I was so impressed by The Fire Next Time, which I finished today, that I have to quote a few more passages.
This after Baldwin’s meeting with Elijah Muhammad, talking in the car to a young follower about the idea of black nation separating from the United States:
“On what, then, will the economy of this separate nation be based? The boy gave me a rather strange look. I said hurriedly, ‘I’m not saying it can’t be done–I just want to know how it is to be done.’ I was thinking, In order for this to happen, your entire frame of reference will have to change, and you will be forced to surrender many things that you now scarcely know you have. I didn’t feel that the things I had in mind, such as the pseudo-elegant heap of tin in which we were riding, had any very great value. But life would be very different without them, and I wondered if he had though of this.”
“If one is permitted to treat any group of people with special disfavor because of their race or the color of their skin, there is no limit to what one will force them to endure, and since the entire race has been mysteriously indicted, no reason not to attempt to destroy it root and branch. This is precisely what the Nazis attempted. Their only originality lay in the means they used. It is scarcely worthwhile to attempt remembering ow many times the sun has looked down on the slaughter of the innocents. I am very much concerned that American Negroes achieve their freedom here in the United States. But I am also concerned for their dignity, for the health of their souls, and must oppose any attempt that Negroes may make to do to others what has been done to them. I think I know–we see it around us every day–the spiritual wasteland to which that road leads. It is so simple a fact and one that is so hard, apparently, to grasp: Whoever debases others is debasing himself. That is not a mystical statement, but a most realistic one, which is proved by the eyes of any Alabama sheriff–and I would not like to see Negroes ever arrive at so wretched a condition…
“Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flag, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death–ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life.”
And about rejecting the values of white America:
“How can one respect, let alone adopt, the values of a people who do not, on any level whatever, live the way they say they do, the way they say they should? I cannot accept the proposition that the four-hundred year travail of the American Negro should result merely in his attainment of the present level of the American civilization. I am far from convinced that being released from the African witch doctor was worthwhile if I am now–in order to support the contradictions and spiritual aridity of my life–expected to become dependent on the American psychiatrist.”
All in all, I still find Baldwin the most articulate analyst of “the race problem,” in this country, and if I were asked for one book to assign to anyone running or in political office, this would be it. And I can’t help but wish we were able achieve the kind of open, thoughtful world Baldwin envisions possible, even if I doubt for myself its possibility.
3 thoughts on “More Baldwin: Whoever debases others is debasing himself”
I love the phrase: The Fire Next Time. I use it whenever I can. It thrills me. Thanks for the great article (essay?)
I still see you crossing into the kitchen from my living room.
All the best to you and Larry!
And I still see your kitchen and living room in my mind.