One writer who speaks right to my heart is James Baldwin. As white cis-gendered heterosexual woman, some might assume that relating to his work would be a challenge since he wrote passionately about his lived experiences as a Black man (and closeted gay man) in a time where his humanity was explicitly denied in the country of his birth.
While the details of his lived experiences were vastly different than mine, I find that the core of his writing reiterates a universal idea – How Broken you must be to not see my Humanity.
We see it in the erasure of all female voices when reading our histories – Do you know who discovered the theory of nuclear fission? Who discovered the DNA structure? Who found the first Pulsars? Who wrote the first computer program? Who first understood the chemical composition of our own sun? Who unlocked the mRNA technology? Wait, Einstein’s groundbreaking work of 1905 was a collaboration?!
We see it in the school to prison pipelines for young black men, in the need for projects like Black Mug Shots to undo the harm of our media habits to the detriment of Black faces and lives, in the #metoo movement when it becomes a revolution simply to give testimony about misbehavior of powerful men who could not see the humanity in the people around them.
We see it in the numerous large new papers who run Men’s sports sections (called “sports”) that have apparently rarely found compelling reasons to report on sports involving women unless there is a scandal.
How broken we must be to be stuck in a cycle of erasure, exclusion, and neglect of certain groups of people who are viewed as their adjectives first and their humanity second. We have been brainwashed to see male and white as human – the rest of us get adjectives tied to our humanity.
This is an idea that has permeated by brain since as long as I can remember. I was a lover of stories as a child (and still!), and the stories of my childhood in the 70’s and 80’s were almost exclusively about male protagonists. When I saw myself in these stories, it was never as the sidelined female characters; I was he. I was Luke Skywalker, not Princess Leah. I was Bilbo and Frodo. I was a Ghostbuster, I was Commander Spock. I was Mr. Rogers, Lavar Burton, etc.
And then, as I began to recognize that, to our world, I was female before I was human, I began to see the clear befuddlement that I recognize in Baldwin’s prose. I can understand how we have forgotten all of the female voices of the past because I too have learned to erase them and not even expect them to be there, but How could people see ME as ‘female’ first? Clearly, from my perspective, female was second to my humanity. Feminine was an ideal placed upon me like a shoe that was way too tight and pinched. Each time my mom said, “sit like a lady”… it pinched just a bit tighter.
How did the world see the genius of Baldwin as the ‘arguments’ of a Black man against his country when he was simply questioning society’s lack of capacity to see humanity first? It is no wonder he seems to have seen them all as a bit confused and sick. Our culture a sick culture built by sick people, blind to humanity in all of its diversity.
We are all infected with this sickness. “Success” in this culture requires us to be just a bit infected – To know the histories of white men, To quote the prose of white men, to argue their philosophy. We must assume that the theoretical person must always be ‘he’. Because if we refer to ‘she’ or even ‘s/he’ as the theoretical person, we are clearly speaking only of women, who are, by default female-people.