“Down At The Cross– Letter from a Region in My Mind” is the second of two missive-style essays that make up The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin. You may know (or recall from the previous post) that Baldwin was a mid-20th century author, poet, playwright and fierce critic of social issues, particularly along the intersection of racism and heterosexism.
There is so much context to be delivered, and so much to address that I’d like to get started with little preamble. As far as trigger warnings go, neither this post nor the quotes I selected are graphic, but it does deal in bleak and harsh themes about the experience Baldwin and those around him had of racism in Harlem during the mid-1900’s.
This is a substantively longer work than “My Dungeon Shook,” and the narrative follows three main arcs. The first is an autobiographical description of Baldwin’s life growing up, and his experiences and awareness of racism as he grew. This growing awareness pushed him to join a church community. He then spends some time talking about how he came to meet and have dinner with Elijah Muhammad and how he came to understand the African-American-centered nationalism being offered by the Nation of Islam. The final portion of the essay offers possible explanations and solutions for the problems of racism we continue to experience throughout America.
In terms of what will be most useful for white communities to try to understand, I think I should spend the majority of this post looking into the third section of this essay, where we can find some higher-order ideas and some more practicable ideas to really start to perceive, to acknowledge, and therefore to address racism within and outside of our communities.
In order to really understand some of the statements, proposals, and charges that Baldwin makes in the final portion of the essay, though, we will need to look at some of the events, emotions, and lessons that he learned about life as a person of color in 1930’s Harlem, and particularly as an African American, from the first section of the piece. If we were looking to get into a more autobiographical accounting of his early life, we would be looking at Notes from a Native Son, but the content at the beginning of this essay is of course perfect for the context of the rest of this essay. We will also need to tie in some elements from the second part of the missive, where he goes into detail about his recognition that the offerings of the Nation of Islam were not substantially different from what had been offered to him earlier in life by the Christian church (with which he seems to have maintained a complicated relationship, based on some personal reflections on what the church had offered, and failed to offer, to Baldwin).
Early in this essay, James Baldwin goes to great detail to describe the many ways that white American society, which was (and is, but will not always be) the prevailing and dominant society in America, served to try to cast him and all other black people down. He gives this analysis of what he had seen so far in life, though yet in his fourteenth year:
And I began to feel in the boys a curious, wary, bewildered despair, as though they were now settling in for the long, hard winter of life. I did not know then what it was that I was reacting to; I put it to myself that they were letting themselves go. In the same way that the girls were destined to gain as much eight as their mothers, the boys, it was clear, would rise no higher than their fathers.
Consider that this is a young boy, barely into his teenage years, who is describing his life and the lives of the young boys around him as a “long, hard winter.” To see them start at so young an age to despair is heart-breaking. He continues, and the underlying sense of hopelessness in the story comes into clearer focus:
School began to reveal itself, therefore, as a child’s game that one could not win, and boys dropped out of school and went to work. My father wanted me to do the same. I refused, even though I no longer had any illusions about what an education could do for me; I had already encountered too many college-graduate handymen.
Even education failed to really promise the people of Harlem any upward mobility. They felt that there was no way for them to shift their own lot and really achieve more than their parents, and their parents had been able to achieve.
My friends were now “downtown,” busy, as they put it, “fighting the man.” They began to care less about the way they looked, the way they dressed, the things they did; presently, one found them in two and threes and fours, in a hallway, sharing a jug of wine or a bottle of whiskey, talking, cursing, fighting, sometimes weeping: lost, and unable to say what it was that oppressed them, except that they knew it was “the man” –the white man. And there seemed to be no way whatever to remove this cloud that stood between them and the sun, between them and whatever it was that they wanted. One did not have to be very bright to realize how little one could do to change one’s situation; one did not have to be abnormally sensitive to be worn down to a cutting edge by the incessant and gratuitous humiliation and danger one encountered every working day, all day long.
This picture he paints for the friends he had accumulated over a childhood continues further into despair:
Just before and then during the Second World War, many of my friends fled into the service, all to be changed there, and rarely for the better, many to be ruined, and many to die. Others fled into other states and cities –that is, to other ghettos. Some went on wine or whiskey or the needle, and are still on it. And others, like me fled into the church.
Baldwin goes on to describe the wages of sin that were seen around the Avenue, and thus which pushed him toward the church. Powerful women working their whole lives just to die in cramped rooms; young, bright men dying by suicide or having their lives ruined in prison after they turned to crime in the desperate, hopeless environment they had been born into. His descriptions are colorful, and emotive in all of their heart-rending detail.
But then, we come upon a message that I touched upon briefly in my first post, but which bears being addressed again here. He writes about what he perceives (and with which I certainly agree) as a misconception by white people. So let’s read this one through twice, real slow, and challenge ourselves to really absorb what he’s saying
There seems to be a vast amount of confusion on this point, but I do not know many Negroes who are eager to be “accepted” by white people, still less to be loved by them; they, the blacks, simply don’t wish to be beaten over the head by the whites every instant of our brief passage on this planet. White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this–which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never–the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.
What I think he means by this, and I would love to engage in discussion about this point if you disagree, is that the reason that white people make so much effort to police and control what we have historically labeled as “shortcomings” or “failures” of POC is because of the failures and divisions within our own communities. It is so much easier to point at the people with different-colored skin and say that they are the source of our problems and our society’s shortcomings than to look within, at our actions, our beliefs, and try to close those divides within ourselves that prevent us from loving ourselves and each other. When we set accept our failures and do the work to overcome them, we will solve our own problems and no longer need to invent boogeymen through racism to explain the evil in the world.
Let’s really contemplate that passage and ask ourselves if there is any truth to it. And let’s really look at our society and ourselves before we answer. Because in that passage, I hear something not often echoed by whitefolk. Baldwin is reminding us, here, that we are not being called upon to save POC from racism. We simply need to release them of it, to allow them equal power in society, in government, and equality before the law. We need to enable them to live how they want to live. To be free. And in this case “enabling” just means finally acknowledging racism and dismantling it. Of releasing the cords and simply ceasing to try to exert our white influence over people of color. They don’t have to be like us. They don’t have to conform and agree, they just need to be free to exist in the same way that white people are unconstrained in our lives. We prevent black people from entering stores if we don’t like their clothes, we underfund the schools they attend but we demand they perform to the greatest standards of academic excellence to be considered a peer. The list goes on, and this constant, nit-picking policing of everything about their lives has got to stop, doesn’t it?
Can you imagine having to suffer similar scrutiny, in all matters, always, because of the color of your skin? There is no escape. There is no way to step away from these society-wide, yet oh-so inconsistent expectations. Not when the expectations are as plain as the skin over your bones. Think of the horrible weight that might put on a person, simply for them to exist in such a judgmental, stifling, naggering social atmosphere. Baldwin had spoken about the effects of this constant sense of being watched when he describes some of the earliest lessons he learned about racism.
Every effort made by the child’s elders to prepare him for a fate from which they cannot protect him causes him secretly,in terror, to begin to await, without knowing that he is doing so, his mysterious and inexorable punishment. He must be “good” not only in order to please his parents and not only to avoid being punished by them; behind their authority stands another, nameless and impersonal, infinitely harder to please, and bottomlessly cruel. And this filters into the child’s consciousness through his parents’ tone of voice as he is being exhorted, punished, or loved; in the sudden, uncontrollable note of fear heard in his mother’s or his father’s voice when he has strayed beyond some particular boundary… The fear that I heard in my father’s voice, for example, wen he realized that I actually believed I could do anything a white boy could do, and had every intention of proving it, was not at all like the fear I heard when one of us was ill or had fallen down the stairs or strayed too far from the house. It was another fear, a fear that the child, in challenging the white world’s assumptions, was putting himself in the path of destruction.
To fear for your child on the grounds that they believe that they’re the equal to another is so very tragic. This fear that Baldwin is referencing is also referenced in “My Dungeon Shook.”
In any case, Baldwin goes on to describe his several years as a Young Minister for a nearby church (though not the one his father preached at, he notes), and a powerful religious experience that he describes as leaving him laying on the floor all night, in anguish, feeling that god was withholding its love from him.
All I really remember is the pain, the unspeakable pain; it was as though I were yelling up to Heaven and Heaven would not hear me. And if Heaven would not hear me, if love could not descend from Heaven–to was me, to make me clean–then utter disaster was my portion.
He had this to say about god, as well, after this overwhelming and overpowering experience:
And if one despairs–and who has not?–of human love, God’s love alone is left. But God–and I felt this even then, so long ago, on that tremendous floor, unwillingly–is white. And if His love was so great, and if He loved all His children, why were we, the blacks, cast down so far? Why?
This is a powerful statement. Despite the Christian biblical promise that all are created in the image of god, we have here another statement to the contrary, much like one made by the late, great Maya Angelou saying “Of course, I knew God was white too.”
Though Baldwin would continue to be associated with this church for years, his faith began on a slow decline from many contributing factors. His relationship with the church as he represents it elsewhere in the essay, is quite interesting, especially in the masterful way that Baldwin is able to put it to paper. His exposition on it is pages long, and I highly recommend you read it in full while reading the rest of this protracted, missive-style essay.
Well, this is a lot more than even I expected. I have not yet gotten a chance to address the second portion of the book, wherein James Baldwin meets with Elijah Muhammad, but my takeaway from his meeting in that Nation of Islam mansion was that the kind of hope being offered was the same as that which had been offered to Baldwin, but not, it seems, delivered upon.
I will address the second arc, as well as the third, in an upcoming post (or two, if needed) as we will be able to dig more into the portions of this work that we can really take back into our hearts and our communities to begin to heal the divides between us, and address our individual and communal shortcomings. The key piece that I take away from the first portion of the essay is addressed above, but if you find any other passages that you would like to discuss, feel free to reach out and I would enjoy the chance to explore your thoughts and ideas.
As a side note, it is so hard to pare anything out. Baldwin has such a rich narrative style, and everything he wrote is worth reading, and that makes it hard for me to not include the source material here in the posts. I would like to assume that people will go out and read the entire works, but I am hesitant to make that assumption, and I think it is important to really let the posts and discussions that I work on here follow from what is presented from the source. It is difficult to find a perfect balance, but I am confident that this can improve as we continue these explorations.
Thanks for taking the time, and I hope you find your way back to the discussion. If you have a second, please rate this article below, or submit feedback through the Contact or Survey pages, or you can get in touch across the social media spectrum, or you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stay engaged and stay woke.