The Body & Rage in Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son

Throughout much of the weekend’s training, and our discussions on the body in particular, I was consistently reminded of James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son. At first, I was just reminded of a quote. Then, I was reminded of the multiple experiences that compel Baldwin towards self- and social-realization.

“… I first contracted some dread, chronic disease, the unfailing symptom of which is a kind of blind fever, a pounding in the skull and fire in the bowels…There is not a Negro alive who does not have this rage in his blood–one has the choice, merely, of living with it consciously or surrendering to it. As for me, this fever has recurred in me, and does, and will until the day I die.”
― James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son

Each racial encounter was visceral, and ultimately proved to be a formative experience that later revealed unexplored factors in critical interpersonal relationships. If I recall correctly, this quote occurred to me during the first anatomy lesson as we were discussing what elements, physiological and metaphysical, already exist inside our bodies. While skin, cells, boundaries, and stability were explicitly named – I thought of rage which went unnamed. I considered how it enters into and manifests throughout our bodies.

I thought about how “rage” has two definitions: 1) violent, uncontrollable anger; 2) intense feeling, enthusiasm, ardor.

However, due to historical, violent racial and gendered constructs, the first definition is imposed upon Black people – Black women and girls especially. Though we know that Black culture and Black joy often originate in the second definition. Accordingly, while I know that Baldwin is identifying with violent rage that is responsive to heteropatriarchal white supremacy, I wonder what it would take for the excerpt, “there is not a Negro alive who does not have this rage in his blood–one has the choice, merely, of living with it consciously or surrendering to it,” to be reflective of an enthusiastic, passionate rage that is immediately accessible and identifiable, and encouraged even. In other words, how must the world exist in order for Baldwin to be elaborating upon the fact that every Negro has an intense passion to which they can consciously surrender? In shorter words,  what if Black people (individually and collectively) were invited to become conscious of and ardent about their greater purpose? Idealistic, I know.

When we talk about what exists inside the body, we need to name rage and all its physiological and emotional manifestations. According to Baldwin, Cooper, and other Black scholars, rage has an inextricable relationship to the experience of the body, and therefore, the experience of surrender.

Relevantly, but somewhat separately, this next quote implies a need to surrender to “life as it is, and men as they are.” But, Baldwin emphasizes that we cannot be complacent in our acceptance:

“It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is a commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength. This fight begins, however, in the heart and it now had been laid to my charge to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair. This intimation made my heart heavy and, now that my father was irrecoverable, I wished that he had been beside me so that I could have searched his face for the answers which only the future would give me now.”
― James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son

With a heavy heart, Baldwin holds space for both surrender (acceptance) and rage (fight), both powerlessness (uncertainty) and power (ideas). We have a responsibility to ourselves to learn the significance and weight of asserting the both/and that balances the universe. We must allow ourselves to experience both definitions of rage in order to create space for others to do the same – for them to be fully in their body and to work towards the creation of a world in which the second definition of rage is upheld as an important element of our innate life-force.

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