Reflecting on MLK Day: James Baldwin & Last Year’s Insurrection

This Martin Luther King Day, I am reflecting on Dr. King’s legacy while still wondering about the mob attack on the Capitol last year. The mob, led by a demagogue, carried to the symbolic heart of our democracy the fire of America’s unaddressed spiritual crisis. The joint tensions of race, class, and social change fueled the rage of these angry white men. The work of James Baldwin, Dr. Martin Luther King’s contemporary, can shed insight on the rage of the mob. Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time diagnoses our current predicament with the juxtaposition of history, myth, and an understanding of our personal American psyche.

James Baldwin & Dr. Martin Luther King:
They Did Not Always See Eye to Eye

Though first published in 1964, Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time can shed light on the psycho-spiritual issues in America today.  Baldwin’s work provides insight into how contemporary race relations grow from the country’s history and how this history has tainted our social relations. While Baldwin is searing in his criticism for America, he also has an unshakable hope for the country.  His optimism is rooted in our capacity for spiritual growth. Baldwin suggests that the black & white souls of America must work together to resolve our racist pollution.  The way out of our mess requires confronting the same venom that led to the Capitol mob on January 6, 2021.  We must face our past injustices, our current inequality, and our national psyche.

An Unmitigated Disaster

In early January 2021, I was re-reading The Fire Next Time when I saw that Baldwin’s language could speak directly to the attempted coup of January 6, 2021:

“…the political institutions of any nation are always menaced and are ultimately controlled by the spiritual state of that nation.  We are controlled here by our confusion, far more than we know, and the American dream has therefore become something much more closely resembling a nightmare, on the private, domestic, and international levels.  Privately, we cannot stand our lives and dare not examine them; domestically, we take no responsibility for (and no pride in) what goes on in our country; and, internationally, for many millions of people, we are an unmitigated disaster” (emphasis added).

The tarnished American dream, seen on private, domestic, and international levels, grows from our unconfronted past.  Baldwin points to America’s early history as the origin of our crisis.  The American experiment began on lands taken by force and then cultivated by slave labor.  This violation of humanity and land speaks to America’s imperialist roots.  We have used stories of chivalry and the white man’s burden to appease the victors’ conscience.  We have scrubbed away our guilt in the washed-out versions of American history in high-school textbooks. Irrespective of the justifications provided, this pillaging of land and humans requires a blatant disregard for indigenous cultures, ways of life, and belief systems. For the sake of profit, an entire empire was built. The profiteering at the onset of our country set the pace for our current breakdown.

Our Injustices

              In the book’s first essay, Baldwin addresses his nephew: “You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being.  You were expected to make peace with mediocrity.” In America, without a doubt, the cards are stacked against blacks. Housing is the clearest example of America’s inequalities. Many abroad wonder why the world’s most prosperous country has so many slums and ghettos.  A fascinating video based on the book, The Color of Law, by Richard Rothstein points at how the federal government has helped create the defacto housing segregation we see now.  Our various other inequalities illustrate a pattern of systemic injustice.

             Baldwin shows with heart-breaking tenderness the spiritual consequences of racial prejudice.  Baldwin writes, “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.” A life of indignity compounds the difficulties of an adult trying to earn a living to support his family.  A poignant example is the helplessness a black parent feels when they cannot prepare their child for the cruelty of the outside world.  There can be no compelling explanation for why police might beat up a 7-year-old child or why that child may be called `boy` well into his adulthood. The psychological effect of this implicit oppression cuts deep.

              Baldwin’s insight parallels the lessons from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Without a sense of security in life’s necessities, individuals cannot rise to their full potential.  Before arriving at self-actualization, we need a sense of psychological safety and reliable daily bread. The injustices of police brutality, social prejudice, and overt hatred gnaw away at the very peace of mind required to truly blossom. While there are outstanding examples of individuals rising above their circumstances, for many the path to flourishing is obscured. In this way, Baldwin carries forward an extended metaphor. Imagine when an entire community is subject to the whims of white supremacy.  Indeed, imagination is not required; we see examples of the wreckage every day. American society does not provide her black citizens the psychic space to self-actualize. Many blacks worked through the toughest odds to self-actualize in a meaningful way. Nonetheless,  for generations, the nation has used its collective energy to suppress the full humanity of its people.  This loss is magnified in America on a much larger scale, from the individual to our dominant culture.  

A Difficult Identity

For Baldwin, the social identity of whites in America is dangerously linked to the subjugation of others. He writes that American mythology places the white man at the top of the social hierarchy. In our status-anxious society, whiteness is a mark of higher social standing. In this world, color represents stability, success, and predictability. Any move, then, towards equality is threatening to those at the top.

A groundswell of new activism suggests that the social order is changing. The mob on January 6 represents an angry reaction to shifts in our race relations.  The first psychological response to that threat is existential fear. In turn, those benefiting from the status quo are awash in fear and insecurity about the new world. Our national non-response to the mob of January 6 suggests our difficulty awakening to a more egalitarian world. The country’s lackadaisical response to the insurrection reflects the calloused soul at the heart of our institutions.  Our spiritual crisis will be unresolved while a contingent of America is uncomfortable with being social equals with a black man.  

Baldwin demands, “We, the black and white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation.” We must go beyond our reason and logic. We must address one another through brotherhood.  We have that capacity within us.  The angry mob of January 6, 2021 was pointing to our problem.  Can we look within ourselves to expand our idea of America?   Baldwin writes, “It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and charity to teach your child not to hate.” This depth of psychological understanding, emotional intelligence, and generosity of heart is just the start.  Baldwin’s solution and power come from reaching for our shared humanity.  It is necessary.  Can we hold a vision of a more just and equal America? This wealthy nation has a whole group wanting to see a better version of the country. Where could we all be if we saw race as fiction?  Who has it in their heart to hold such hope? Imagine what we could be if we shook out the fear in our insides and turned that energy into helping one another confront the struggles of life.  Ultimately, Baldwin’s insights are the starting place to see America in the context of history. It is within ourselves that we must ask the hard questions about our prejudice, injustice, and inequalities. The mob last year was seeking out a better America. Through great courage, we can work on that together.

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