Mar. 15th, 2017

bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Due to time constraints we picked a short book for our next book club, James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, and although I read it all in one evening I've been mulling over it for several days after before attempting to write a review, and will likely try to reread it before we meet. There's a lot packed into the 106 pages here. The pair of essays -- one short, at just a few pages, the other more than ninety pages long -- combines Baldwin's personal and family history, American history, sociological and cultural commentary, an unnerving dinner with Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammed, and a call for all of us to truly reckon with America's history and legacy of racism.

The first essay, addressed to Baldwin's nephew (also named James), is personal enough that some of it almost feels a little voyeuristic to read, but its main point -- that at the time it was written, on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, celebration was premature, and black Americans had not really been emancipated yet -- is of interest to any reader who is at all invested in America. This letter also introduces a theme Baldwin expounds upon later as well, which that white people, while not "devils" as some movements at the time concluded, were nevertheless not very smart, and that they were in charge of everything was no reason to accept their infantile framing that it was black people who needed to be accepted/assimilated into white society and to become more like white people, because the existing white power structure was dreadful and, within it, people became weird and stupid and dysfunctional (Baldwin writes this in more elegant terms than that, of course) -- in short, he tries to each his nephew to resist internalizing what we now call the white gaze.

The second essay is a mostly autobiographical set of musings about growing up and learning to face the world and all its absurdities and atrocities, and the many temptations and pitfalls and escapes that Baldwin either avoided or did not. He speaks of his terror of falling into a life of crime as he became closer in age to the criminals that haunted the streets of Harlem where he grew up, and of the somewhat self-aggrandizing refuge he found in the Church as a youth pastor -- and then, eventually, how he grew to find it hypocritical and leave it behind him. He writes about the Nation of Islam movement and about why it appealed to people, and he explains both why he thinks it's wrong and that he understands what it's an entirely understandable response to. There is a tendency in much of American liberalism, at least right now, to expend much more fury and moralizing denunciation upon the people supposedly on one's same "side" who are doing it wrong than against the actual forces of oppression, in order to show off that you are one of the reasonable ones and to try and keep your "side" in line. The results are usually a bad look. Baldwin here manages to avoid any sort of ostentatious pearl-clutching or unsightly scrambling to distance himself from the Nation of Islam movement; it is in part a testament to his great empathy and in part a testament to his skill as a writer that he instead portrays the movement and the dinner with a profound sadness and with a tension and feeling of uneasiness that makes this section of the essay especially unputdownable. He writes about the people who join the Nation of Islam in largely sociological terms, describing them as sort of getting entangled in hatred and its weird mythology the way other excellent writers have written about family members sinking into addiction or crime. Though he's understanding of the course of despair and frustration that leads to people joining what is essentially a cult, he doesn't gloss over the fact that it is a supremacist hate group, and that no amount of explanation actually makes that anything other than ugly.

Baldwin reserves some of his profound sadness for his insights into the psychology of white Americans, some of which still rings 100% true and some of which rings slightly less true until you remember he was writing in 1962 and you figure that if it's not completely true now it squares 100% with everything we know about the '50s. Sometimes I forget how weird the '50s must have been until I see, like, advertisements or TV footage or something like that from then, and it's just modern enough that the ways in which it is alien make me feel like I'm on bad drugs, with people smoking on airplanes and all the movies in eye-watering Technicolor. Baldwin describes us as "slightly mad victims of our own brainwashing," which is certainly true, and as being terrified of sensuality, which is something we have made some progress on in some spaces and pretended to make progress on in others, and made no progress on whatsoever in large swaths of American life. Some of the things Baldwin says about stress and psychotherapy, about the aridity of life under the sway of capitalism and its fantasies, have only become more true since the postwar boom ended and the economic deprivation that used to characterize Harlem has hollowed out the entire middle class (even as Harlem becomes gentrified out of existence, from what I hear).

For me personally, it was Baldwin's criticisms of Christianity that interested me the most. He talks about Christianity's history as an imperial power, allied with imperialist nations and foisted upon unwilling populations to "save" them, though the only thing they really needed saving from was the Christians. And he talks about the role of the black Church in ways that echo with criticisms I've read about the Irish Catholic Church, especially in pre-revolutionary Ireland, but the Church he is describing is also in other ways clearly very different, and not only because Catholic Mass tends to be a very stiff and formal affair. But I'm always very interested in people's stories of apostasy, especially people who were once very serious and therefore whose apostasy had to be very serious as well. Baldwin discusses the purposes that his Church serves, both in the community and in his life, purposes both good and bad, and how he came around to where the good parts had outlived their usefulness and stopped outweighing the various hypocrisies that tend to accumulate in religions once they've been around a while.

It is distressing how much of this essay is still relevant, even as the Nation of Islam has been largely reduced to a set of footnotes on the SPLC's hatewatch map. But America as a whole has still not really gotten around to doing much of the real reckoning with race that Baldwin requested of us, though more liberal sectors have started to do more in just the past couple years, as the elections of Barack Obama and the ensuing "whitelash" have brought racial issues front and center in a way we haven't seen in quite a while. We also put an idiot racist kleptocrat and a bunch of Nazis in the White House, though, which unfortunately is going to have a bigger immediate impact on a lot of people's lives than all the interesting new documentaries that are out recently, and I say that as someone who think these sorts of documentaries are really important. (Everyone should go see I Am Not Your Negro.) I'm looking forward to discussing this book with the book group and probably to reading a lot more Baldwin in the future.

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