‘God is black’ (The Fire Next Time). Examine the uses of religious imagery in The Fire Next Time.
The Fire Next Time includes many religious images concerning race, ethnicity and culture. The first essay, My Dungeon Shook, is a letter from James Baldwin to his nephew, in an attempt to “strengthen [him] against the loveless world.” The second, Down at the Cross, explores the background experiences that shaped his view of the world, and allowed him to give the advice in the previous essay. Throughout Down at the Cross, Baldwin examines the “white God” of his Christian youth, and the “black God” preached by Elijah Mohammed and the Nation of Islam. Although Baldwin acknowledges both groups’ achievements, he is ultimately critical of their ideologies. Baldwin becomes disillusioned with his church; he feels the “slow crumbling of my faith, the pulverisation of my fortress” after practicing as a preacher for 3 years. Similarly, he rejects the Nation of Islam’s ideology that God is solely for the black community, and that “the white man […] is a devil.” Baldwin uses religious imagery to advocate a policy of acceptance, of love between black and white. He argues that by making God colour-conscious, and by belonging exclusively to one race, each group is guilty of legitimising and strengthening the racial hatred and discrimination of the time.
Baldwin makes it perfectly clear that he values the church. He describes his childhood, in which it saved him from the sordid drugs, prostitution and gambling on the street. He describes his time in the pulpit as “very exciting,” and confesses that nothing else in his life could “equal the power and the glory” that he felt while leading a congregation. The language he uses to describe the fervor, the experience, of his sermons is remarkably literary. His personal feelings are clearly being recalled here, as he allows himself to be swept up in the “fire and excitement that [would] sometimes, without warning, fill a church, causing it […] to ‘rock.’” This imagery is very visual, as Baldwin allows the reader into his personal view of the church. This strengthens his argument, as it gives it authenticity. However, this does not show the full picture. The Church and the street are linked by Baldwin later in the essay when he asks whether heaven is “merely another ghetto.” This could be seen to be a reference to New York’s status as a ‘safe haven,’ away from the lynching and segregation in the Southern states, however in reality New York was crowded and dangerous. It could also be a reference to how the Church itself is not able to help the black population. It connects the Church and the street, and to some extent brings the dangers of the street into the church itself, something that is expanded upon later when Baldwin complains of the “ugly and unctuous flirtatiousness” that he experienced in his Church. This sentence defines the Church, with how it promises much but delivers so little. Baldwin understands what he is arguing against, as he spent 3 years of his childhood totally immersed in its ideologies, and it is only now that he can pick apart its restrictions and failures.
`It is these restrictions and failures that cause Baldwin to reject his faith. He comes to realise that “there was no love in the church. It was a mask for hatred and self-hatred and despair.” He starts to see that instead of practicing a message that God loves everybody, the Christian church protects and loves only those that believe the same thing as them. What he found most disturbing was that this love “did not apply to white people at all.” This split between believers and non-believers did not fit with Baldwin’s theory of acceptance and integration, as he saw is as an example of hypocrisy at the heart of the church. This imagery can be seen to mirror that of segregated America, except it is whites who are marginalised and discriminated against. It perpetuates the notion that black and white are different, and...
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