When we discussed Fire Next Time in class on Monday, one of Dr. Gibson’s notes was on the “epistemology of blackness,” or how Baldwin seeks to reconcile what it means to be black in America. After reading his book, it appears to me that what Baldwin was seeking to do was define his identity in terms of his place in the word. Baldwin’s understanding of his being in the world was shaped by formative religious experiences that allowed him to understand his blackness. What Baldwin comes to analyze is the way in which his own identity structure was pre-determined by historical consequences. His embrace of history allowed him to escape his place in the world by uplifting himself as a writer. The victim-savior dichotomy that Dr. Gibson discussed plays into the development of this identity. As Baldwin returns to the United States and publishes Fire Next Time in the midst of the turmoil of the 1960s, he seeks to discover the way in which he breaks against the identity structure set before him as a black man.
“I was icily determined-more determined, really, than I knew- never to make my peace with the ghetto but to die and go to Hell before I would let any white man spit on me, before I would accept my “place” in this republic… Every Negro boy… who reaches this point realizes, at once, profoundly, because he wants to live, that he stands in great peril and must find, with speed, a “thing”, a gimmick to life him out, to start him on his way” (23-24). Baldwin discovered the Church as his source of identity to discover a solution to moving past the expectations of his life works set forth by historical consequences. Baldwin interpreted this calling to be his way of re-working the system in existence within Harlem, to deny the continuance of identity structures repeatedly reinforced throughout history. Baldwin’s own search for identity led him to continually question the religious and social nature of the United States.
Fire Next Time presents an interesting paradox of identity throughout the book. The daily struggles of Baldwin to discover his place within this movement allowed him to travel and discover the way in which other’s individual stories and how their experiences were contributing to history. The fact that most of his interest laid in the private life rather than public shows an allegiance for Baldwin to self-awareness. He wanted people to internalize the circumstances that they existed within, embrace their historical identity and move towards accepting blackness as an epistemology to revere with strength.
What did everyone else think about this discussion of the epistemology of blackness? How did Baldwin’s identity shape his life’s work?