In the summer of his fourteenth year, Baldwin went through what he refers to as a “prolonged religious crisis.” He writes that he discovered God and, therefore, became more intimate with the notion of Hell. Having been raised in a Christian society, he easily accepted God and quickly began to associate religion with safety, an association he believes is common in the United States. Putting this in different terms, Baldwin says that when he turned 14, he became afraid for the first time in his life.
The fact that Baldwin conflated religion with safety says something about the circumstances in which he sought the church. From the beginning of this essay, then, it becomes clear that Baldwin (as a teenager) was trying to escape something. As such, it is no surprise that he quickly began to associate religion with fear.
Baldwin feared the evil lurking within as well as the evil all around him. Suddenly he began to regard the “whores and pimps and racketeers on the Avenue” in a new way—without warning, they now embodied what Baldwin could himself become. They had, after all, been created by the very same circumstances from which Baldwin himself emerged. His friends had started flocking to the streets to drink and do drugs, and his father believed that Baldwin was going to follow them. Meanwhile, girls he had known his entire life—girls who had sung in the church—went through puberty and became alluring. Not entirely unlike the criminals on the Avenue, these girls became “unutterably different and fantastically present.” Because of the way he had been brought up in a Christian household and nation, Baldwin believed his attraction to these girls rendered him evil and depraved, a feeling that was intensified by the fact that the girls appeared to appreciate and encourage the kind of behavior he found so worthy of guilt.
It is worth noting that, while Baldwin joined the church in order to escape the things he was afraid of on the streets of Harlem, religion seemed to clarify and intensify his fears, sharpening the notion of sin and therefore further making him feel “depraved” in his attraction to the girls around him.
As Baldwin’s peers all careened into adolescence, he noticed that the girls quickly developed a religious sense of right and wrong, whereas the boys slouched into a kind of reticent despair as they acquiesced to the harsh realities of black adulthood. At the time, Baldwin thought that they were letting themselves go, or—in a sense—giving up, resigning to the fact that they would “rise no higher than their fathers.” It became clear that education was futile for them, so the boys started dropping out of school and going to work. Although Baldwin’s father encouraged him to do the same, Baldwin refused to do so, despite the fact that he already understood that even highly educated black men were mostly incapable of succeeding in America.
The notion of absolute authority emerges in this passage when Baldwin writes about realizing that black adolescent males were destined to “rise no higher than their fathers.” And with this idea of authority comes an inkling of the limitations placed on black people and especially, in this case, black men. The thought that he could go no further than his father seems to have frightened Baldwin, compelling him to retaliate against the man’s wishes.
Slowly but surely, Baldwin’s male friends began to neglect the way they looked, often standing in small clusters in dark hallways, passing around wine or whiskey and hanging out, cursing and fighting and sometimes openly weeping. They were, Baldwin writes, “unable to say what it was that oppressed them, except that they knew it was ‘the man’—the white man.” Helplessly trapped in a cycle of oppression, these boys didn’t have the means to address their own subjugation.
Because white authority can be so elusive, it is difficult to address. In noticing his peers’ inability to articulate the nature of their troubles, Baldwin exhibited an early understanding of the fact that one must understand his or her historical and present circumstances in order to ameliorate his or her situation. Although he may not have been able to voice this idea as a teenager, his gravitation to the church indicated an unwillingness to unequivocally accept oppression.
Baldwin recounts his own run-ins with “the man”: once, when he was downtown as a thirteen-year-old, he was crossing the street when a police officer said, “Why don’t you niggers stay uptown where you belong?” And another time, when he was ten, two officers frisked him while making remarks about his ancestry and sexual abilities, leaving him flat on his back in an empty parking lot in Harlem.
In relating his experiences with racist policemen, Baldwin makes the image of white authority specific and particular, thereby rescuing it from the vagueness that makes it so difficult to combat.
The church helped Baldwin avoid crime, which all of a sudden presented itself “not as a possibility but as the possibility.” The overwhelming reality seemed to be that nobody could overcome oppression by working and playing by the rules; rather, the ability to inspire fear in others was the only thing that might keep a black person safe. Out of this, Baldwin posits that very few black people care about being accepted by white people. Instead, they merely hope to avoid being beaten down. When white people learn to accept and love themselves, he says, “the Negro problem” will cease to exist because white people will no longer need it.
The fact that crime presented itself as the primary possibility in Baldwin’s life illustrates the narrow scope of what is made available to black people in America. By closing off opportunities for upward mobility, white Americans set black people up to affirm white stereotypes and prejudices, namely that African-Americans are dangerous criminals. If white Americans simply learned to love themselves, Baldwin believes, this cycle would prove itself unnecessary, because white identity would no longer be based on the notion of black inferiority.
Though white people may not believe that these are the conditions under which black people really live, Baldwin maintains that it is overwhelmingly clear for someone like him—who has experienced such oppression—that whites do not treat blacks as they would like to be treated themselves. As far back as slavery, when black slaves and servants had to steal from the whites’ homes in order to balance the scales, white people have not lived by the Christian values by which they claim to adhere. When a black person does something—such as steal from a slave master’s house—to make up for this inequality, white people use it to their advantage, holding it up as an example of how whites are ultimately superior.
Here again, Baldwin touches on the idea that white Americans, in an attempt to believe in their own innocence, refuse to acknowledge the country’s racist realities. If they are to go on oppressing African-Americans while believing they are perfectly moral human beings, it is necessary that they remain willfully ignorant of their failure to pass along the Christian values to which they so desperately cling. And by setting up a system that encourages black people to break the law, they effectively protect and secure their superior societal position.
As such, Baldwin began to see as a teenager that a life of crime would be harder to avoid than he had previously thought. And even while he was so determined to not allow white people to debase him and limit his prospects, he could find no way of effectively avoiding it. He points out that every black boy in his situation eventually reaches this same realization and that, in order to survive, the boy must find a “thing” or “gimmick” in which to invest himself. It does not matter, Baldwin says, what that gimmick is—for him, it was the church.
The “gimmick” Baldwin refers to gives young black people a false sense of hope that they might succeed in stepping outside the cycle of oppression kept in motion by white people. That it doesn’t matter what this gimmick is proves that this method of escaping racial paradigms is ineffective, making clear that whatever a black adolescent throws him- or herself into is merely a distraction, not a means of total escape.
The point at which a black boy must throw himself into a gimmick coincides with an “awakening” of the “senses,” or a certain coming into oneself. Unfortunately, for African-Americans this is often experienced under negative circumstances, as the very reason a boy must invest himself in something is to avoid the perils of his racial situation. Baldwin bemoans the fact that “the awakening of one’s senses should lead to such a merciless judgment of oneself.” He writes that black people in America are taught early in their lives to hate themselves because white people supposedly hold all the nation’s power and superiority.
Baldwin’s consideration of the “gimmick” allows him to show how sad it is—on a personal level—that so many young Americans have virtually no chance to learn to respect themselves. All of the black adolescent’s energies are quickly devoted to finding something that might distract from his or her “merciless judgment” of him- or herself, a judgment forced upon the impressionable teen by the very country he or she is supposed to be part of. This is certainly one reason why Baldwin stresses the importance of love.
Baldwin believes that when a black child is scolded, there is a “sudden, uncontrollable note of fear heard in his mother’s or his father’s voice,” especially when the child has transgressed some kind of racial boundary. For example, when Baldwin’s father reprimanded him for believing he could do anything a white boy could do, there was a clear strain of fear that was entirely different from the everyday kind of parental worry a white parent might exhibit. Baldwin says that there are various filters of authority that travel through black parents and reach children. And although the children can’t always exactly pinpoint the knowledge of racial injustice inherent in their parents’ tone, they begin to intuit the power of this nameless, all-encompassing white authority.
The fact that this vast white authority is so intuitively but inarticulately perceived reinforces Baldwin’s previous remark about his wayward friends who were unable to understand how exactly they were being oppressed. That these filters of authority make their way to black children at such a young age makes it easy to see why white dominance is so vague and difficult to address even in a black person’s adult years.
Baldwin says that he ignored his father’s fear by telling himself that the man was “very old-fashioned.” Nonetheless, the summer Baldwin joined the church, all of these fears, which had been slowly cultivating throughout his childhood, rose up and confronted him.
Even in trying to discount his father—who is, notably, the most immediate figure of authority—Baldwin found himself unable to keep fear from taking hold of him.
Baldwin didn’t join the church that his father preached in. Instead, he allowed his best friend from school to take him to another church one Saturday afternoon, where he met a female pastor in the back room. A respected woman in the community, she sat there in her robes and smiled at him, asking, “Whose little boy are you?” Baldwin was taken aback by the fact that this question was exactly what the pimps and other criminals on the Avenue used to ask when they encouraged him to “hang out” with them. Baldwin reasons that this question probably disarmed him so successfully because he actually did want to belong to somebody. It was inevitable, he thinks, that somebody would claim him that summer. Lucky for him, it was the pastor and not one of the criminals.
As previously mentioned, the most immediate authority figure in Baldwin’s life was his father, so it comes as no surprise that he joined a different church. It is ironic, though, that this act of relative defiance merely led him into the hands of yet another authority figure, who in turn could have been easily substituted with one of the criminals on the Avenue. The interchangeability of these figures proves Baldwin’s notion that black children and teenagers face multiple forms of authority.
As the summer continued, Baldwin grew more and more afraid and felt increasingly guilty. One night, after a sermon, he fell to floor of the church, landing in front of the altar. It was entirely unexpected—he had been singing and clapping and thinking about a play he was writing, and then suddenly he was on the ground staring at the lights overhead and the saints on the church’s high walls. He remembers pain and the feeling that he was yelling up to heaven and receiving no reply, which led to a hopelessness, since the one thing he had invested himself in (religion) refused to acknowledge his experience, just like everybody else. In America, Baldwin writes, even black people refuse to look at one another, because they are always looking up or down, anywhere but at one another (and white people, of course, look in the entirely opposite direction). In this way, it is nearly impossible to have any hope in the idea of communion.
Baldwin’s guilt seems to be emphasized rather than diminished by the church. This is likely because of the “hopelessness” he felt in the face of religion. The metaphor he uses of everybody looking in different directions rather than at one another is in keeping with the idea that all young black people must eventually seek out a gimmick with which they can distract themselves from the oppressive white world. And to add to the fact that the church failed to fully provide him with valuable human connection, even the gods he was supposed to worship appeared ambivalent about his troubles.
The universe, Baldwin maintains, consists of “other people.” When these people are constantly refusing to look at one another—as is the case for African-Americans—only God is left to turn to. But as he lay on the floor of the church, Baldwin realized that this God—a God he was looking to for salvation and support—was white and, despite the fact that He was supposed to love all of His children, He neglected black people. This was utterly perplexing to Baldwin, and his experience passing out during the church service did nothing to show him evidence of God’s love; when he was finally rejuvenated the next morning, he was told that he was “saved.”
This incident marks the turning point for Baldwin in the Christian church. It is ironic that he was supposedly “saved” after his experience of falling to the ground during a service, for this moment seems to have only strengthened his growing religious misgivings. His realization that God is white and not entirely beneficent further revealed to him that his investment in the church had less to do with real spiritual proclivities than it had to do with the importance of finding a gimmick to distract himself from his own oppression.
In a way, Baldwin really did feel saved by this experience. Finally, he felt free of all the guilt he had been feeling. It wasn’t until much later in his life that he found himself capable of asking why “human relief” came only as a result of such strange and outdated suffering. He realized then, in later years, that all Christian churches (black or white) revolved around the same tenets: blindness, loneliness, and terror, wherein the first (blindness) made it impossible to fully recognize the existence of the last two. And although he would like to say that the Christian church’s values were faith, hope, and charity, he finds it impossible to believe this.
Baldwin’s retrospective account of “saving” is characterized by a clear skepticism; he doesn’t seem to really believe that he’d rid himself of all his guilt, though perhaps at the time—in the direct aftermath of his “saving”—he was able to convince himself that, because he fell to the ground, he had released all of his fears. That he views his saving as an outdated form of suffering indicates his belief that he was, in that moment, playing into a very old narrative about human nature—a religious one that he later found himself capable of examining and seeing beyond.
Despite the fact that he’d been “saved,” Baldwin quickly understood he wouldn’t last long in the church and that, in order to avoid becoming too bored and joining the criminals on the Avenue, he needed to find something within the church to take up his attention and time. In keeping with this—and to challenge his father, who was also a preacher—he decided to become a Young Minister.
By becoming a Young Minister, Baldwin essentially found a gimmick within a gimmick: finding the church lacking in its ability to distract him from and lift him out of oppression, he became even more invested in the institution.
The fact that Baldwin was preaching at such a young age gave him an advantage over his father, which he leveraged as much as possible. For the first time, he had a valid excuse to ignore his father as he wrote sermons and prepared for services. Although this power over his father was actually quite frightening to him, he used his newfound freedom extensively, often spending whole days in preparation without interruption. He felt, finally, that he had “immobilized” his father. It wasn’t until much later, though, that he realized he had also immobilized himself.
The religious means by which Baldwin upended his father’s authority were, for the most part, the same means his father had used to wield authority over him in the first place. What’s more, Baldwin regards his investment in religion as nothing more than a commitment to a gimmick, an outlet that gave him false hope. This is why he believes that, in immobilizing his father, he also immobilized himself, for religion was an ineffective way of gaining actual power and freedom.
Being part of the church was an incredibly influential experience for Baldwin, who writes that he has never been able to fully let go of the music and drama and rejoicing. There is, he believes, a distinct sense of community that comes from the religious notion of suffering, and the opportunity to enrapture an entire audience during a sermon remains one of the most exciting experiences of his entire life. When he preached, Baldwin felt that he was taking on the pain and joy of his listeners and that they, in turn, took on his. Consumed entirely by this sensation, Baldwin worked tirelessly as a Young Minister to commune with Jesus, who he thought “knew all the secrets of [his] heart.”
That Baldwin gives credit to certain elements of the church shows his ability to hold two ideas in mind at once. Indeed, he is a writer who weighs every consideration, even those that contradict one another. Although he has already made clear that the church often fails to bring people together, here he admits that religious services can, on occasion, inspire a wonderful kind of communion in which the members of the congregation help shoulder each other’s burdens.
Baldwin marks the slow disintegration of his faith as coinciding with his blossoming interest in literature. After a year of preaching, he started reading Dostoevsky while attending a mostly Jewish high school. The fact that he was constantly around Jews meant that he was spending the majority of his time with people who his religion believed were “beyond any hope of salvation.” In trying to convince them of Christianity’s truth, he showed them pamphlets—in response, they merely pointed out that the Gospels were written long after Christ’s death, an observation that encouraged Baldwin to read his texts more closely, realizing that the authors of the Bible were simply men who—like Baldwin himself in the throes of preparing a sermon—were likely to attribute their passionate imaginations to divine inspiration. Moreover, Baldwin realized, these men were white.
It seems Baldwin’s tendency to dutifully consider opposing viewpoints was present in his personality even when he was a teenager; his patient and curious perception of Jews—people his church community had given him no reason to respect—led him to examine his own beliefs. Rather than closing himself off to new ideas, Baldwin showed himself to be inquisitive and thorough. And as a result, when he interrogated his religion, he found its logic lacking, for he couldn’t ignore that the authors of the Bible may not have accepted him as a follower.
Once, after Baldwin’s best friend—who was Jewish—came over to his house, his father asked whether or not the boy was “saved.” When Baldwin told his father that his friend was Jewish, his father slapped him across the face. In that moment, Baldwin felt “all the hatred and all the fear” rising in him, manifesting itself in a “merciless resolve” to kill his father before his father could kill him. He suddenly felt that all his preaching and religious rejoicing had changed nothing at all about his relationship with his father. After all, why should he take pride in the fact that his best friend was going to languish in Hell, as his father seemed to want? This encouraged him to consider the Holocaust in Germany, and he realized that the Jewish people were indeed still persecuted and that his best friend could well have been one of the many who died in the travesty.
Again, Baldwin exhibited a compassion for people who lived on the other side of supposed enemy lines. He felt that his time in the church hadn’t, in the end, changed his relationship with his father, because in this moment he realized that he had not—or perhaps could not—overcome his father’s authority, at least not by using religion. Furthermore, the Holocaust proved to him the futility of religion, for it was the ultimate example of how the divisive us-versus-them thinking religion often promotes can easily lead to senseless violence and oppression.
Responding to his father’s slap, Baldwin said: “He’s a better Christian than you are,” and left the house. From that point on, the tension between him and his father was more out in the open, and this was a relief.
By putting the tension with his father out in the open, Baldwin perhaps found it easier to address. Much like the white authority that so successfully perplexed and oppressed Baldwin’s young friends, his father’s authority had heretofore remained vague and therefore untouchable.
Over time, Baldwin’s restlessness in the church began to show. Because he didn’t feel truly saved, it started to take considerable strength to refrain from cursing the congregation and telling them to trade in their religion for more tangible forms of hope, such as community organizing and striking. He no longer felt that he could teach children in Sunday school about the beneficence of a gentle savior, for this was like telling them they must accept their low station in life. Indeed, Baldwin found that there was no love in the church, as the congregations looked up to ministers who were primarily interested in money. Not only that, but religion seemed only to hide “hatred and self-hatred and despair,” and any existing goodwill failed to move beyond church services and make its way into the community. Rather than loving everybody, Christianity appeared to implore its followers to only love like-minded people.
Once again, Baldwin depicts the church’s unfortunate tendency to generate isolation and greed rather than unity and kindness. The fact that Christianity’s virtues failed to spread into the community exposed a failure to extend love. This, for Baldwin, is perhaps the ultimate failure.
Meditating on the divisive nature of Christianity, Baldwin points out that, just as white people believe that black people are descended from Ham and are therefore destined to eternal slavery, black Christians believe white people are the descendants of Cain, a greedy killer.
These beliefs indicate yet again how black-and-white Baldwin finds religious thinking and how such doctrines can be interpreted and manipulated by anybody in search of power or superiority.
Nonetheless, Baldwin admits that the Christian church that he eventually left did indeed embody a rare joy and resilience. He wonders if perhaps everybody—the “pimps, whores, racketeers, church members, and children”—were unified by oppression, and thus were sometimes able to achieve something like love. This kind of unity is exactly what the United States needs, he argues. What stands in the way of this are “attitudes” that are chiefly historical—racist attitudes that have nothing to do with the present but that make it impossible to understand the nature of America’s racial struggle. Based on these destructive historical attitudes, white people refuse to understand the experience of black people, therefore making it impossible for them to fully understand themselves.
Just as religious doctrine can be used by anyone to oppress others, Baldwin argues that religion—and even oppression itself—could be used to bring people together. Unfortunately, though, America’s history has implemented certain societal structures, or “historical attitudes,” that white people complacently adopt, and these attitudes make it impossible for them to recognize the fact that America could achieve racial unity. Instead, white Americans blindly form their identities around what they’ve long been told: that they are superior to African-Americans.
Focusing his attention more specifically on the history of Christianity, Baldwin illustrates the fact that the church has long been an agent of oppression, as early missionaries spreading the religion used Christian ideology to justify conquering other nations. These missionaries believed that conquest was an intrinsically good and pious endeavor; he calls this the “sanctification of power.” As such, the spreading of the Gospel acted as an excuse for domination and the imposition of authority on nonwhite nations. Given this aggressive history, Baldwin argues that whoever seeks morality ought to remove him- or herself from the church. If God isn’t capable of bringing people together unequivocally and granting freedom to everybody, then there is no use for Him.
By using religion as an excuse to conquer foreign lands, the idea of power became associated with holiness. Baldwin argues that this “sanctification of power” is responsible for the inherently oppressive “historical attitudes” white people in America so blindly assume. Even centuries later, the church advances extremely outdated notions about superiority, doing so under the guise of piety. As such, religion validates racist inclinations, rendering it an unfit agent of liberation or change.
At this point, Baldwin trains his focus on another religious group: the Nation of Islam. He writes that he had heard much about its leader, Elijah Muhammad, but had never paid the movement very much attention because he found its message all too familiar. Often in Harlem on Saturday nights he had come upon crowds listening to Muslims speak about white people. Soon, though, he began to listen more carefully because of the way police officers regarded such crowds: they were afraid, and this was something he’d never seen before. They stood idly by while speakers from the Nation of Islam held forth in front of large crowds, who were captivated and seemingly inspired. Baldwin saw that these speeches brought black people together and instilled in them something that looked like hope.
It is significant that the Nation of Islam frightened the white policemen, for this indicates that the officers sensed a certain power lurking in the organization, a power they most likely had not paid attention to in other black people or organizations. However, it’s worth remembering that, although Baldwin believes inspiring fear in policemen can temporarily help black people avoid violence, it also plays into white America’s stereotypes about African-Americans, ultimately reaffirming their sense of superiority.
These speeches revolved around what the Nation of Islam believed was both historical and religious proof that all white people are cursed devils whose end is near. According to their doctrine, this information had been passed down to Elijah Muhammad by Allah, who told him that white power would end in ten to fifteen years. Although Baldwin doesn’t believe this himself, he makes a point of stating that this thinking is no more ludicrous than the white Christian belief that all black people are destined to slavery because they descended from Ham. And in any case, the Nation of Islam speeches he witnessed in Harlem did not spend much time discussing theology, since black people didn’t need convincing that white people treated them badly; the audience was simply happy to have religious evidence that they had been mistreated for many years and that this was soon going to end.
Examining religion’s us-versus-them model of thinking (this time from a new angle), Baldwin yet again shows his willingness to entertain viewpoints that differ from his own. By saying that the Nation of Islam’s doctrine is no more unbelievable than that of Christianity, he once more shows himself to be a tolerant, considerate thinker.
Baldwin wonders why the massive audiences at these Nation of Islam speeches were suddenly willing to indulge this line of thinking. After all, he remarks, the theology was not new, nor was the sentiment. Nonetheless, Elijah somehow succeeded in bringing people together in a way that the Christian church was unable to do. Responding to his own question, he suggests that time has rendered black people more willing and able to accept these ideas. Back when the Christian church went into black countries and subjugated the people living there, it was impossible to believe in a black God. Since that time, though, the Christian church has shown itself to be morally corrupt time and again.
It was impossible to believe in a black God in the times of Christian conquest because the white conquerors, who were so powerful in their dominance, forced white theology down the throats of the newly subjugated. Now, though, the Nation of Islam’s black audiences are ready—after so many years of oppression by the plainly unethical white church—to hear that there is a religious doctrine that might raise them to power and, in doing so, give meaning to their previous suffering.
Evoking the Holocaust once again, Baldwin demonstrates the injured moral positioning of the Christian church, since Germany was a Christian nation. “The fact of the Third Reich alone makes obsolete forever any question of Christian superiority,” he writes. And though Christians of other nations were utterly confounded and surprised by Germany’s violence against humanity, Baldwin argues that it was much less astounding to black people.
Baldwin’s assertion that African-Americans were less taken aback by the Holocaust than white people is due to black Americans’ troubled history. In other words, black people in America fully understood that a white Christian nation could be capable of horrific, discriminatory crimes because they had experienced it in a different form.
Baldwin examines the station of black Americans during World War II, illustrating the injustice of the fact that black men went to fight for their country and returned to still be treated as subhuman. This leads him into a personal story about a time he and two friends were denied alcohol at an airport bar. Even though all three men were over thirty, the bartender refused to serve them because they “looked too young.” When they called the manager over, involuntarily drawing the entire bar’s attention, they were finally given their drinks. Afterward, they unwillingly engaged in conversation with a naïve white man. When one of Baldwin’s friends—a military veteran—told the man that the fight they had been having in the bar was, in fact, his responsibility too, the man replied, “I lost my conscience a long time ago,” and left the bar. This kind of person is typical in America, and though Baldwin hated such people several years ago, now he pities them in order to avoid despising them.
In this moment, Baldwin uses kindness to keep himself from going to a dark place of resentment and hate, which he knows is unproductive and futile. Still, his tone here sounds disheartened by the idea that somebody could knowingly give up his conscience in order to live an easier life. This relates to his earlier thoughts about white people’s innocence; when the man at the bar admitted that he had lost his conscience long ago, he was effectively acknowledging his complicity in propagating and sustaining racial oppression. The fact that this man seemed to have accepted his own lack of innocence depresses Baldwin, who would otherwise like to think that white complacency might be remedied by a recognition of complicity.
Baldwin returns to his examination of the Nation of Islam. He considers Malcolm X—the movement’s second in command—and his idea that white people value violence insofar as it advances their own glory and rule. As soon as black people try to stand up for their rights, though, the idea of violence is perceived as senseless and brutal. Baldwin finds himself unable to call this theory untrue, though he disagrees with where this kind of thinking leads, as it essentially condones violence. Still, though, he admits that “things are as bad as the Muslims say they are,” even if he disagrees with the Nation of Islam’s black vs. white colorism that so closely recalls the racist underpinnings of the Christian church.
Malcolm X’s idea about the difference between white and black violence draws yet again on the sanctification of power, this time adding complexity to the notion by suggesting that the white world perceives white conquest as fundamentally virtuous, whereas black conquest is held up as evidence of depravity and moral corruption.
Arriving at Elijah Muhammad’s mansion—which doubled as the movement’s headquarters—Baldwin felt nervous. He was late, he was unsure how he felt about the Nation of Islam, and he knew that he couldn’t smoke or drink once inside the mansion. He writes that, by the time he reached the house, he felt “as deserving of a scolding as a schoolboy.”
Baldwin’s nervous sense of inferiority here evokes the power struggle he underwent with his father as a child, setting the grounds for Elijah Muhammad—this respected leader—to leverage his position of authority.
Upon entering the mansion, Baldwin’s reservations deepened. Everyone present—and there was a sizeable group—treated him with respect, which he read as an indication that they expected something from him. Elijah was not in the room, and when he finally appeared, Baldwin noted the joy that surrounded this smiling figure who playfully teased the women present and greeted his disciples with laughter and conversation before turning to Baldwin with a smile that transported him back to the moment when the pastor had asked, “Whose little boy are you?” It was clear to him then that Elijah had the ability to draw people toward him, inviting them to unload their troubles onto him. Elijah reminded Baldwin of his father, if he and his father had been friends.
Elijah Muhammad’s charismatic and relaxed way of donning power explicitly reminds Baldwin of his father, though it’s worth noting that Baldwin says Elijah reminded him of his father if he and his father had been friends. This indicates that, unlike when he was a child, Baldwin was more self-assured as an adult arriving at Elijah’s mansion.
Having seen him on a television program, Elijah told Baldwin that it seemed to him that Baldwin was not yet brainwashed and was trying to become himself, which Baldwin hesitantly agreed with, though he privately supposes that this meant two different things to Elijah and to him.
Elijah’s comment about Baldwin’s attempt to become himself was yet another move to solidify himself as an authority figure—an authority figure capable of assessing and making candid judgments about the author’s character.
The dinner was filled with talk about power and about the “white devils.” Elijah told Baldwin that the reason Baldwin didn’t think all white people were devils was because he had spent too much time with them and was too “exposed to white teaching.” Baldwin outlines Elijah’s mission to “return ‘the so-called Negro’ to Islam, to separate the chosen of Allah from this doomed nation.” According to the Nation of Islam, there was a time long, long ago when black people thrived on earth before white people even existed. After some time, though, the devil invented white people, and Allah conceded that these white devils could rule the world for a set amount of time. Now, though, according to the Nation of Islam, that time was coming to an end, and since there was nothing virtuous about white people, there was no true hope or use for their continued existence.
Elijah’s belief that Baldwin has been too “exposed to white teaching” shows both his own dedication to keeping the races separate and Baldwin’s admirable ability to not remain trapped in his own perspective. Indeed, it is true that Baldwin has had much exposure to white people, but it is this very willingness to connect with people outside his circumstances that drove him to Elijah’s mansion in the first place to hear talk about white devils and Allah and the Nation of Islam—none of which he believes himself, but all of which he is willing to consider.
Yet again, Baldwin notes that there is nothing new about this sort of thinking: it is merely a reversal of white Christian ideology. And since the African-American experience has so long been denied visibility—because white people are reluctant to admit the travesties they’ve committed—it is difficult to say where the root of such racial problems lies. Why shouldn’t it be possible then, Baldwin asks, that humanity began with perfect black people, especially since this mirrors the line of thinking advanced by white people about themselves?
Since Baldwin already thinks religion is the wrong way to approach the matter of race in America, he is perfectly happy to admit that the Nation of Islam’s doctrines are no more outlandish or problematic than those of the Christian church. In advancing this idea, he also potentially stops nonreligious white people from condemning the Nation of Islam, thereby working to rescue more black people from vilification in the eyes of white Americans.
While having dinner with Elijah and his disciples, Baldwin found himself telling Elijah that he gave up religion for a reason and that he was, above all else, a writer. Elijah encouraged him to think about religion more often, but did not push too hard. It seemed to Baldwin in this moment that, though he wasn’t ready to accept the Nation of Islam’s doctrines, Elijah and his disciples were confident that he would eventually come around to joining them. This gave Baldwin the feeling that he was once again a teenager in his father’s home.
Authority once more held over his head, Baldwin finds himself in this scene reduced to the equivalent of his younger self, which makes it all the more impressive that he is able to maintain his composure and keep hold of his own beliefs.
At one point, Elijah made the claim that no set of people were ever fully respected without having possessed their own land. Baldwin couldn’t disagree with this, thinking that everybody other than African Americans has a nation. Only “the so-called American Negro” is “trapped, disinherited, and despised, in a nation that has kept him in bondage for nearly four hundred years.”
Baldwin hypothetically considers what would happen if black people were able to claim the “six or seven” states the Nation of Islam believes America owes them by way of reparation for slavery, ultimately deciding that this redistribution of land would alienate white people and maroon them between nonwhite nations. He writes that, if he were Muslim, he would certainly strive for this and wouldn’t hesitate to do what he could to realize the vision, since, ultimately, there would be nothing to lose—if he “perished” in the process, so be it; “One has been perishing here so long!”
Baldwin’s ability to imagine himself into the shoes of somebody with much different beliefs yet again comes to the surface when he suggests that if he were Muslim, he would have no problem doing everything he could to execute the Nation of Islam’s vision. He is especially able to empathetically project himself into this viewpoint because it intersects with something that he actually does believe: that the African-American has long suffered in America. Crucially, though, Baldwin refuses to act like he has nothing to lose, for he remains invested in salvaging and improving the America he knows.
Further investigating the idea of separatism, Baldwin considers the notion of black pride, an attitude he says was once helplessly shouted into the void, unheard because of white oppression and ignorance. “Yes, I’m black, goddamnit, and I’m beautiful!” people used to declare to no avail. But now (during the Cold War), black really has become beautiful in the white eye, though not for the right reasons. Instead of gaining social currency due to love, blackness gained attention during the Cold War as a result of fear, since America was eager to stop the USSR from spreading communism to various African nations. Of course, the United States’s pandering to non-American blacks was the ultimate insult to African-Americans still kept under the oppressive societal dictates of a post-slavery nation.
By considering non-American black people, the nations they belong to, and their influence in the Cold War, Baldwin widens his scope to show that fear of defeat by communism on the international stage ultimately propelled America to hide its racism. Here again, fear rather than love was used to affect change, but Baldwin has already made clear that love is the only real way to move forward. In keeping with this, he views America’s attempt to make nice with non-American black people as a sort of pathetic pandering that African-Americans should take as an insult.
Leaving Elijah’s mansion, Baldwin felt as though he had failed some sort of test. Standing outside with the leader and looking out upon the troubled streets of South Chicago, he wished he could show Elijah love and support.
Baldwin’s fellow-feeling toward Elijah illustrates the strong allure of authority and the human tendency to want to belong to a group. At the heart of this sentiment lies the importance of human connection, a feeling Baldwin is capable of recognizing, regardless of what has inspired it.
In a car provided by the Nation of Islam to take him to his next destination—to have drinks with several white friends—Baldwin continued the night’s conversation with a young dark man who insisted that African-Americans could prosper in an independently black nation because of the fact that they account for approximately twenty billion dollars’ worth of America’s economy. Baldwin countered by noting that this twenty billion dollars depends on the entirety of the United States’s economy; in other words, it is relative to and dependent upon the current marketplace. What would happen, he wanted to know, when African-Americans removed themselves from this economy? The driver seemed annoyed and rather stumped by this line of thinking, and Baldwin backed off, though he wanted to say that the boy’s frame of reference would have to shift if this sort of change were to take place.
Baldwin’s assertion that the driver’s frame of reference would have to shift if this change took place aligns with what he told his nephew James about the power of understanding one’s history: “If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go.” The problem with the driver’s logic, then, was that he ignored the realities of his current situation by refusing to take into account the relationship between him and his white oppressors. Therefore, he didn’t seem to know from whence he came and, as such, there were actual limitations to where he could go.
Although Baldwin was quickly able to identify the flaws in his driver’s logic, he admits that he understands why the young man indulged such thinking. He sees that the boy depended on a dream of sorts, a reliance on the unity of the Nation of Islam—and who could hold this against him?
Baldwin’s sympathy to the driver’s error circles back to his understanding of the human desire to be part of a larger group, especially if this group is held together by a common dream that whispers of freedom.
Although he is considerate of what might lead people of the Nation of Islam to think in such optimistic—and perhaps even unrealistic terms—Baldwin expresses that he wishes the Muslims had started a movement that could inspire disenfranchised African-Americans to seek change by way of concrete action. In order to change their situation, Baldwin maintains that black people have to recognize and accept the fact that “the Negro has been formed by this nation, for better or for worse.”
It comes as no surprise that Baldwin favors practical action over the wishful thinking of groups like the Nation of Islam. This harkens all the way back to when he used to have to refrain from telling his congregation to organize rent strikes instead of sitting in church listening to sermons. Once again, he presents religion as something that too often keeps black people from coming to terms with their circumstances—something he deems necessary in order to affect real change.
Baldwin takes up the question of where the Nation of Islam receives its money from, a topic shrouded in mystery. Though he confesses to not knowing much on the subject, he says he wouldn’t be surprised if certain affluent racists donated to the cause because they liked the idea of keeping blacks and whites separate. One thing he knows for sure is that the chief of the American Nazi party donated twenty dollars at a recent Nation of Islam rally, and he and Malcolm X came to the conclusion that, in terms of race, they completely agreed with one another. Baldwin makes clear that “the glorification of one race and the consequent debasement of another…always has been and always will be a recipe for murder.” And once this process has begun, there is little reason stopping the affiliated parties from eventually attempting to exterminate the entirety of their supposed enemy—this, of course, is the path the Nazis took in Germany.
The fact that Malcolm X decided that the Nation of Islam was in agreement with the American Nazi party regarding the separation of the races is yet another sign that power—and the pursuit of it—leads to illogical and ill-advised conclusions, a point Baldwin further illustrates by pointing to the Holocaust, an example of where this sort of thinking leads.
Baldwin asserts that he is very committed to African-Americans gaining full freedom in the United States, but he also makes clear that he is concerned about the “health of their souls.” Therefore, he voices his disapproval of any African-American attempt to inflict upon white people what white people inflicted upon them.
Inherent in this idea is the thought that the United States is made up of white and black people together. If the two races trade turns subjugating and oppressing the other, the country will make no progress and, therefore, neither will its people—black or white.
Shifting away from the Nation of Islam, Baldwin suggests that there can be no hope for meaningful change in the life of African-Americans if the United States doesn’t substantially alter its political and social structures. Unfortunately, only small gestures toward freedom have been offered to African-Americans, such as the 1954 court decision to outlaw segregation in public schools, which Baldwin presents as an example of “tokenism,” or a small and barely-influential nod toward freedom. Again, he argues that this decision was only made in order to “woo” African nations during the Cold War in the hopes that they wouldn’t join the USSR. He writes that, just as the word “integration” means next to nothing in America, the word “independence” means very little in Africa, where European colonizers have still not left the nations they conquered long ago.
By calling attention to the United States’ ulterior motives, Baldwin shows that concessions of freedom or equality in America are only ever made insofar as they can be used politically to benefit the white power structures already in place. While African nations might believe that they are free to choose whomever they’d like to side with, Baldwin believes that this thought is naïve, for the truth is that these countries are still reeling from the white colonizers, and whoever they choose to become allies with will undoubtedly oppressively use them as pawns, whether it is Russia or the United States.
Black people are extremely well poised to “precipitate chaos and bring down the curtain on the American dream,” though Baldwin says they may never rise to power. This is partly due to the fact that all Americans are afraid to truly examine this American dream, as they don’t actually want to know certain things about themselves. And this, in turn, is because most people don’t truly want equality, but rather superiority. Ultimately, Americans are controlled by their own confusion about the American dream, unwilling to examine their personal lives and unwilling to take responsibility for their country’s actions.
Again, an unwillingness to examine and assess the national situation presents itself as the main obstacle Americans face. Baldwin presents the American dream as something by which both black and white people are deeply confused and preoccupied. In effect, this is precisely why African-Americans are well-positioned to destroy the American dream—whereas white people believe they have something to lose (their superiority and innocence) by examining the falsity of the American dream, black people do not.
This confused attitude precipitated by the American dream has rendered the United States an “unmitigated disaster” on the international stage. Baldwin points out that Russia’s main advantage over America is America’s own fraught racial history, which scares away potential allies and drives them into Russian control. This means that, in effect, America’s unwillingness to confront oppression on its own soil propagates oppression abroad, because Russia would surely dominate these nations. Once America acknowledges its own oppressiveness, though, it will have the opportunity to set a precedent for true revolution internationally, because its difficult racial history renders it perfectly positioned to demonstrate what equality might look like. Baldwin insists that freedom brings with it a responsibility to “apprehend the nature of change, to be able and willing to change.” As such, Baldwin argues white Americans should see their troubled history as an opportunity rather than an ugly and hidden shame.
Once more, Baldwin plants himself realistically within the framework laid out by history and by the nation’s present situation without succumbing to pessimism. Instead, he proposes a new way of looking at history, an outlook that leads, against all odds, to optimism.
White people in the United States, Baldwin writes, believe that they possess something intrinsically desirable, something that black people aspire to. This assumption makes white people believe that African-Americans want to be accepted by whites, but when a white person grants this supposedly desirable acceptance, it just reinforces his or her sense of self-importance and value. In reality, nothing supports this idea of intrinsic white value, a fact that Baldwin believes white people are, at the bottom of their hearts, aware of. As such, a large part of America’s racial problem has to do with “the white man’s profound desire not to be judged by those who are not white, not to be seen as he is.” At the same time, contemporary white people yearn to be seen as they are, to be “released from the tyranny of [the] mirror.”
The “tyranny of [the] mirror” is a complicated idea in this context, for Baldwin has gone to great lengths to prove that white Americans refuse to examine themselves for fear of what they will find. But in this case, the metaphor of a white person looking in the mirror symbolizes the white obsession with a constructed—which is to say outward and public—identity. If a black person grants a white person the kindness of looking at him in a meaningful way, the white person no longer needs the mirror. At the same time, he can no longer control the way he is seen, as he could in the mirror when he himself was the beholder.
Baldwin says that it is for this reason that love is so important, as it has the ability to pull everybody out of the masks they wear. White people must stop projecting their fears onto African-Americans so that they can learn to accept black people and, thus, accept themselves. Baldwin remarks that, while the black man came to the white man in search of some tangible thing—a place to sleep or perhaps some money—the white man came to the black man for love. The problem is, of course, that the white man found himself unable to love the black man, rendering himself unlovable.
Baldwin implores Americans—both black and white—to come together like “lovers.” He encourages black people to force their white countrymen into consciousness regarding race and, in the end, themselves. If America is capable of banding together like this, it might stand a chance of finally establishing itself as a united country and changing the world. If the country fails to do this, however, he warns that the old prophecy, “re-created from the Bible in song by a slave,” will be upon the nation: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”
Again, Baldwin upholds that America’s liberation could mean the liberation of the entire world, as the freedom of the black American would set an example for other nations attempting to take control of other nonwhite nations. His concluding warning draws upon the notion, based on passages in the Bible, that on the Day of Judgment, God will use fire to destroy the earth and punish sinners. And although Baldwin issues this as a warning, it reads more like a lament—Baldwin, after all, cares deeply about his fellow humans.