Remembering James Baldwin During a Time of National and Social Unrest

Ever since the situation in Ferguson, MO, the United States has experienced unrest. Just today high school students in Denver, Colorado skipped class “in protest of the situation in Ferguson.” Facebook has become a place to defend either the police officer, Darren Wilson, or the young man, Michael Brown. This situation has blown into a national commentary about race and discrimination in the United States today.

Most of us are looking at this from a 2014 perspective, but let’s go back in time and apply some of James Baldwin’s words from his book The Fire Next Time that was published in 1963, which was 100 years after the emancipation proclamation.

A Perspective from James Baldwin: Fire Next Time

fire next timeIn The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin described the world and society he saw and experienced. He, a black man, expressed the hardships, abuse, and oppression he faced in his own life. He remembered opportunities that he didn’t have because of the color of his skin. He showed that in the year 1963, the United States was full of segregation and social unrest. He wrote to his nephew, hoping that he would have a brighter future.

When he was older, Baldwin expressed that he ate meals with a group of white people and a group of black people. He expressed that neither group was willing to reach out to the other. He described a scene when he ate with Elijah Muhammad, who was the face of the movement for the Nation of Islam. The idea behind Elijah and the Nation of Islam was to enslave whites the way that they had been enslaved. The plan was to conquer the whites. Elijah said that it was the time for the blacks to reign.

But, James Baldwin realized that this was not the answer. Besides the fact that he was certain that Elijah’s plan would not work, Baldwin recognized that blacks and whites needed to make peace with one another. They needed to treat each other with love.

Baldwin said, “Whoever debases others is debasing himself.”

Furthermore, Baldwin said, “In short, we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation—if we are really, that is, to achieve our identity, our maturity, as men and women.”

Baldwin knew that blacks had experienced immense abuse, but he himself recognized that the blacks needed to stop stereotyping the whites as a group because they were not all awful and against them. He personally even called some whites his friends. Ultimately, Baldwin called his fellow blacks to accept whites as fellow people and to love them. He said that love takes off the mask that we all use to survive.

Baldwin told his black nephew, “These men [the whites] are your brothers.”

Baldwin called his nephew to be the bigger person and to extend love and humility, acceptance and integration.

Baldwin also told his nephew, “you must accept them [the whites.]”

Baldwin called for integration and acceptance on both sides.

Now, fast forward 51 years and it’s interesting to imagine what Baldwin would think. Would he think that the black society was still oppressed in the United States? Or would he instead see Barack Obama, a black man, as president of the United States and see that blacks can have the same opportunities as whites?

Also, we are still trying to rehash the color of skins over again and over again. I fear that Baldwin would be saddened to see that we are still dividing the nation between the colors of skin. Why do we turn everything into a racial issue?

We are dividing humans on the basis of looks instead of viewing each person as a unique individual, a member in the world and made in the image of God.

Regardless of which side you’re on, I would definitely recommend James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. It’s a somewhat difficult read, for he rambles quite a bit, but it’s worth it. He provides a vital perspective and description of the year 1963.

A Perspective from Modern Culture

It’s definitely not on the same level as James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, but the recent movie The Dawn of the Planet of the Apes provides an interesting commentary on stereotyping groups.

For those who haven’t seen it – spoiler alert!

The genetically-developed ape, Caesar, decides that all apes are good. He was treated awfully by some humans in the previous movie The Rise of the Planet of the Apes, so he decided to turn back from the man who had raised him, cared for him, taught him, and loved him. He saw the depravity of men and women and decided he would only trust apes. He believed that apes were inherently good and could live together in harmony.

According to the beginning of The Dawn of the Planet of the Apes he had built a remarkable society of apes living in harmony. They lived by this rule: “ape shall not kill ape.” That fell apart of course when the ape Koba shot Caesar. Koba’s desire for Caesar’s death brought war between the apes and the humans. Koba even killed his own son.

After being shot, Caesar was nursed back to health by a human family, and he realized that he had been overgeneralizing both humans and apes. He had stereotyped every single individual in each group based upon his thoughts about the whole group.

Now relating The Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to the current situation in Ferguson, MO, I want to be completely clear about one thing. I am in absolutely no way relating humans and apes to blacks and whites directly. But, the movies do present the obvious issues that come when a whole group gets stereotyped. We need to look to those around us and see each person individually.

We need to view each person on the basis that he/she was made in the image of God, just like us. We are all uniquely valuable and beautiful because of that.

A Final Thought on Ferguson

When it comes to breaking laws, let us remember that there are laws in place for a reason.

Envision yourself as a storekeeper – would you be okay if someone stole from you?

Imagine that someone is attacking you, will you defend yourself?

Say you own a house or business, how would you feel if someone burnt it down?

Finally, we have police for a reason. Our police protect. If police do not ever use force when necessary to protect, then they are a useless. It is the duty of the police to enforce the law.

Let us remember that all individuals do wrong (maybe big or maybe small), but there are some individuals that are kind, considerate, moral, and strive to do good. There are also some individuals that are dangerous and a threat to others.

Finally, please, stop stereotyping the whole group.


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