Vassar Critical Journal

The Vassar College English Department Student Journal of Critical Essays

Reading from Calvin Warren’s “Onticide: Afro-pessimism, Gay N—[1] #1, and Surplus Violence,” the onticidal threat to James Baldwin across societal, familial, and ecclesiastical levels is ever-present throughout his upbringing, to the extent that societal notions of Black fungibility and anti-gayness pervade his Black family through the Church, rendering a life of his own volition inconceivable should he remain in the environment of his youth. For Warren, onticide categorizes a particular type of violence that serves to further deconstruct the already non-existent – “fracturing the fungible commodity,” as Warren states repeatedly. Onticide surfaces in Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain if the text is understood as largely autobiographical, with John as a stand-in for Baldwin. They experience a tyrannical father of the priesthood who is not their own, tenement living in Harlem, being the eldest of the children in the house, constant pressures and expectations from the Church, a natural aptitude identified at a young age, present yet unarticulated homosexual tendencies, and a desire to be more than what the conditions allow. To make the onticidal argument as it pertains to Baldwin, I consider the Church and its implications on Baldwin’s sense of individuality vis-á-vis John, the Baldwinian father figure as a manifestation of the conformist expectations of the Church, and the inhibitions to Baldwin’s burgeoning homosexuality all as constitutive factors to Baldwin’s existential destruction at the hand of the forces surrounding him, generating the necessity for Baldwin to leave the Church, his family, and eventually his country to refine his craft and forego the same substantive fate as Steen Fenrich.

In “Onticide,” Calvin Warren’s recount of the murder of Steen Keith Fenrich posits that traditional analysis of the label “Gay N— #1”,inscribed in Steen’s skull, presents a philosophical and grammatical “double bind” that fails to produce a complete understanding of Steen’s murder. For Warren, “Gay” evokes humanist sentiments that place homosexuality within the realm – albeit in inferiority – of societal existence. Gay people are, in fact, people – an assignment that entails what Warren references as notions of “differentiability” and “uniqueness”. Predicated on the delineation of the “other,” uniqueness is requisite for personhood. As Warren (395) writes, “we might understand humanism, then, as a philosophy of difference, where difference is the foundation on which man emerges as a unique being in the world.” Here, “N—” represents the antithesis to the level of humanism associated with “Gay”. For, through the doctrines of chattel slavery, the American Negro is reduced to a fungible entity – an interchangeable, replaceable commodity valued solely on its ability to work. Fungibility, then, supersedes humanism in the sense that an interchangeable object cannot be unique; cannot be human. “Gay N— #1…,” Warren (392) claims, “is a philosophical conundrum… precisely because it carries the antagonism between humanism and fungibility within its discursive structure. The term Gay indexes human identity, and N— is the “thing” void of human ontology – ontology’s mystery.”

In order to approach the “problem space” created by “Gay N— #1”, Warren offers “onticide” as a framework through which to reconcile the placement of a humanist, differentiating term in tandem with an anti-Black term rooted in Black fungibility. This categorization calls for new grammatical practice that supplants traditional grammar and its inability to overcome the paradox of “Gay N— #1”. Warren (408) proposes the use of strikethrough formatting (Gay N— #1, for example) to indicate that human difference is inapplicable to the inhuman object, but leaves the phrase otherwise unedited to preserve its contextual integrity. For Steen Fenrich’s murder is irreducible to anti-Black violence, nor anti-gay violence. “Gay N— #1” cannot be compartmentalized. And yet, a straightforward pairing of the phrases reverts to the inadequacy of intersectionality. Indeed, as Warren (409) suggests, intersectionality cannot account for the nuance of the Fenrich case because “the intersectional approach seeks to understand Blackness through forms of equivalence with human identity.” Onticide does not see Steen as a victim of anti-Black nor anti-gay violence, nor at their intersection, but in fact as exemplary of what Warren refers to as “surplus violence.” That is, violence that goes beyond the forms of institutionalized violence that serve to perpetuate systems of oppression – an “overkill” of sorts that is difficult to articulate without encountering the “double bind.” On the whole, onticide “is a ‘violence’ for which we lack a grammar or a matrix within which to situate it, but which makes Black gay existence unbearable” (Warren, 413).

Adding to the complexities of “Gay N— #1” is the fact that Steen was killed by his stepfather, John Fenrich. John Fenrich was white. For John, his stepson represented a deviation so stark from the indoctrinated norms of acceptability that his very presence challenged John’s notions of existence to the extent that this challenger must be destroyed. In Warren’s (392) words, “the (primal) father murders his son as a testament to his own omnipotence and the son’s subjection to his desire.” But even more so, John Fenrich’s actions constitute the manifestation of a societal inability – reinforced by well-established institutions – to reconcile gay Blackness. The importance of John’s involvement in Steen’s murder will be revisited in connection to Baldwin and his father in tandem with John and Gabriel from Go Tell It on the Mountain.           

Turning to Baldwin, from the outset of his education, Baldwin recognized that he was a particularly bright young student compared to his classmates. He recollects (James Baldwin, 00:08:30), “I knew I was smart… And I was going to get whatever I wanted that way.” Baldwin early on registered that his intellect set him apart. In other words, Baldwin gained a sense of uniqueness – that he was different from those around him. John arrives at the same realization in Mountain. As Baldwin (14) writes, “[i]t was when John was five years old and in the first grade that he was first noticed; and since he was noticed by an eye altogether alien and impersonal, he began to perceive, in wild uneasiness, his individual existence.” Important to gauge from this excerpt is that it was not until John entered school could he perceive himself as an individual because the Christian Church – the only other formal institution in which John was involved prior to his schooling – does not allow for the development of the individual through uniqueness. Indeed, the Church demands of its followers a complete and unwavering devotion to God. Those of a life of faith must sacrifice all autonomy and live as the Lord commands: in solemn obedience through constant prayer that will hopefully deliver salvation through His mercy on the day of judgment. The devout constitute not a group of individuals but a collection of holy vessels with the sole purpose of spreading His word; doing His bidding; pleasing His desires.

Revisiting Warren, this conceptualization of the holy vessel in relation to the Lord parallels Warren’s depiction of the relationship between the Black slave and the white master. As Warren (398; italics added) writes,

To “be” for the captor—to serve as an empty, abstract, and abject vessel for the other’s self-actualization, pleasure, and self-constitution—is a function of the back commodity that is necessary for human uniqueness, self-possession, and self-reflection. This, then, is the ultimate scandal or ontological violation of the New World: Black flesh is reduced to devastating sameness and interchangeability (fungibility).

Here, I equate ‘holy’ with ‘empty’, ‘abstract’, and ‘abject’ on the grounds that – for Baldwin, John, and their collective determination to “have another life” (Baldwin, 13) – a life in which one forfeits one’s prospects for the sake of the Lord and His Church cannot be full nor tangible. In this sense, the Church serves as an institution that reinforces Black fungibility, reducing the pastor, the sister, and indeed the congregation to relative “sameness” and “interchangeability.” The repressive nature of the Church is directly at odds with Baldwin’s sense of uniqueness and individuality, so much so that life as a pastor – the life the Church demands – would entail Baldwin’s existential death and an erasure of the self.

The pressures the Church exerts on Baldwin amplify the societal notions of Black fungibility, manifesting in his father. Baldwin’s recollections of his father expose a man inextricably possessed by a lust for power, control, and stability in a world dominated by white men. He found salvation in the Lord and was granted a shred of power and influence as a clergyman. His position, however, was conditioned on an unyielding and ongoing commitment to the Lord’s word and His way – a commitment that Baldwin’s father was required to bestow upon his family if his position was to remain legitimate. The life of Baldwin’s father was therefore dictated by the rather narrow confines of a life of worship – work, praise, reproduce, carry His word. All done not in the name of the Lord is in the name of the Devil. Pursuits beyond clerical life were unworthy and heretic. In this sense, Baldwin’s father’s notion of what was acceptable became very limited. As Baldwin (James Baldwin, 0:07:19) exclaims, his father “was very religious, very rigid. In fact, in a word, he wanted power… there was something in him which could not bend. He could only be broken.” A challenge to Baldwin’s father’s rigidity was often met with disdain, aggression, and violence. Baldwin’s father beat him. He beat Baldwin’s mother. He beat the other children. Baldwin hated his father for it; was terrified of him because of it (James Baldwin, 0:11:30). And yet, Baldwin recognized that his father’s behavior was under the direct influence of the Church. But even more so, Baldwin’s father and the Church were one – inseparable. He was the church incarnate. As Baldwin (James Baldwin, 0:13:41) said, “if I left the pulpit I’d have to leave home.” With the Baldwin household as an extension of the church, then, Baldwin’s father brought Black fungibility into his Black home and instilled it on Baldwin by limiting his development as a unique individual through violent punishment, making it impossible for Baldwin to overcome the implications of Black fungibility from within his familial environment.

The very same relationship between Baldwin and his father exists between John and Gabriel in Mountain. A lost young soul, Gabriel succumbs to the Lord and eventually works his way through the ranks of the clergy to become a respected clergyman in the South – a prominent young preacher. Upon moving north subsequent to the death of his first wife, Deborah, Gabriel’s prominence within the Harlem church is reduced. Yet, his commitment to the Lord remains steadfast, and even intensifies for the need to assert himself in his new congregation and, perhaps more importantly, in his new family. For John, the eldest child in the household, is not Gabriel’s own. He antagonizes John for this, and vehemently wishes to control John; to force John through the Church as a testament to his devotion and repentance for his own sins (Baldwin, 253). John’s gained sense of uniqueness and individuality present an overt challenge to Gabriel’s conformist oversight, a challenge often met with Gabriel’s wrath. As Baldwin (15) writes, “it was his identity, and in part, therefore of that wickedness for which his father beat him and to which he clung in order to withstand his father.” Compare this to Warren’s consideration of John Fenrich. Revisiting an earlier quotation from Warren (392), Gabriel beats John “as a testament to his own omnipotence and the son’s subjection to his desire.” Similar to John Fenrich, who reaffirms the fungibility of his Black son for the sake of himself, Gabriel perpetuates Black fungibility as it applies to John to sanctify his own beliefs. Fully aware of the interconnectedness of his father and the Church, and the latter’s implications on his father’s behavior, John understands that his individual existence teeters upon his ability to escape his father and the church altogether. Baldwin (15) writes, “and this was why … John was hardened against the Lord. His father was God’s minister, the ambassador of the King of Heaven, and John could not bow before the throne of grace without first kneeling to his father. On his refusal to do this had his life depended…”

It has become evident up to now how the Church, by way of Baldwin’s father and his figurative representation in Gabriel, invokes humanism by imposing Black fungibility on Baldwin and John through violence that inhibits individual development and renders uniqueness an impossibility. To complete the onticidal argument, then, Baldwin’s homosexuality must now be considered. Baldwin details his homosexuality through John’s affection and admiration for Elisha, and through recounts of John’s homosexual tendencies. Analysis of the latter unveils John’s understanding that his sexuality is intrinsically antithetical to the doctrines of the Church. Baldwin (13) illustrates,

“[John] had sinned. In spite of the saints, his mother and his father, the warnings he had heard from his earliest beginnings, he had sinned with his hands a sin that was hard to forgive. In the school lavatory, alone, thinking of the boys, older, bigger, braver, who made bets with each other as to whose urine could arch higher, he had watched in himself a transformation of which he would never dare to speak.” 

To the Church, homosexuality is a perpetual sin as it is inextricable from the self. In this way, borrowing from Warren, homosexuality implies the self. Thus, Baldwin and John are thrust into the paradox of “Gay N— #1” because their homosexuality imposes upon the fungibility inflicted and otherwise required by the Church to an extent that ensures their eternal damnation. The violence done unto them by the Baldwinian father figure, therefore, constitutes the “surplus violence” that Warren sees as characteristic of onticide, leading to their prolonged erasure. With each strike from his father, a young Baldwin is pushed deeper into the chasm of existential oblivion split by the intolerability of gay Blackness.

Onticide offers the necessary framework to approach Baldwin analytically, providing insights into the environment of his youth. While the concept is intrinsically complicated and still fails to offer a complete understanding of the depth of gay Black violence, one thing is abundantly clear: it is impossible to operate under its influence. And so, Baldwin left; left his family, left his church, left his country for Paris, for Istanbul, for the South of France, where the air is a little less choked, beyond the reach of onticide to reflect upon its effects.  

[1] N— is the Journal’s substitution of the N-word in this essay. To find Warren’s paper, the full title is in the citation.

Works Cited

  • Baldwin, James. Go Tell It on the Mountain. Vintage, 1952.
  • James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket. Directed and produced by Karen Thorsen. California Newsreel, 1990.
  • Warren, Calvin.  “Onticide: Afro-pessimism, Gay Nigger #1, and Surplus Violence.” GLQ, vol.
    28, no.3, 2017, pp.391-418.

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