After 14 years running the social justice blog Son of Baldwin, author Robert Jones Jr. has announced he is retiring from the social media community he built.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
After 14 years, the man behind Son of Baldwin, the social justice social media community he created, sent a final message to his followers, saying he did it with a heavy heart and after years reflection. With that, Robert Jones Jr. said goodbye to the 300,000 subscribers who joined him on various platforms for lively and thoughtful discussions about race, gender and sexuality, among others. And Robert Jones Jr. is with us now to say a few more words about why. Robert Jones Jr., thank you so much for being here.
ROBERT JONES JR: Thank you very much for inviting me, Michel.
MARTIN: First I want to go back in time and find out more about what you had in mind when you created it. Should I call it a character? – Son of Baldwin, because you haven’t – the reason I say that is that you haven’t revealed your true identity for years, right?
JONES: That’s right. I really wanted to continue the conversations that I believe were started by James Baldwin. And back then, in 2008, Baldwin hadn’t experienced the renaissance he’s experiencing now. Now he is quoted every 5 seconds, but back then you could barely find a mention of him. And I wanted to kind of kick-start those conversations, re-evaluate his work, and bring those conversations into the present day, into the 21st century, to see where we could go with them.
MARTIN: Later, there was this moment when you decided to reveal who you were, the real person behind Son of Baldwin. How did you decide to do this? What led to this decision?
JONES: It was sort of decided for me when a blog at the time wanted to interview me, and they said, well, for journalistic purposes, we need to know your real name and we need to know who you are. And I said, okay, okay. And I revealed my name, Robert Jones Jr. And from that moment on, it was just – I had no choice but to assume that identity.
MARTIN: I’m curious what your community was like when they found out it was you, because I guess you had many followers who also knew you in real life, but didn’t connect . And you also had a whole other job. You worked for Brooklyn College in the communications department. So it must have been, I don’t know, an interesting…
JONES: That’s – you know, just me – the only person who ever told me that they were shocked and surprised to learn that I was Baldwin’s son was Kiese Laymon, a fantastic author and writer, who said it was like finding out Clark Kent was Superman. That’s what he told me.
MARTIN: (Laughs) It fits.
JONES: My only concern was, will my Son of Baldwin character interfere with my daily work? Like, would I say things about Son of Baldwin that my–the institution I worked for would find objectionable? And how to navigate this line?
MARTIN: So now you come to a point where you’re basically saying you got it. I mean, you listed a number of reasons why you’re walking away from Son of Baldwin and social media. But most of your reasons have to do with the tenor of social media, the impact you see social media having, and you don’t like the direction you think it’s going. So, would you talk about it?
JONES: Of course. I’ve been on social media since maybe Facebook started, and it was a gathering place to share ideas, photos, other light things, and politics too. You know, you would have heated arguments and different points of view. But now it’s almost like you have to have this cruel, incisive, different point of view to be noticed. It’s almost like social media urges users to be as cruel and dismissive as possible, and I see that throughout the work.
And let me get involved. I started to see it in me in the way I sometimes post things. And I should go back and say, wait a minute. I have to revise because it’s not me. That’s my fabricated anger talking. And so I said, you know what? I noticed that – I was diagnosed with MS in 2019, and I noticed a correlation between how angry social media made me feel and how often my flare-ups were happening with MS. It was a few years ago, and I thought to myself, I’m going to have to stop this. I’m going to have to remove Baldwin’s son.
MARTIN: Now, is it because of what you call the increasingly hostile and malicious kind of commentary directed at you and your work? Or is it just more the overall environment and almost like you feel polluted?
JONES: It’s the general environment. I haven’t always been a victim of this sort of thing. I was often, but not always. But also, watching other people I’m friends with, other people I like, other people I’m related to, and even strangers getting attacked by other strangers, it starts to wear on Your spirit.
MARTIN: Do you have a message here for other people? I mean, you’ve been very clear in your post that it’s a decision you’re making for yourself. You post this very well in the first person singular. You give your opinion on things, your experience of things. But you also talk about your values - community, patience, compassion, complexity, forgiveness, restoration, humanity. Does this sound like an invitation to others to consider the same?
JONES: In a way, I would say yes. There are other young social justice activists who are on this platform who I think are doing a spectacular job of finding that balance. And I want more of them, people who are patient and thoughtful and whose arguments are well thought out and who aren’t reactionary but give deep and thoughtful commentary on these really complex and terrifying times that we live in. I’d love to see more of this, but I think social media encourages the quick take, the medium take, the take that’s going to tear somebody else down. And hopefully there are enough people who could overcome this somehow.
MARTIN: It was Robert Jones Jr. during the retirement of his online persona, Son of Baldwin. Robert Jones Jr., thank you so much for speaking to us.
JONES: Thank you very much, Michael.
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