The Fire This Time
Below are a few excerpts from James Baldwin’s “Letter from a Region in My Mind,” originally published in The New Yorker in 1962. Upon reading Baldwin’s essay for the first time, it was hard not to see the flame and empathize with the inflamed.
BEING BLACK | RACISM | AMERICA
And there seemed to be no way whatever to remove this cloud that stood between them and the sun, between them and love and life and power, between them and whatever it was that they wanted. One did not have to be very bright to realize how little one could do to change one’s situation; one did not have to be abnormally sensitive to be worn down to a cutting edge by the incessant and gratuitous humiliation and danger one encountered every working day, all day long. The humiliation did not apply merely to working days, or workers; I was thirteen and was crossing Fifth Avenue on my way to the Forty-second Street library, and the cop in the middle of the street muttered as I passed him, “Why don’t you niggers stay uptown where you belong?”
For me, the N-word is the least offensive part of a racism as personally interwoven into the social fabric of black experience as it is deeply ingrained in the cultural story of majority white America.
WHITE NAIVETE | BLACK POWER | SOCIAL CHANGE
One would never defeat one’s circumstances by working and saving one’s pennies; one would never, by working, acquire that many pennies, and, besides, the social treatment accorded even the most successful Negroes proved that one needed, in order to be free, something more than a bank account. One needed a handle, a lever, a means of inspiring fear. It was absolutely clear that the police would whip you and take you in as long as they could get away with it, and that everyone else—housewives, taxi-drivers, elevator boys, dishwashers, bartenders, lawyers, judges, doctors, and grocers—would never, by the operation of any generous human feeling, cease to use you as an outlet for his frustrations and hostilities. Neither civilized reason nor Christian love would cause any of those people to treat you as they presumably wanted to be treated; only the fear of your power to retaliate would cause them to do that, or to seem to do it, which was (and is) good enough.
Baldwin makes his case, which makes me ask…
If social change is to happen on a truly public scale, what good are all the moral reason and Christian love in the world if no actual space is made (and safe-guarded) for all citizens in a republic to have and exercise their political power?
THE CHURCH | SOCIAL ACTION | HYPOCRISIES
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. When I watched all the children, their copper, brown, and beige faces staring up at me as I taught Sunday school, I felt that I was committing a crime in talking about the gentle Jesus, in telling them to reconcile themselves to their misery on earth in order to gain the crown of eternal life.
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.
OK, well, please don’t throw away your Bibles just yet. And, indeed, keep praying. But also organize. Let’s work our damnedest to reconcile and redeem earth’s strife and misery in this present life. And for God’s sake, Christian people, address the inequalities and hypocrisies in our own house.
CHRISTIANITY | COLONIAL MISSIONS | GOD’S BLESSING
The spreading of the Gospel, regardless of the motives or the integrity or the heroism of some of the missionaries, was an absolutely indispensable justification for the planting of the flag. The Christian church itself—again, as distinguished from some of its ministers—sanctified and rejoiced in the conquests of the flag, and encouraged, if it did not formulate, the belief that conquest, with the resulting relative well-being of the Western populations, was proof of the favor of God.
Contrary to the gospel Jesus taught and demonstrated, neither winning nor material well-being inherently prove that God has our back. Lord have mercy if we persist in believing these alternative facts for one more minute.