Looking Back: James Baldwin on Blackness, Struggle, Malcolm and Martin
Below is an interview with the novelist, essayist, and Civil Rights advocate James Baldwin. It’s an important interview not only for its documentation of Baldwin’s thought and the historical moment, but also for our contemporary reflection on “race” and culture. Baldwin’s America is the backdrop for our America. His the benchmark, in part, against which we measure progress and possibility. I happened upon the videos after following a link to an article about the incivility of the 2012 presidential race. This interview reminds us of an incivility of another sort and how much more civil we’ve become.
Part 1–Growing Up in New York and the American Race Problem
Part 2–Urban Renewal Means Negro Removal, SNCC and the Myth of Negro Docility
Part 3–On Non-Violence, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Future of the Negro People
It’s interesting to reflect on Baldwin’s notion of genuine Christianity and the necessity of hope rather than despair. He articulates what I think most non-Christians assume a Christian to be–someone who loves. So, for Baldwin, Dr. King stands alone because of the moral authority that comes from genuine Christian faith. Baldwin intuits the connection between faith and ethics, especially love for neighbor and enemy. By implication, he didn’t see the church as a whole maintaining such integrity between faith and witness. I wonder how much the Church as a whole has changed in this regard in the last 50-60 years? I don’t mean, has the church grown with regard to race relations. Despite occasionally staggering and blinding examples to the contrary that make national news, the church has surely grown to become more multi-ethnic, less overtly racist, and even from time to time prophetic in its stance against injustice. But what I’m asking is whether or not we’ve seen an increase in the number of “Kings” who would put life on the line to live out their faith on some issue of magnitude in our time: slavery, abortion, etc. Just something to ponder.
Second, I appreciated the clear-eyed critique Baldwin offered of Malcolm’s bankrupt supremacy-in-response-to-supremacy strategy. As someone who once held that view very tightly, I wished I had seen the issue with the clarity that Baldwin did. Yet, I couldn’t help but wonder if Baldwin’s “forced to be optimistic” attitude was really a smiling despair. Ultimately, he didn’t seem hopeful to me. No doubt that’s a function of being embroiled in the struggle of his day, which seemed insurmountable. I appreciate that. But it seemed to me that Baldwin would have been helped had he had genuine faith himself. He illustrates for us the great difference between faith in faith–a forced optimism–and faith in the omnipotent Lord of history and nations. One makes a man shudder on television; the other takes a man to the street unflinchingly facing dogs, bullets, and an entire nation.
Oh, Lord, we praise you for growing your Church and beautifying your bride. Beautify us yet more. Grant that we would have the courage of biblical conviction, and that our faith would express itself in love–love for the saints, love for our enemies, love for the lost, love for the oppressed, love for the oppressor. As you have loved us, let us love in the world. Amen.