“Who is Looting Whom?”: James Baldwin and the Right to Riot

Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI). Fall 2. 2020.

Course Title: “Who is Looting Whom?”: James Baldwin and the Right to Riot
Duration: Six Weeks
Course: Fall 2 of 2020
Time: Fridays, 3:00pm-4:45pm

Course description:
Eminent queer black essayist, novelist, and public intellectual James Baldwin says in an interview published in Esquire’s July 1968 issue (published just after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.):

How would you define somebody who puts a cat where he is and takes all the money out of the ghetto where he makes it? Who is looting whom? Grabbing off the TV set? He doesn’t really want the TV set. He’s saying screw you. He wants to let you know he’s there…

The mass media—television and all the major news agencies—endlessly use that word ‘looter.’ On television you always see black hands reaching in, you know. And so the American public concludes that these savages are trying to steal everything from us, and no one has seriously tried to get where the trouble is. After all, you’re accusing a captive population who has been robbed of everything of looting.

James Baldwin in July 1968 for Esquire magazine

In an interview after the LA riots of 1992, Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison says, “What struck me most about the people who were burning down shops and stealing was how long they waited.” And famously, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. himself said, “The riot is the language of the oppressed.”

In this 6-week course, we will discuss the nonfiction works of James Baldwin—essays about his writing, about the place of literature in politics, about ‘the Negro’ in the American imaginary—and ask the question ‘what politics do the riot represent?’ As Baldwin points out, media representations of what we call ‘looting’ offers a particular set of assumptions about who is looting and from whom they are looting—almost always assumptions along racial lines. This course, therefore, will use the essays of James Baldwin and others to discuss how the riot has been formed in the American imaginary.

Suggested purchases: James Baldwin: Collected Essays

Schedule (readings are meant to be done before the class during which they will be discussed)

October 30, 2020 — 

November 13, 2020 —

November 20, 2020 —

December 4, 2020 —

December 11, 2020 —

December 18, 2020 —

The eminent American cultural voice of the 20th century, enter James Baldwin

Reading: Introduction to James Baldwin: Collected Essays

James Baldwin on “the American Negro”, History, and “the American Dream”

Reading:
Essays by Baldwin (in the Library of America book):

  • “History as Nightmare” (1947)
  • “Lockridge: ‘The American Myth'” (1948)
  • “The American Dream and the American Negro” (1965)
  • “The New Lost Generation” (1961)
  • The Fire Next Time (1963)
  • “Notes on the House of Bondage” (1980)
  • “Preservation of Innocence” (1949)
  • “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood” (1985)

Further Reading (secondary sources), which were emailed to you:

  • The Introduction, and Chapters 1, 2, and 8 from A Political Companion to James Baldwin, ed. by Susan J. McWilliams (2017)
  • “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book” by Hortense Spillers (1987)
  • “The Propaganda of History” by W.E.B. DuBois (from Black Reconstruction)

James Baldwin on Culture, Class, and Whiteness

Reading (from Collected Essays):

  • “A Report from Occupied Territory” (1966)
  • “The White Man’s Guilt” (1965)
  • “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy” (1961)
  • “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind” (1963)
  • “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood” (1985)

Secondary:

  • Introduction to Ontological Terror: Blackness, Nihilism, and Emancipation by Calvin L. Warren (2018), available for free here: https://library.oapen.org/handle/20.500.12657/30152
  • “The Transubstantiation of a Poor White” and “Counter-Revolution of Property” from Black Reconstruction in America by W.E.B. DuBois (1935), emailed as PDF
  • Chapters 5 & 11 from A Political Companion to James Baldwin, ed. by Susan J. McWilliams (2017), emailed as PDF.

James Baldwin on Protest and Violence

Reading (from Collected Essays):

  • No Name in the Street
  • Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind
  • Nobody Knows My Name: A Letter from the South
  • My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the 100th Anniversary of Emancipation

The Riot of the American Imaginary

Reading (from Collected Essays):

  • “A Report from Occupied Territory”
  • “Dark Days”
  • “Notes on the House of Bondage” 
  • “An Open Letter to Mr. Carter”
  • “Down at the Cross”
  • “The Price of the Ticket”

Secondary Sources: 

  • “Violence” from The Wretched of the Earth and “The Lived Experience of the Black Man” as well as Conclusion & Foreword from Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fanon
  • Ch 12-13 from A Political Companion to James Baldwin ed. by Susan J. McWilliams 
  • Selections from The Riot Report and the News: How the Kerner Commission Changed Media Coverage of Black America by Thomas J. Hrach (will send pdf if/when I get access)
  • “When Rioting Is the Answer” from Zócalo Public Square and TIME, linked here: https://time.com/3951282/riot-violence-use-american-history/

The Right to Riot: The Politics of Looting

Reading (from Collected Essays):

  • “A Report from Occupied Territory” 
  • “Dark Days”
  • “Notes on the House of Bondage” 
  • “An Open Letter to Mr. Carter” 
  • “Down at the Cross”
  • “The Price of the Ticket”

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