Thoughts on Fire Next Time: James Baldwin’s Hardcore Talk on Reconciliation

There is a certain frame of reference that avails itself to the writings of James Baldwin – his inner city upbringing, his time as a preacher, his extreme openness about his homosexuality all while growing up as a black man in America. He laments in his letter to his nephew, “…to be born, in a white country, an Anglo-Teutonic, antisexual country, black. You very soon, without knowing it give up all hope of communion.”[1] These are the expressive thoughts of James Baldwin that inform “these yet to be United States” that the hard work of reconciliation is a personal mission.[2]

Baldwin gives us much to ponder as he shares this existential truth that causes us to rethink the particular positions in white privilege. His mode of attack was not steeped in violence but was occupied by pity. Baldwin had an “unsentimental compassion for whites so trapped by their fear that they are deeply alienated from their true selves.”[3] He understood with clarity that hatred made for a short life and as well as made one unproductive. This pity and unsentimental compassion is the result of a people who are trapped in a history which they do not understand.[4] It is this lack of understanding that leads to the improper treatment of others. As Baldwin denotes that until that understanding is received “there can be no release.” The understanding is the connection to commitment and it is very hard for people to “act on what they know.”[5] It is the act that drives the commitment and” to be committed is dangerous.”[6] In an interview with Francios Bondy, Baldwin shares,

…there is no prospect of setting Negroes free unless one is prepared to set the white people in America Free…Free from their terror, free from their ignorance, free from their prejudices and free, really, from the right to do wrong, knowing that it is wrong.”[7]

So we ask, “Why do we not see systemic change as it relates to racism?” –it is too dangerous. Baldwin’s ability to reshape the narrative of the Negro idiom is the unspoken challenge in a controlled rage.[8] He calls all to the table for a dialogue of truth that is predicated on producing change. (A truth informed dialogue will prove useless if all parties are unwilling to be honest to themselves or have a lack of personal introspection.) His ability to speak with such honesty about the plight of black folks in America but yet move within many white circles was epic. We have to take notice that he never cowered away from an issue because it would prove uncomfortable for his audience. Though he spoke with an unwavering intent about his love for the black community he also had a love for humanity as a whole. It is uncommon in many circles, especially in the church, to see folks who can make this type of transcendence. What impact can be made if we all had the vulnerability to be honest?

Vulnerability

The ability of Baldwin to be vulnerable in his writing aids in the reconciliation process. Writing is a revolutionary act of human catharsis that has the potential to send one to the ultimate edge of sacrifice. For Baldwin this is crucial and mandatory for the formation of his life. His entire existence appears to be based upon re-presenting the totality of his experience. Baldwin shares with an interviewer from the Paris Review[9]when ask about writing from one’s experience,

“Yes, and yet one’s own experience is not necessarily one’s twenty-four-hour reality. Everything happens to you, which is what Whitman means when he says in his poem “Heroes,” “I am the man, I suffered, I was there.” It depends on what you mean by experience.”[10]

It is the act of being “there” and being able to show that image that helps in the reconciliation process. Baldwin’s ability to help all see his world and his experience gives a vivid picture of what black people have to endure. His vulnerability to share his life with others allows for those from different ethnic groups to have a peek into the world of an oppressed black man. As a writer Baldwin’s places himself at the center of the issue and then proceeds to write himself out of the predicament. It is through his writing that he is able to connect the dots that leave us asking more existential questions: 1) How would I communities change if we were able to be totally honest with each other? 2) Can our understanding of ourselves really impact the nature of our relationships with each other?

Conclusion

Dr. William Augustus Jones, in his book, God in the Ghetto, suggests that one’s theology, how I see God, determines one’s anthropology, how I see humans, and one’s anthropology then determines one’s sociology, how I order my society.[11] I believe Baldwin writes from a similar frame of reference regardless of the fact that he is anti-church.[12] His lived theology is one that models reconciliation during a turbulent time. His observance of the humanity of Jesus in ways that shaped the thinking of people impacted the way others saw America. Baldwin understood that “to accept one’s past-one’s history- is not the same as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it.”[13] How can the past of the blacks and whites be used to bring about a collective change for reconciliation? Could it be that we need to have a”transcendence of realities of color, of nations and of altars.”[14]

[1] James Baldwin. Fire Next Time.(New York: Vinatge International,1963),30.

[2] These Yet to be United States is a poem by Maya Angelou where she drives home a hard critique of the united States not living up to the nature of its name.

[3]Nilson, Jon. 2013. “James Baldwin’s Challenge To Catholic Theologians and the Church.” Theological Studies 74, no. 4: 884-902. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed April 1, 2014),888.

[4] Ibid.,Baldwin,8.

[5] Ibid.,9.

[6] Ibid.,9.

[7] James Baldwin and Francois Bondy, “James Baldwin, as Interviewed by Francois Bondy,” transitions 12(1964) 12-19., 12.

[8] Ibid., Baldwin,69.

[9]Jordan Elgrably; The Paris Review; http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2994/the-art-of-fiction-no-78-james-baldwin accessed 3/30/2014

[11] William Augustus Jones. God of the Ghetto. (Progressive Baptist Publishing House, 1979), 13-20.

[12] I choose to refer to him as anti-church rather than anti-Christ because he mentions that Christ was a very good example for all to follow. His discontent came with the church not with Jesus.

[13] Ibid.,Baldwin,81.

[14] Ibid.,82.

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