African-Americans Identity In The Fire Next Time By James Baldwin
In the book, The Fire Next Time James Baldwin the author and narrator of the book writes about his childhood growing up in Harlem and what he witnessed and learned as he grew up. When Baldwin was fourteen he saw Harlem in a completely different way. He saw that the terrible influence of the streets were slowly trying to creep up to him and take him over. The people around him helped with these influences like his father who told him that he was heading down that road as well just like his friends. The only people who blocked off these influences were the good church going people and the girls who saw the influence of the streets and they wanted to be god’s decoy by saving the souls of the boys through marriage. The influence of the streets is one of the ways it could have shaped Baldwin’s identity. It could have shaped it for the worst if he had been completely succumb to it.
James Baldwin wants to find out is shaping and defending our identities more real to us than achieving our humanity. James Baldwin’s idea of humanity is that was needed to accept others and truly love them as individuals. Our identities are one of the most important things a human being can have and can relate to in some aspects. It gives us a footing in the world we live in and help us in our social lives. You can immediately relate to a person who has the same identity as you for example if he’s the same race as you it gives you a certain sense of understanding of the person and you can guess what they ‘ve experienced in life. Our identities mainly tell us who we are as a person compared to others but the only problem is that our identities are sometimes not shaped by us but by other people. James Baldwin describes in the book how the identities of the African-Americans were not shaped by them but by the white people or the “white liberals” of the US. The most noticeable way the white people had shaped the African Americans identity is when they took their last name and gave their last name to them instead for example Baldwin was probably the last name of the slave owner for James Baldwin ‘s ancestors. For most African-Americans there last name does not tell them who they are and where they came from. It only tells them that during a dark time in their ancestry they were owned as an item and not treated as a human being. From this understanding of African-Americans identity I can see why Elijah Muhammad changed his last name and started the Nation of Islam movement. Elijah wanted to go back to the roots of his ancestry and not become a Christian because the African’s back before they were captured and brought to the colonies believed in Islam. Elijah Muhammad wanted to shape his own identity instead of keeping his identity given to him by the white men. Sadly for Elijah this new Identity of his has caused him to lose some of his humanity. The new ideology he has for the Nation of Islam does not give room for any love for the white men for they can only surrender to them.
“But the policemen were doing nothing now. Obviously, this was not because they had become more human but because they were under orders and because they were afraid. And indeed they were, and I was delighted to see it. There they stood, in twos and threes and fours, in their Cub Scout uniform s and with their Cub Scout faces, totally unprepared, as is the way with American he men, for anything that could not be settled with a club or a fist or a gun. I might have pitied them if I had not found myself in their hands so often and discovered, through ugly experience, what they were like when they held the power and what they were like when you held the power. The behavior of the crowd, its silent intensity, was the other thing that forced me to reassess the speakers and their message.”
The police in this quote are trying to hold off the Nation of Islam ideals and demands instead of forcible making The Nation of Islam surrender their ideals. The police or authorities are not doing this because they might accept The Nation of Islam demands and ideals, they’re holding them off because they are afraid of what happens if they retaliate by doing what they do to all other black movements back then. The Nation of Islam movement is different from the others because they are not trying to find a peaceful solution to the problem but instead demanding the white men give them land to live in their own community and become self-governed mainly. To the white men it seems that the African Americans in The Nation of Islam might resort to violence if they are attacked. So this ideology that Elijah has for The Nation of Islam gives no room for the white men to accept the African Americans but only fear them. This is why Elijah has lost his humanity because he can’t accept the white men.
When James Baldwin was growing up in Harlem he was Christian like his father and everybody else in the neighborhood. Baldwin did not ask to be Christian or did he care about being a Christian, he was only Christian because his family and everyone around him chose Christianity for him. He never learned about other religions at his young age so he was never in an environment where he could choose or find that religion that’s right for him. Christianity was part of Baldwin’s identity whether he liked it or not. “One Saturday afternoon, he took me to his church. There were no services that day, and the church was empty, except for some women cleaning and some other women praying. My friend took me into the back room to meet his pastor — a woman. There she sat, in her robes, smiling, an extremely proud and handsome woman, with Africa, Europe, and the America of the American Indian blended in her face. She was perhaps forty-five or fifty at this time, and in our world she was a very celebrated woman. My friend was about to introduce me when she looked at me and smiled and said, “Whose little boy are you?” Now this, unbelievably, was precisely the phrase used by pimps and racketeers on the Avenue when they suggested, both humorously and intensely, that I “hang out” with them. Perhaps part of the terror they had caused me to feel came from the fact that I unquestionably wanted to be somebody’s little boy. I was so frightened, and at the mercy of so many conundrums, that inevitably, that summer, someone would have taken me over; one doesn’t, in Harlem, long remain standing on any auction block.“ Baldwin was perceived as a Christian and belonged to someone else’s church just because he was a black man living in Harlem. The way the pastor said who’s little boy are you sparked Baldwin’s thought of how the pimps and racketeers would say to someone. This made Baldwin feel like the churches own him just because he was Christian. The identity of being a Christian has made Baldwin feel like he’s a slave. Baldwin believes that if he hadn’t been a Christian someone else would have taken him over anyways because when you’re in Harlem, you don’t remain long in the any auction block.
“But there was nothing malicious or condemnatory in it. I had the stifling feeling that they knew I belonged to them but knew that I did not know it yet, that I remained unready, and that they were simply waiting, patiently, and with assurance, for me to discover the truth for myself. For where else, after all, could I go? I was black, and therefore a part of Islam, and would be saved from the holocaust awaiting the white world whether I would or no. My weak, deluded scruples could avail nothing against the iron word of the prophet.” Baldwin also felt this way when he was eating dinner with Elijah Muhammad. Elijah just like the pastor perceived Baldwin as a man of Islam just because he was black. They did simply did not care about Baldwin’s current identity but just gave him a new one just because he was black. To Baldwin though he did not care about what they thought about him or about who he was and belonged to because Baldwin knew what type of person he truly was and that no one in the world can perceived him as another. This is why shaping and defending our identities is more real to us than achieving our humanity. To give up our identity just so that we may be accepted by others and loved by others is truly wrong. Deep down inside you know you’re living a lie just so that others could love you and accept you. James Baldwin solution to this problem that everyone has with their identities and humanities is to truly give up their give up on their old identities.
“Rather, the white man is himself in sore need of new standards, which will release him from his confusion and place him once again in fruitful com m union with the depths of his own being. And I repeat: The price of the liberation of the white people is the liberation of the blacks — the total liberation, in the cities, in the towns, before the law, and in the mind. Why, for example — especially knowing the family as I do I should want to marry your sister is a great mystery to me. But your sister and I have every right to marry if we wish to, and no one has the right to stop us. If she cannot raise me to her level, perhaps I can raise her to mine.“
Baldwin wants the white men to give up their identities because their identity controls how they think about others for example their standards of other races like African Americans are inferior to them. If they gave up these ways of thinking the African Americans can truly be able to find their own identities because they no longer have to fear anything. This will also help people raise each other to their standards. This is a very hard demand to comply to for both sides. The white people would be scared to do this because they would feel very out of place. The only way for them to get rid of that feeling is if everyone does it so that it would be a norm. The African Americans would have some sort of resentment in them that would make it very hard to accept the white people but if they do accept them it would greatly improve their lives and give them time to find their own identity because they no longer have any standards that will stop them. This acceptance is the only way for everyone to achieve their humanity and avoid “The Fire Next Time.”
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