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Son of Baldwin — a place for discussions of race, sexuality and gender — retires

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

After 14 years, the man behind Son of Baldwin, the social justice social media community he created, sent his followers one last post, saying he did so with a heavy heart and after years of consideration. With that, Robert Jones Jr. said goodbye to the 300,000 followers who have joined him across a variety of platforms for spirited and thoughtful discussions of race, gender and sexuality, among other things. And Robert Jones Jr. is with us now to tell us a few more words about why. Robert Jones Jr., thanks so much for being here.

ROBERT JONES JR: Thank you so much for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: I just want to go back in time first and find out more about what you had in mind when you created this - should I call it character? - Son of Baldwin, because you didn't - the reason I'm saying that is you didn't reveal your real identity for years, right?

JONES: That is true. I really wanted to continue conversations that I believe were started by James Baldwin. And at the time, 2008, Baldwin had not experienced the renaissance he is now experiencing. Now he's quoted every 5 seconds, but back then, you could barely find mention of him. And I wanted to sort of restart those conversations, reevaluate his work and bring those conversations into the current time, into the 21st century, to see where we could go with them.

MARTIN: Later on, 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 that? What led to that decision?

JONES: It was kind of decided for me when a blog at the time wanted to interview me, and they said, well, for journalistic purposes, we have to know your real name, and we have to know who you are. And I said, OK, fine. And I revealed my name, Robert Jones Jr. And from that point on, it was just - I had no other choice but to own up to that identity.

MARTIN: I'm curious about what your community was like when they found out that it was you because I'm guessing you had many followers who also knew you in your real life but didn't make the connection. And you also had a whole other job. You were working for Brooklyn College in the communications department. So that must have been, I don't know, an interesting...

JONES: It - you know, I only - the only person who ever told me that they were shocked and surprised to learn that I was Son of Baldwin was Kiese Laymon, fantastic author and writer, who said it was like finding out that Clark Kent was Superman. That's what he said to me.

MARTIN: (Laughter) It fits.

JONES: My only worry was, will my Son of Baldwin persona interfere with my day job? Like, will I say things on Son of Baldwin that my - the institution I was working for would find untoward? And how do I navigate that line?

MARTIN: So now you come to a moment where you're basically saying you've had it. I mean, you listed a number of reasons why you're stepping away from Son of Baldwin and social media. But most of your reasons have to do with the tenor of social media, the impact that you see that social media is having, and you don't like the direction that you think it's taking. So would you talk about that?

JONES: Sure. I've been on social media since maybe the beginning of Facebook, and it used to be a gathering place for sharing ideas, photos, other sort of lighthearted things, and politics, too. You know, you would have heated arguments and different points of view. But now it's almost as though you have to have that cruel, incisive, different point of view in order to be noticed. It's almost as though social media is incentivizing users to be as cruel and dismissive as possible, and I'm seeing that all throughout the work.

And let me implicate myself. I started to see it in me in the ways that I would sometimes post things. And I would have to go back and say, wait a minute. I have to revise that because that's not me. That's my manufactured 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 and how often my flare-ups would happen with MS. This was a couple of years ago, and I said to myself, I'm going to have to put an end to this. I am going to have to retire Son of Baldwin.

MARTIN: Now, is that because of what you call the increasingly hostile and malicious sort of tenor of commentary directed at you and your work? Or is it just more the overall environment and almost like you feel like it's polluted?

JONES: It's the overall environment. I was not always on the receiving end of those sorts of things. I was often, but not always. But also, watching other people that I am friends with, other people that I love, other people that I'm related to and even strangers being attacked by other strangers, that starts to wear on your spirit.

MARTIN: Do you have a message here for other people? I mean, you were very clear in your post that this is a decision you're making for yourself. You very much post this in the first person singular. You're giving your take on things, your experience of things. But you also talk about your values - community, patience, compassion, complexity, forgiveness, restoration, humanity. Does it feel like an invitation to others to consider the same?

JONES: In a sense, I would say yes. There are some other younger social justice activists who are on that platform who I think do a spectacular job of finding that balance. And I want more of them, people who are patient and considered and whose arguments are well thought out and who are not reactionary but who give deep, thoughtful commentary to these really complex and terrifying times we're living in. I'd love to see more of that, but I think social media incentivizes the quick take, the mean take, the take that's going to tear someone else down. And I'm hoping that there are enough people out there who could somehow overcome that.

MARTIN: That was Robert Jones Jr. on retiring his online persona, Son of Baldwin. Robert Jones Jr., thank you so much for talking with us.

JONES: Thank you so much, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.