This 1963 book by James Baldwin is heart-breakingly relevant today. Not only did it inspire two important books of 2016—The Fire This Time and Between the World and Me—but it also feels at times like it could have been written last week. Baldwin writes of hearing a police officer use a racist slur and ask why he can’t stay uptown where he belongs as he’s walking across the street to the library. He writes of being stopped and frisked at age 10. And he writes of always being aware of the limitations racist society placed on him and how many of his friends fled to the bottle or the needle.
Baldwin fled to the church and become a preacher at a young age. But the church wasn’t a haven that stuck for him, and he ponders some of his issues with God and the church in “Down at the Cross,” the essay that makes up most of this book. Some of what he says reminded me of James Cone’s ideas in The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Both write about the solace African Americans find in church, but Baldwin finds the solace ultimately empty:
Christianity has operated with an unmitigated arrogance and cruelty—necessarily, since a religion ordinarily imposes on those who have discovered the true faith the spiritual duty of liberating the infidels. This particular true faith, moreover, is more deeply concerned about the soul than it is about the body, of which fact the flesh (and the corpses) of countless infidels bears witness.
Cone echoes this sentiment in his chapter on Reinhold Niebuhr, and as a Christian myself, I think this is a fair critique of much of the church. I’ve seen plenty of ministry efforts that are focused on Bible teaching to the exclusion of providing real help or that provide substantive help as a means to get a foot in the door for preaching. That’s not to say it’s true across the board, but I do think self-examination is always in order.
Baldwin also describes a meeting he had with Elijah Muhammed of the Nation of Islam in which Muhammed advocated the founding of a black nation and the separation of the races. He appears to find much of what Muhammed has to say compelling, but he ultimately rejects this vision as well. This was a point where I wish I had more knowledge of the context and of the Nation of Islam as a whole. I just a few days ago listened to an interview on Reveal with white nationalist Richard Spencer, and some of the logic seemed similar to me. Baldwin, however, rejects this logic, partly for practical reasons but also because “Whoever debases others is debasing himself.”
Baldwin then goes on to share something of his vision for the future and the possibilities ahead:
We should certainly know by now that it is one thing to overthrow a dictator or repel an invader and quite another thing really to achieve a revolution. Time and time and time again, the people discover that they have merely betrayed themselves into the hands of yet another Pharoah who, since he was necessary to put the broken country together, will not let them go. Perhaps, people being the conundrums that they are, and having so little desire to shoulder the burden of their lives, this is what will always happen. But at the bottom of my heart I do not believe this. I think that people can be better than that, and I know that people can be better than they are.
He doesn’t get specific on what we can do to shoulder our burdens—it’s not that kind of book. The general idea is that the fates of black Americans and white Americans are intertwined. The history of how black Americans came to this country and how they’ve been treated through our history needs to be acknowledged, and our social structures reexamined in light of this understanding. We can’t just expect black Americans to adopt white priorities. It is time for us to recreate our country together:
Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophesy, 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!