Monday, March 4, 2013

How Baldwin Undermines the Master Narrative

I found James Baldwin’s piece, The Fire Next Time, to be a fascinating supplement to the texts of other civil rights movement leaders we have previously read. While Baldwin is impassioned against white supremacy and the injustices African Americans suffered at the hands of whites historically, The Fire Next Time sets itself apart from other texts of the period through its ambiguous conclusion, or lack thereof. Baldwin, while dedicated to the concept of love, promotes both non-violence as well as a need to use more aggressive tactics in the face of white oppression.
Baldwin begins the essay “Down with the Cross” with a deep analysis of the notion of fear that dominated the lives of African Americans for centuries and that was still persistent in the 1960’s. He speaks about how this fear was predicated upon the total and complete power of the white man. Lawson asserts, “They had the judges, the juries, the shotguns, the law- in a word, power. But it was a criminal power, to be feared but not respected, and to be outwitted in any way whatever.” (23) In this excerpt, Baldwin clearly expresses his belief that due to the history of white power over the black man, African Americans must do whatever is necessary to offset this power and equalize the races.
Only a few pages later, Baldwin questioned, “But what was the point, the purpose, of my salvation if it did not permit me to behave with love towards others, no matter how they behaved toward me?” He was committed to the concept of love for humanity and this proves to be the most prominent theme throughout the remainder of his essay though it is his ambiguous political positioning which makes Baldwin a very complex figure of the period. Perhaps it was due to Baldwin’s relative distance from the actual movement (meaning that he was not in a position of leadership in the movement, but more of an observer) that he was able to publically struggle with his interpretations of the complexity of race relations.

             It seems as if this text is more of a memoir in that Baldwin grapples with many different complex notions of equality, religion and race. Unlike other activists at the time, he does not have a prescription for action or a plan for forward movement. I think he captures much of the confusion of the time that is often distorted through the master narrative. No one was sure of the correct way to pursue the movement and there was never a single guiding policy for how to do so. In this way, Baldwin provides helpful insight into the reality of the complex period in US history.

1 comment:

  1. I agree that the text represents Baldwin's grappling with his own identity and his own place in the civil rights movement. I feel that in this sense he does play into the larger problems of the movement, the inherent contradictions, and the lack of clear-cut ideology. We often frame the civil rights movement as a logical progression with a neat dichotomy between violence and nonviolence and several key strong leaders obviously in charge. I think Baldwin is not unique in punching holes in that narrative; I think his piece stands out however because he does not obscure, but highlights, his own personal struggle as almost a way of affirming the internal struggles of the black community. Rather than endorsing one specific strategy or plan, he almost values the methodology more than the action, the way of thinking more than the result. Without debate and dialogue, he seems to say that any victory would be a hollow and superficial one.