James Baldwin: Race and Identity

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Updated: Apr 13, 2022
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Mythology has played a major role in shaping the thoughts and actions of mankind. It delivers an unquestioned explanation to the working of the world. According to James Baldwin in The Fire Next Time, certain myths have consumed white Americans, including the beliefs that they come from a nation of “freedom-loving heroes,” and “are invincible in battle and wise in peace.” (101) Baldwin notes that black people do not hold the same beliefs due to a life lived proving their false nature, and benefit from becoming more aware of the American reality for white and black people. Being an oppressed group, they have been forced to learn the ways a white man thinks, and how to avoid ill aimed rage disguised as patriotism. Baldwin suggests that black people know of white people as a parent does a child, in the sense that they “dismiss white people as slightly mad victims of their own brainwashing,” (102) and so do not crave vengeance as a result of their oppression. Baldwin, as well as other authors, dissect America’s differing realities and the systems that support their authenticity, revealing issues impeding social equality.

Before examining personal adversity describing his existence in Harlem, Baldwin addresses the first letter of his book to his nephew. He explains challenges associated with being black in America, including the lack of expectation placed on him, and an increased chance of being arrested. Baldwin urges his nephew to fight for freedom beyond the constraints of a white person’s mind, and to do so while holding no hate, only passion for change. “The black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star . . . as he moves out of place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.” (9) Baldwin means to show that inherent in a white person’s self-actualization of freedom and religiosity, is the oppression of black people. This leads to the pseudo justification that America has a history of freedom, though blacks have been constantly persecuted. This quote calls out need for change of structure allowing the black man social and economic mobility equal to white’s. Unfortunately, every way this structure has changed, racially perverse outcomes persist. Baldwin lets the importance of this be known to his nephew in order to stay safe and motivated.

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In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander further depicts how racism in America’s structural system has changed by highlighting the disproportionate incarceration rate of black people, and ways law enforcement target their historically low-income environments. Released prisoners are issued low-wage jobs, denied work, and discriminated from voting, similar to a freed slave. Once economically excluded, felons may depend on the environment of inner cities to survive, with a return to prison very possible. “More than one third of prison admissions resulted from parole violations . . . in 2000.” (95) Is this racially gauged, and unjust system not criminal in itself? These schemes serve as ways to maintain power and selected freedom at the expense of black people, while allowing white people to believe they are providing service by removing criminals from our streets.

The dispersing of economic opportunity is protected through corporate policy and tethered by powerful white men who have deemed themselves the only group worthy of this control. However, middle and lower-class people, black and white, suffer from this injustice. Michael Kimmel, writer of Angry White Men, suggests white men accuse minorities of impeding their entitlements by stealing jobs and abusing welfare programs, seemingly unaware that those jobs and benefits never belonged to them. Kimmel says there is “a paradox of these white men voting for, and identifying with, the very people who are doing it to them.” (14) Corporate America influencing ideology of white men for economic benefit is another piece contributing to America’s racially unjust system.

The tools used by promoters of the white agenda have been presented by these authors with aspirations of society directing their attention to these injustices. Baldwin was not only writing to his nephew, but to all of America, in an effort to maintain passion for change. For the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation, Baldwin concludes, “You know, and I know that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon. We cannot be free until they are free.” (10) Oppressors must free themselves from the tenacious desire to oppress and understand the plea of the oppressed. These assertions are important in understanding what must occur in order for true steps toward freedom and equality for black people to be made. 

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James Baldwin: Race and Identity. (2022, Apr 13). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/james-baldwin-race-and-identity/