James Baldwin’s Black Rage in “The Fire Next Time”

(This is part of a larger work entitled, “Perspectives of a Black Rage Sensibility: (Reshaping) God Through Spaces of Blackness”

Throughout his writings, Baldwin wrestles with the essence of Black Rage: a rage that engulfs the life of black people, trapped in an endless cycle of injustice, pressing to survive the vicious trials of life. Baldwin’s statement “to be a Negro in this country and relatively conscious, is to be in rage all the time” serves as a defining epitaph for Black Rage.[1] Pamela Lightsey notes that Baldwin’s explication of Black Rage was not limited to erroneous slander, deemed as an “irrational outburst.”[2] His explication was a “passionate response to the evil of racism imposed” upon the black community.[3]  Baldwin’s “blackness” can be understood as an intertwining of how Black Rage influenced Baldwin’s relationship with God and humanity.[4]

 James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time is a transcending essay that captures in paralyzing clarity, the experience of a young black man navigating the racist terrain of America. Exploring black people’s fear, pain and rage in mesmerizing detail, Baldwin, relocates the reader into a foreign reality –the world of the Negro in America, past and present. Baldwin challenges white Americans with a first-hand perspective of black males in the ghetto and, simultaneously, celebrates the Black community. His quest was to find out what made Black males so attentive to the Nation of Islam.[5] While writing this essay, he discovered the topic was richer and deeper than he first imagined. He never turned it into the editor of the Jewish magazine, who had hired him to write the story.

The book starts with a compelling and thought provoking letter to his nephew, My Dungeon Shook, which gives poignant instruction to his nephew on how to negotiate through the streets of Harlem, as a Black male, in the midst of a people who present a false Christianity.[6] The penetrating critiques of America opined in almost every sentence phrased with preciseness and rage present a pedagogical protest for his nephew. Baldwin’s overarching theme resonates in his words to his nephew, “You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger.”[7] Baldwin is very intentional about highlighting the texture and color of his nephew’s skin while giving him a preview of his temperament. [8] His nephew’s socially- constructed black body and political identity will serve as a stark indicator that his nephew “is” in danger. He cannot misplace his self-awareness in the white world, yet he cannot misplace his own true dignity. Baldwin’s insistence that his nephew identify with his blackness is utmost.  Theologian John Perkinson forms this experience as a radical rethinking of the black body. Purposely, he places all white bodies in the thralls of the lived history (a mythic fantasy) of white supremacy. He intentionally demarcates whiteness as a “structure of violence and a significance of injustice.”[9] Perkinson asserts that “the black body as a ‘possibility of theophany’ would place the white body as “a question of exorcism.”[10] He implies that the white body stands in need of divine healing or exorcism in order to be delivered from its own racism. In this assessment, the black body personifies God. Thus, confronting white people with a specificity of color and creed. The black body confronts white people with their sin before God.  For Baldwin, his own father’s lack of awareness of the black body politic, pushed him into wanting to be “so holy,” because Godliness provided a false invitation into whiteness.[11] Making holiness synonymous with whiteness was the fallacy Baldwin dismisses, while wrestling through life in the black experience. Ultimately, the commingling of whiteness with godly normatives would be Baldwin’s wrestling partners the rest of his life.

The Black Rage that Baldwin demonstrates to his nephew is one soaked in love with a governing sense of black pride, a pride that is timelessly connected to the black community. Baldwin’s unique perspective is guided by a strong principle of love.  A love that he describes:

Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth. [12]

 

Baldwin may appear to link his father’s false sense of Christianity with a pseudo-pursuit of holiness. However, looking deeply, his understanding and pursuit of love is profoundly Christian. Professor Clarence Hardy supposes that Baldwin’s idea of love is the result of self-examination. Hardy posits that Baldwin’s self-awareness caused love to flourish and this love becomes “the principal site of transformation and the self-actualization.”[13] Could this self-affirming love be similar to the Christian process of discernment? Baldwin is clear with his nephew that his mere presence is a salvific happening; his life –a hope, which love must prevail. Baldwin admonishes,

There is no reason for you to be like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you.  The really terrible thing…is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love. For those innocent people have no other hope.[14]

The assertion that hope, reconciliation, and love rest in the hands of the black community is a radical statement of purpose and identity. In Baldwin’s perspective, humanity is equipped with the responsibility for their own soul’s salvation. He states that humanity is responsible, “to expand and transform God’s nature.” [15] Baldwin is unapologetic about this particular affirming of the necessity of black people acting as the redeeming factor in the lives of whites. The impact of oppressed people’s presence and their being creates favorable opportunities for the oppressors to change. Baldwin is transparent with his nephew about the cruel treatment that he will endure but exudes a reconciliatory posture.[16] Though Baldwin does not proclaim that this is an authentic Christian value, his childish hope for/in humanity compels him to reluctantly trust in a governing love.

The message that Baldwin is trying to convey to his nephew is ultimately woven in throngs of suffering. Baldwin’s interest in suffering is connected to a belief that through such an act one would/could “discover what they really lived by,” indicating that “suffering holds purpose even if God does not.”[17] Baldwin is constructing an intricate theology of a redemptive suffering that, hopefully, forces the oppressors to change. In his critique of Anthony Pinn’s Why Lord?: Suffering and Evil in Black Theology, Dwight Hopkins suggest that redemptive suffering can never be positive or fruitful for African-Americans.[18] Hopkins furthermore confirms that redemptive suffering, directly or indirectly, “implies God sanctions suffering, relieving the oppressors from accountability…”[19] In the closing words to his nephew, Baldwin says, “…then we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.”[20] Through Baldwin’s Black Rage, his interpretive lens perceives God differently than his father. God is an active presence, but only in the sense that humanity (in this case his nephew) can convey that presence. The “so holy” aspect of divinity that is sought by Baldwin’s father is not the same “so holy” that Baldwin is conveying to his nephew. The Black Rage that ignites Baldwin is displayed as he tries to “write” the wrongs that may have the probability of killing his nephew. Baldwin’s Black Rage has activated a new sense of God that relocates suffering as a godly imperative.

[1] James Baldwin, “The Negro Role in American Culture,” Negro Digest, March 1962.

[2]Pamela Lightsey, Our Lives Matter, Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2015.,56.

[3] Ibid.

[4] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, First Vintage International: New York, 1962 The capitalization of G or lack thereof, is intentional throughout the paper. The thought is to try to convey the difference of expression in a god that is expressed in Baldwin’s concept versus a Christian example of God. The writer has tried to make the differences noticeable through the paper.

[5] The Nation of Islam was a Black Nationalist group that followed the teaching of Elijah Muhammad. The influence that Elijah Muhammed garnered from 1950 to the late 1960’s was unprecedented in the black community. Drawing from an early predecessor, he highlighted a separatist agenda that called for blacks to be given parts of America to live apart from whites.

[6] Ibid., Baldwin, Fire, 3-10.

[7].Ibid.,4.

[8] Ibid.,3.

[9] John Perkinson, White Theology: Outing Supremacy in Modernity, New York: Palgrave MacMillian, 2004.,150.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Baldwin accuses his father of trying to be “so holy” not as an attempt to be like God but as an alarming attempt to be white. Though his skin is dark like Baldwin and his nephew, Baldwin’s father is trying to escape the reality of being black in America. Baldwin is making a concerted effort to address this experience to his nephew. Ibid.,4. This person Baldwin references was Baldwin’s adoptive father. But, he lived his life trying to find the approval of his stepfather. Baldwin was born after his mother, Emma Berdis Jones left his biological father because of his drug abuse. Emma Jones, who never would tell her son the identity of his father. James Baldwin was born on August 2, 1924, in Harlem Hospital. In James’s third year, his mother married the Reverend David Baldwin, a Pentecost preacher, who legally adopted James, and moved the family to Harlem.

[12] Ibid., Baldwin, Fire, 95.

[13] Clarence Hardy III, James Baldwin’s God: sex, hope and crisis in black holiness culture, Knoxville: Tennessee Press, 2003.,49

[14] Ibid.,8. This may be “innocent privilege” that Bruggemann asserts in his assessment of Coates. (See footnote 33)

[15] James Baldwin, The Price of the Ticket, New York: St. Martin’s Marek,1985.,441. Clarence Hardy uses this exact quote to highlight the same frame of thought. Ibid.,Hardy.,13.

[16] Though Baldwin seeks such grand reconciliation he is not advocating for a complete surrendering or overhaul to whiteness. Baldwin poses a very stringent question: “Do I really want to be integrated in to a burning house?” Ibid., Baldwin, Fire,94. What he is proposing is that black folks consider whether it is feasible to be productive in an environment that does not even consider one’s self to be human.  He is trying to convey this message to his nephew in a wise manner, while getting his point across with assuredness. Baldwin is also trying to get his nephew to embrace his blackness unconditionally, yet safely. This is a strange dynamic that has to be worked out through the entirety of Baldwin’s writings. It is seen as Baldwin writes to his nephew. It is also visible in many other works as well. Baldwin presents a high, functional level of love. What is deemed the “Negro problem” is not moved by love but by white people’s resentment of being judged by those who they see on a lower status. Ibid., 95. Baldwin is walking a very slim, but necessary, tightrope with his nephew. On one hand he is insisting that he becomes a savior for white people by virtue of his social presence, but on the other he is making sure that he does not lose his identity with the black experience.

[17] Ibid., Hardy,48.

[18] Dwight Hopkins, “Reviewed Work: Why Lord?: Suffering and Evil in Black Theology. by Anthony B. Pinn.” Review by: Dwight N. Hopkins. African American Review, Vol. 31, No. 3 (Autumn, 1997), pp. 514-516, Indiana State University. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3042581

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., Baldwin Fire, 10

 

 

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Brothers In Conversation About Race (Part 8)

Religion is a space where the boundaries of God are fortified through tension and reified through reformation. It avails itself to a strong critique while offering solutions that are filled with active love. Oftentimes, this is not the picture that is painted by the Christian church. Walter, in part 7, introduced the notion of a space where Black people are given the freedom to be, inextricably, themselves. One of the few spaces where black people can relive their liberation is the black church. The black church has provided black folks with a liberating space where their visibility and presence is honored. Racism loses its power within the midst of this fictive kinship.

Racism is a retardant that hinders sound judgement from processing. The oppress are influenced to look past their oppression and reinterpret it as security, instead of seeking freedom. Racism discourages freedom because freedom fuels intellect. Consequently, it is hard to keep intelligent people oppressed. No longer can the plight of white power and white privilege be held as doctrines of a constructed god, who dehumanizes and beguiles black people into believing that oppression is acceptable and godly. When the oppressed start to rebel against the oppressor, their words against oppression are labeled as radicalized hatred.  James Baldwin declares this is when

“white power is broken.”

Baldwin also proclaims that when this white power is broken:

“an English man can’t tell an African what it means to be African and he believes it; a white man can’t tell a negro what it means to be a negro and he believes it, anymore.”

The black church has been the space where our humanity is unquestionable. It has been the sacred site of resistance where beauty emerges in spite of pain and trauma. The black church, constantly reconstructing herself as the avant-guard against this constructed, neo-liberal god that sanctions racism. The black church is a complex institution, constantly on the front-lines fighting against racism. It is a creative space where black genius reclaims the identity of Jesus. A Jesus that racism refuses to accept or serve.

Prophetic Urges from Orlando: Part 1

Over the next 8 weeks or so, we will have a few of my friends, classmates and fellow pastors write on their feelings of the church, their thoughts, hopes and theology after Orlando.  Some you may agree with while other you may be the voice of dissent. Nonetheless, it will hopefully spark honest dialogue for change:

I am Brian Foulks. I am a heterosexual male and married with children. I am black male that grew up in the Black Baptist church but now part of the ELCA. Yes, the ELCA that is 96% white. Yes, the ELCA that ordains folks for the LGBTQIA community. Yes, I am pro-black but I am not anti-white. Yes, I read James Baldwin and James Cone. Yes, I love Hip Hop. I have three master’s degrees but still get looked at strange in many Lutheran circles. Yes, I grew up in a two-parent home where my parents have been married for 43 years. Yes, I grew up in Lexington, SC. Yes, I have friends and classmates who are Muslims and I care deeply about them.

Why did you say all of that? Because in the midst of all those labels and categories, I am lost for words. My honest critique of the church and the concern  for human life, after the terrorism in Orlando, has left me numb once again. It is that same numbness that I felt after the Mother Emmanuel terrorist attack: It was that feeling of what do we do now. Where will all of our “believe in Jesus” and “trust the Lord” rhetoric get us now? When the senseless slaughter of human life becomes synonymous with a loving God, then it may be time for us to create a new god. Some may declare that creating a new god teeters on the verge of heresy but so does condoning of the murder of LGBTQIA lives and the owning of a AR-15.

Honestly, I don’t understand everything there is to know about the LGBTQIA culture. Somethings I may not understand or can reason but, I do have friends in that community of beautiful people. Yes, the brothers and sisters in the LGBTQIA community have taught me how to love in the midst of the terrible face of evil. I have been made better by interaction and fellowship with this community.

As I wrestled through the murders of Mother Emmanuel, the love of a crucified Christ looked more like a crucified Christ finding no reason to love. Then to imagine 50 or more, brothers and sisters, mowed down by an AR-15 becomes a place where love is non-existent but the crucified Christ stands in the midst of the bloody dead bodies. The Crucified Christ standing, heart torn asunder because 50 lives have been stolen by sin. The Crucified Christ, always present. We mourn the lives of the brothers and sisters stolen too soon. There is no celebration for me. There is anger. There is unease. There is fear for my children. There are places where faith has appeared to relinquish its mode of life. The Crucified Christ is present…but sometimes I ponder on Langston Hughes’ Goodbye Christ:

Listen, Christ,

You did alright in your day, I reckon-

But that day’s gone now.

They ghosted you up a swell story, too,

Called it Bible-

But it’s dead now,

The popes and the preachers’ve

Made too much money from it.

They’ve sold you to too many

 

Kings, generals, robbers, and killers-

Even to the Tzar and the Cossacks,

Even to Rockefeller’s Church,

Even to THE SATURDAY EVENING POST.

You ain’t no good no more.

They’ve pawned you

Till you’ve done wore out.

 

Goodbye,

Christ Jesus Lord God Jehova,

Beat it on away from here now.

Make way for a new guy with no religion at all-

A real guy named

Marx Communist Lenin Peasant Stalin Worker ME-

I said, ME!

 

Go ahead on now,

You’re getting in the way of things, Lord.

And please take Saint Gandhi with you when you go,

And Saint Pope Pius,

And Saint Aimee McPherson,

And big black Saint Becton

Of the Consecrated Dime.

And step on the gas, Christ!

Move!

 

Don’t be so slow about movin?

The world is mine from now on-

And nobody’s gonna sell ME

To a king, or a general,

Or a millionaire.

Then I remember, the Crucified Christ is present. He gets down in the mess with us. He stands in the bloody mangled bodies weeping for the broken fellowship. So what can we do as the church: be present.

 

The Pedagogy of Pain

 

If there is one thing that life teaches, it is that there will be moments of failure and loss. There will be times when you have done everything right –you followed the blueprint for success but you still failed. What do you do when failure is a definite but you know success is in your destiny?

The simple answer is you keep grinding…

2012 to 2014 was some of the hardest years I have every experienced. I went through a health scare, lost home, marriage ended, cars repossessed, and little to no income. Why was this happening to me? I have leadership skills, I managed over 100 million dollars’ worth of assets, I have two masters’ degrees (working on a third), I have trained thousands. My leadership qualities, talents and training speak for themselves.

But, for those 2 years all I seemed to experience was failure and loss. Every time I would get close to a breakthrough, it fell apart. I had job offers rescinded for no reasons. Lucrative opportunities taken off the table for no reason. It just appeared that failure and hard times was the path that was chosen for me. In 2014, I experienced loss in some fashion or another on a weekly basis. Without a place to live, I moved to a seminary campus apartment and I remember one of my neighbors saying to me, “That every day she saw me she thanked God.” She could not believe that one person could take such trauma in such a short period of time without wanting to kill themselves. The truth of the matter is that I thought about it every single day. There were moments, that I would sit in my apartment, wondering what I was going to eat, because I had no money or food. I was thankful that I had a place to stay but still experiencing the feeling of loss and failure.

Then on October 29, 2014, I experience loss at a level that would forever change my life –I got arrested for clerical mistake by the clerk of the court. I had spoken with the clerk of the court about my child support and showed them all the paperwork that detailed every aspect of repayment. She took my paperwork and said that there was no need to come to court because my paperwork addressed all of the issues that they were needing answers too. Well she told me one thing but failed to do any of it and on October 29th, 2014, I was called out of class and arrested on campus. I was in jail for about 2 days but it left a hole in my heart. Here I was and 40 years old and this was my first time in handcuffs or in a courtroom shackled. I was shackled the same way that they would have shackled a murderer or rapist. For the first time in about 20 years, I was embarrassed.

I remember being in that cell with 7 other men and wondering what in the world makes people want to come back to this place. I hated jail –the confinement, the loss of humanity and the lack of freedom. But, some of the young brothers I saw in the jail were as if they were in the confines of home. They slept and ate with smiles upon their faces. For me there was frustration because this appeared to be my culmination of 40 years’ worth of work. After this was cleared up and I was back in the “free world,” I started seeing life through a different lens. I saw how the transition for those coming from jail was so difficult. The understanding of empathy had changed because now I knew what the practical outcome of the New Jim Crow meant in real time. But, there was still the loss and level of failure attached that troubled me. What was the use of trying to be and get better; what sense did more degrees make; why was everything that I was trying failing and failing with a high cost attached to it.

So that night, when I hit rock bottom, I grabbed the 12 pills and started toward my mouth. I had been battling the pain for 3 hours and I lost –hope was a fleeting memory and despair was a present reality. As I started toward my mouth with the pills, my phone vibrated and it was an email from a friend. She said I just felt as if I needed to send you an email to check on you. That email saved my life that day.

It that brief second I lost perspective of what life entails. In that brief moment life appeared to be just endless amounts of sorrow and pain. Failure became an obstacle instead of a ladder for greater success. I was later reminded of something I used to tell everyone one: “I want to make people better than they ever thought they could be.” What I did not realize that through all my failures and loss I was receiving a training that college, seminary or graduate school could never teach me. I was learning how to push past pain. I was learning to never quit and that God was in the midst of the chaos with me.

James Baldwin was told by a reporter that he was born black, poor and gay…How much more disadvantaged can you get? Baldwin response was, “I hit the jackpot. It gave me something to write about.” Failure and loss may give the impression that you have lost but in retrospect you have hit the jackpot because the learning potential is there if we push past the pain.

Two Brothers Talking: A Running Dialog on the Incarnation and being Black Part 2

Life as a black man in (a)merica is a strange predicament wedged between misery and sublime while being rushed by transcendence. The addition of a loving God would appear to deconstruct the misery that ultimately leads to a different life. Unfortunately, that is not always the cause for many black people trekking through this life in the Western world. On a bigger picture it can be assumed that God is not that fond of black people (men or women) due in part by the mass levels of oppression. We have endured years of unfairness, injustice and pure racism just for us to be seen as human. That in itself would make anybody question the intentions of a loving God.

The incarnation, Walter says in his response, means that “God will do something about the suffering.” It appears that what God did about the suffering was allow more suffering. There is not this overwhelming sensation of triumph that has overtaken the black community that signifies everything is alright –we will be alright but there is no overwhelming sensation that alerts us to the phenomenon. James Baldwin articulates, “If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If he cannot do this, it is time we get rid of him.” Although this reply is harsh there is some level of contemplation that can be rendered upon this statement.

The continual suffering of a group of people does not equate to love in most places. The systemic displacement of black and brown people, not to mention the Indians, has made life difficult to negotiate in america. When you have become numb to ignorance instead of vigilante, then acceptance looms as an apparent answer. This is where many black Christians live. They live on the edge of sheer apathy with comedic hope for change. They will succumb to mistreatment by standing on a faith that change is around the corner. Well, all of that is good but there also needs to be a voice that addresses the wrong and provides a plan for change. But, God must be actively present in the midst of the chaos. Now, I digress and admit that God may very well be actively present in the midst but my understanding is lacking to comprehend what is actual going on. That is my hope and but the appearance of this mayhem in the lives of black folks makes me wonder at times.   

The dialog continues…