes it from the villagers themselves. This practice does not involve purchasing slaves in the literal sense, but providing the monetary resources required to bring Christ into the life of an unsuspecting African. Baldwin is an eloquent critic of the church and shares his astute observations about how missionary work has impacted senses of identity for both African and African-American alike. With evangelicalism comes an unavoidable insult- before you knew me, you were hell fodder (and it’s larger implication- your entire civilization, its history and every one who lived before you, is unholy rubbish).

With this in mind, I’d like to share Baldwin’s words on the difference being the first black person that white people meet and being the first white person that black people meet. Remember that more specifically he is comparing the experience of an African-American intellectual in the 1950s visiting a rural Swiss village and a European missionary visiting a remote African village.

I thought of white men arriving for the first time in an African village, strangers there, as I am a stranger here, and tried to imagine the astounded populace touching their hair and marveling at the color of their skin. But there is a great difference between being the first white man to be seen by Africans and being the first black man to be seen by whites. The white man takes the astonishment as tribute, for he arrives to conquer and to convert the natives, whose inferiority in relation to himself is not even questioned; whereas I, without a thought of conquest, find myself among a people whose culture controls me, has even, in a sense, created me, people who have cost me more in anguish and rage than they will ever know, who yet do not even know of my existence. The astonishment with which I might have greeted them, should they have stumbled into my African village a few hundred years ago, might have rejoiced their hearts. But the astonishment with which they greet me today can only poison mine.”

I’ve never been to Africa and I don’t remember the black person I met, but there is something about this passage that relates somewhat to my own experiences. I was among the first white people that many people in China ever met and consequentially I have received the astonishment of the natives. Of course, the astonishment came with some entirely different baggage than the experience of a white missionary in Africa. Examples include the Cold War, China’s current economic status, the U.S. involvement in China’s political affairs over the past century, China’s established 5,000 years of history, the internet, John Denver, and Deng Xiaoping- the list could go on and on, but I’d rather address the similarities. As a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer drunk on the ego-swelling nectar of White Man’s Burden, I surely exhibited a sense of superiority over the Chinese people I met. Luckily my experiences offered many opportunities to embarrass myself and learn humility, but I was never free of the arrogance and elitism instilled in me by my own American background and the functioning of the larger world-system. Unlike the European missionary in Africa, I had no interest in marketing for Jesus, but I consciously desired to influence the way the people I met thought not only about the United States, but also about their own country, culture, and lives. At the invitation of the government of China, I was teaching university students, so my cultural imports were less forced than requested. Still I functioned as a propagandist for the Western ideals that I hold dear- not necessarily the ideals of the US State Department or anyone else, but the ideals that my experiences have compelled me to extoll in my daily life and as an educator. In fact, I believe my rejection of many Western ideas and acceptance of many Chinese and Marxist sentiments allowed me to make so many friends and enjoy my life there as much I did. I also arrived in China with little faith in the prejudices and condemnations by which Western society had tried to define China with during my lifetime. The irrelevance of Cold War propaganda and hefty evidence of the Chinese people’s extraordinary capabilities certainly watered down any sense of superiority that I carried with me, but I took the astonishment at tribute to rejoice my heart more often than I let the astonishment poison my heart, to borrow Baldwin’s words.

After finishing the essay, I quickly moved onto a book with pictures…

saintsss

Anxious to read Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints, I waited until my wife finished reading it as I had purchased it for her and I’d feel like a bit of heel reading it before she did. Yang made an excellent choice in choosing the Boxer Rebellion as a period in Chinese history to turn into a comic book because the Boxers believed they had magical powers and Catholics believe they are visited are saintly ghosts. In Boxers, the first volume, the Boxers have magical powers and in Saints, the second volume, stars a young girl who converts after being visited by ghost of Joan of Arc. One central theme of the text and the Boxer rebellion in general is the effect that the newly arrived European missionaries had on China. The foreigners who arrived in China at the end of the 19th century definitely arrived with a sense of superiority- not only missionaries, not only Europeans. The simultaneous import of Christianity and opium, reinforced by advanced weaponry, is a pretty strong strategy to take advantage of a trusting country and seems like an obvious plot to subjugate them. The response of local Chinese to either resist these invaders or align themselves with them is a bit of a classic dilemma- neither a particularly attractive coping mechanism, but resistance is generally regarded as more noble and collaboration is generally regarded with contempt. Yang himself is a Chinese-American Catholic, but his sympathies for the Boxers cannot be denied. By telling the story through the perspective of two different characters, Yang shows two methods to reconcile an infestation of foreigners- neither of which are ultimately successful. Yang finds subtle ways to bring perspectives to his comics, providing a noteworthy voice to women during this period both in the Red Lanterns in Boxers and in the major characters of Saints. One voice that is either absent or demonized, perhaps rightly so, is the voice of foreigner. I certainly feel more kinship with James Baldwin visiting a Swiss village in the 1950s than I do with a European soldier or American missionary arriving in late 19th Century China- it’s a bit of an apple-orange comparison, but the experience of reading both texts reminded me of two contradictory truths that fight each other to make us forget them- our experiences are similar and our experiences are different, not usually, but always at the same time- and this message, its simultaneity and inherent contradiction, is at the heart of both texts.

Post-script footnote: I think Ann Nocenti’s run on Green Arrow is one of the most under-rated chapters of DC’s New 52. She portrays Oliver Queen as one of an Ugly American while propelling the narrative and bringing our attention to misunderstandings between China and the West. I think her work is unfairly clumped in with the poor start led by Dan Jurgens and J.T. Krul. Unfortunately Jeff Lemire’s amazing work with the character will only further overshadow Nocenti’s contributions to the title.

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