Notes and excerpts from The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin.
This book has been on my list for awhile. The library finally had a copy and I finished it the other week. But I am just now getting around to publishing this edition of ‘Reading Notes’. Hopefully I can get into a regular cadence where I can publish one of these (roughly) every weekend.
The book is composed of two essays, My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation and Down At The Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind. The former, as the title states, is an open letter to Baldwin’s nephew. It reminded me of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me — which is weird to say considering Coates was inspired by Baldwin. But, you see, I read Coates first. In fact, I’ve read all of Coates’s books (reading notes to be published eventually). So now the association in my mind is reversed. It should instead be Coates who reminds me of Baldwin. In any case, it was nice to see this passage early on in the second essay (emphasis mine):
To defend oneself against a fear is simply to insure that one will, one day, be conquered by it; fears must be faced. As for one’s wits, it is just not true that one can live by them — not, that is, if one wishes really to live. That summer, in any case, all the fears with which I had grown up, and which were now a part of me and controlled my vision of the world, rose up like a wall between the world and me, and drove me into the church.
Clearly, this is from where Coates derived the title for his book, which is also framed as an open letter to his own son. I wish I had known this reference prior to reading Between the World and Me. Very cool to see.
* * *
Baldwin was known for not really being down with the church. Despite embarking on the path towards being a preacher rather early in his life, he eventually left the church and viewed Christianity as hypocritical and perpetuating systems of oppression. He spends a large portion of Down At The Cross laying out his criticisms of Christianity, its hypocrisies, and the Church’s oppressive role in the black community.
On Christianity and the Church:
And the blood of the Lamb had not cleansed me in any way whatever. I was just as black as I had been the day that I was born. Therefore, when I faced a congregation, it began to take all the strength I had not to stammer, not to curse, not to tell them to throw away their Bibles and get off their knees and go home and organize, for example, a rent strike.
But I had been in the pulpit too long and I had seen too many monstrous things. I don’t refer merely to the glaring fact that the minister eventually acquires houses and Cadillacs while the faithful continue to scrub floors and drop their dimes and quarters and dollars into the plate. I really mean that there was no love in the church. It was a mask for hatred and self-hatred and despair. The transfiguring power of the Holy Ghost ended when the service ended, and salvation stopped at the church door.
When we were told to love everybody, I had thought that that meant everybody. But no. It applied only to those who believed as we did, and it did not apply to white people at all. I was told by a minister, for example, that I should never, on any public conveyance, under any circumstances, rise and give my seat to a white woman. White men never rose for Negro women. Well, that was true enough, in the main — I saw his point. But what was the point, the purpose, of my salvation if it did not permit me to behave with love toward others, no matter how they behaved toward me? What others did was their responsibility, for which they would answer when the judgment trumpet sounded.
When the white man came to Africa, the white man had the Bible and the African had the land, but now it is the white man who is being, reluctantly and bloodily, separated from the land, and the African who is still attempting to digest or to vomit up the Bible.
It is not too much to say that whoever wishes to become a truly moral human being (and let us not ask whether or not this is possible; I think we must believe that it is possible) must first divorce himself from all the prohibitions, crimes, and hypocrisies of the Christian church. If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.
I remembered my buddies of years ago, in the hallways, with their wine and their whiskey and their tears; in hallways still, frozen on the needle; and my brother saying to me once, ‘If Harlem didn’t have so many churches and junkies, there’d be blood flowing in the streets.’
* * *
On American society and the idea of “progress”:
For hard example, white Americans congratulate themselves on the 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation in the schools; they suppose, in spite of the mountain of evidence that has since accumulated to the contrary, that this was proof of a change of heart — or, as they like to say, progress.
Similarly, today Obama’s presidency is often used as “evidence” that America has somehow overcome racism, which is hardly true by any measure.
We are controlled here by our confusion, far more than we know, and the American dream has therefore become something much more closely resembling a nightmare, on the private, domestic, and international levels. Privately, we cannot stand our lives and dare not examine them; domestically, we take no responsibility for (and no pride in) what goes on in our country; and, internationally, for many millions of people, we are an unmitigated disaster.
This passage is remarkable. It reads like it was written today, which sadly, makes me feel somewhat hopeless.
* * *
White Americans find it as difficult as white people elsewhere do to divest themselves of the notion that they are in possession of some intrinsic value that black people need, or want. And this assumption — which, for example, makes the solution to the Negro problem depend on the speed with which Negroes accept and adopt white standards — is revealed in all kinds of striking ways, from Bobby Kennedy’s assurance that a Negro can become President in forty years to the unfortunate tone of warm congratulation with which so many liberals address their Negro equals.
The book was published in 1963, so forty years later would be 2003. Shockingly not far off. Obama was elected forty five years later in 2008. I would love to know what Baldwin would have thought about that.
It is the Negro, of course, who is presumed to have become equal — an achievement that not only proves the comforting fact that perseverance has no color but also overwhelmingly corroborates the white man’s sense of his own value.
Therefore, a vast amount of the energy that goes into what we call the Negro problem is produced by the white man’s profound desire not to be judged by those who are not white, not to be seen as he is, and at the same time a vast amount of the white anguish is rooted in the white man’s equally profound need to be seen as he is, to be released from the tyranny of his mirror.
* * *
On racial tensions and liberation:
It is for this reason that love is so desperately sought and so cunningly avoided. Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.
And I submit, then, that the racial tensions that menace Americans today have little to do with real antipathy — on the contrary, indeed — and are involved only symbolically with color. These tensions are rooted in the very same depths as those from which love springs, or murder. The white man’s unadmitted — and apparently, to him, unspeakable — private fears and longings are projected onto the Negro. The only way he can be released from the Negro’s tyrannical power over him is to consent, in effect, to become black himself, to become a part of that suffering and dancing country that he now watches wistfully from the heights of his lonely power and, armed with spiritual traveller’s checks, visits surreptitiously after dark.
I think this accurately describes the climate that the current administration has advanced and fostered — scapegoat immigrants and people of color as the cause of poor whites’ terrible living and working conditions, rather than admit the actual problem: neoliberal capitalism and corporate control of our government. A primary theme in Coates’s writing is the idea that preserving racism allows white people to avoid confronting the inhumanity of slavery and the atrocious history that built this country, and thus perpetuate the myth of American ‘exceptionalism’ and ‘greatness’.
I cannot accept the proposition that the four-hundred-year travail of the American Negro should result merely in his attainment of the present level of the American civilization. I am far from convinced that being released from the African witch doctor was worthwhile if I am now — in order to support the moral contradictions and the spiritual aridity of my life — expected to become dependent on the American psychiatrist. It is a bargain I refuse. The only thing white people have that black people need, or should want, is power — and no one holds power forever. White people cannot, in the generality, be taken as models of how to live. Rather, the white man is himself in sore need of new standards, which will release him from his confusion and place him once again in fruitful communion with the depths of his own being. And I repeat: The price of the liberation of the white people is the liberation of the blacks — the total liberation, in the cities, in the towns, before the law, and in the mind.
“No one holds power forever” — a glimmer of hope, indeed.
* * *
On the black experience in America:
The apprehension of life here so briefly and inadequately sketched has been the experience of generations of Negroes, and it helps to explain how they have endured and how they have been able to produce children of kindergarten age who can walk through mobs to get to school.
It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your child to hate. The Negro boys and girls who are facing mobs today come out of a long line of improbable aristocrats — the only genuine aristocrats this country has produced.
I have great respect for that unsung army of black men and women who trudged down back lanes and entered back doors, saying ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘No, Ma’am’ in order to acquire a new roof for the schoolhouse, new books, a new chemistry lab, more beds for the dormitories, more dormitories. They did not like saying ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘No Ma’am,’ but the country was in no hurry to educate Negroes, these black men and women knew that the job had to be done, and they put their pride in their pockets in order to do it.
* * *
On the myth of American exceptionalism:
The American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed that collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world’s most direct and virile, that American women are pure.
* * *
And finally, the last sentence in the book:
If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!