James Baldwin Essay

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In James Baldwin’s essay “Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation” in The Fire Next Time, Baldwin advises his black, adolescent nephew living in the 1960’s during the African-American Civil Rights Movement on what living a free life means based on Baldwin’s own experience as an adult. As an existential thinker, Baldwin attributes a person’s identity to the collection of accomplishments and failures in his or her entire lifetime, as opposed to accepting a person as determinately good or bad. In order to be truly free of oppression, according to Baldwin, African Americans must seek to be authentic by not conceding to the expectations and restrictions of racist white Americans. A person’s authenticity lies in his or her willingness to take risks, accept responsibility for any consequences, and live by personal experience, not by the constraints or unattainable expectations of others. A person must cherish and cling to his or her own beliefs in what is right or wrong, despite difficult circumstances. Any man or woman is only free up to how much he or she is willing to risk, claiming freedom and dignity and accepting neither inferiority nor superiority.

Taking risks requires a person to be of good faith and conscience. A person in good faith commits fully to the responsibilities of life and death with sincerity and earnestness, addressing both predictable and unforeseen consequences. By avoiding responsibility and risk, a man lives a fraudulent life. His is relatively safe, his life uneventful and unfulfilling. Baldwin charges his nephew, James, “to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it” (10). James is in charge of his own life, his own successes, his own freedom, and his own identity. Cruel and hateful white Americans may attempt to restrict James with laws of segregation, like the Jim Crow laws, or an unspoken code of conduct for how they expect him to act, sit, stand, and speak in public. His physical body may...
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