In 1963 Baldwin wrote, “It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your child to hate.”
Blistering. Righteous. Prophetic.
Any book that notes, in passing, “Negros in this country – and Negroes do not, strictly or legally speaking exist in any other…” is taking on history, language, education and America, in its slim 85 or so, pages.
A book in two parts: the first, an 11 page letter addressed to his nephew, also called James, entitled “My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation” ; and “Down at the Cross” described as a “letter from a region in my mind.”
The letter to his nephew uses the examples of Baldwin’s father and brother (the father of the younger James) to demonstrate the way that America uses race to subjugate and ‘destroy’ black people.
You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity…the details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you.
This part concludes: You know, and I know, that the country is celebrating one hundred years too soon. We cannot be free until they are free.
The second part involves Baldwin’s thoughts on the experiences of religion in America and how they work to the detriment of the black population – Baldwin himself had been a celebrated young preacher in Harlem as a teenager. He later met with Elijah Muhammad, founder of the Nation of Islam in America, and some of his congregation: he left feeling that he had somehow ‘failed the test.’
Discussing real and lasting revolution, Baldwin says, “Time and time and time again, the people discover that they have merely betrayed themselves onto the hands of yet another Pharaoh, who, since he was necessary to put the broken country together, will not let them go.”
The essential question for Black America: Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house? (Baldwin’s emphasis). His point being not the seperationist ideology of the Nation of Islam but that the current ‘idea of America’ that America has of itself, is not good enough and for the good of all Americans, they need to raise their game and be something better.
A morning’s reading which leads to a lifetime’s thinking.