Monday, March 4, 2013

Acceptance of One's Past

A major theme throughout The Fire Next Time and the Civil Rights Movement is the need for acceptance of one’s past. Without reflecting and accepting the rich history of the African American, the black race would be unable to move forward. As James Baldwin so eloquently explains, “The American Negro can have no future anywhere, on any continent, as long as he is unwilling to accept his past. To accept one’s past – one’s history – is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it” (81). The history of the African American is not something to disdain, but is something to embrace and use as fuel to fight inequality.
Although it is easy to preach acceptance of one’s troubling past, it is a lot harder to accept the cruelties that prevailed for the African American race. Many individuals and groups throughout the Civil Rights Movement believed that the acceptance of African American history would only occur if individuals no longer feared their present. We first saw this belief when James Lawson taught the theology of nonviolence to his student followers. He believed that before an individual participates in a protest, sit in, or any non-violent action, the individual must understand their fears. This fear could be anxiety over the violence that occurred at sit ins or the fear that participating in a freedom ride might result in death. Yet, the deepest fear an individual needed to overcome was the worry that inequalities would never be resolved. In order to be completely present in their current fight for equality, African Americans needed to overcome the fear of their history and the pain that might come with fighting for their rights. Lawson also reminded his followers that according to the Bible African Americans were not the first people to be broken. This allowed for African Americans to compare their painful history to the history of other oppressed groups. If the oppressed in the Bible could overcome their abuse so could African Americans. By incorporating the history of the Bible into his theology of Non Violence, Lawson was able to display the idea that by accepting their history, African Americans could overcome their fears and be genuinely ready to fight against inequalities
Following in Lawson’s footsteps, SNCC also believed in the need to overcome one’s history. As a twenty-two year old SNCC worker Charles Sherrod wrote, “The first obstacle to remove was the mental block in the minds of those who wanted to move but were unable for fear that we were not who we said we were” (No Easy Walk, 139). Specifically, Sherrod discussed how individuals needed to overcome their fear of what SNCC actually was. Sherrod goes onto explain that members of SNCC began to explain the organizations history, specifically what actions they took and why. Once SNCC pointed out the inequalities that have occurred throughout history people began to listen and became willing to help. Sherrod argues that individuals became more involved in SNCC once they realized that they needed to take action in order to overcome their history. By realizing that action could help African Americans overcome their history, SNCC was able to fight without fear of their present or past situation. It is because of the acceptance of African American history that individuals and groups were able to overcome their fears and wholeheartedly fight against inequalities.

1 comment:

  1. I think a lot about identity when I think about the connection to one's past. I think Baldwin wanted his readers to connect to an understanding of their history and be proud of their identity rather than shy away from it. I believe this was not due to an interest in perpetuating the stereotypes placed upon blacks, but to understand why those tropes existed in order to overcome them. Baldwin himself seemed to have a moment in his life where he embraced the realization of the future of many African Americans around him on the Avenue. It seemed to be that through this realization of the perpetuation of stereotypical identities that he could free himself from the chains that bound him to his blackness. This is an interesting analysis of this same applicability to SNCC and nonviolence beyond Lawson. Overcoming history is not erasing history, but embracing the importance of using it as a learning tool for sustainable change, such as that that Lawson enacted with his trainings for SNCC.