Take This Hammer: James Baldwin talks Race, Religion, and Activism

James Baldwin

James Baldwin

Take This Hammer is a 1963 documentary film that shows author/activist James Baldwin’s fact-finding mission to San Francisco that same year. His purpose was to answer the question: is the Negro in San Francisco, CA any better off than the Negro in Birmingham, AL? He concluded that:

There is no moral distance between the facts of life in San Francisco and the facts of life in Birmingham.

Baldwin presents an extraordinary social critique of America North & South, white liberalism, and the angst of Black teenagers. What’s exceptional are some of the specific barometers he uses to judge young Black people’s view on their future.

Will there ever be a Black President?

There is one exchange where he asks a group of young men if there will ever be a Negro President in this country. They flatly tell him “No, never.” Baldwin retorts with solidly nuanced optimism: “Yes, there will be a Negro President, but this country will be different from the one that exists now.”

Obviously, we have a Black President now. That begs the question: was Baldwin right? Is this a different country than it was in 1963? Yes in many ways, and no in many others.

The failure of Christianity

Near the end of the film, Baldwin opines on the almost comical hypocrisy of American [white] Christianity. Baldwin asserts that:

…these churches are absolutely meaningless and almost blasphemous…more social club than spiritual institution…the Christian church in this country has never, as far as i know, been Christian.

Baldwin is himself a Christian, but he sees and hears the spiritual frustrations of Black youth. One young man told him that the best way for Black people to organize [for revolution] was by “coming together as Muslims.” What does that mean? That spirituality & religion as forces of identification, pride, and community were as important then as they are today. It also speaks to the fluidity of religion, to people’s desire to find a spiritual persuasion that speaks to their needs. Baldwin’s critique on American Christianity shows that many young, militant Black folks rejected a faith they saw as hypocritical and weak. Today’s Christianity is still fighting this battle. 

On “liberalism”

Baldwin shares an intellectual pedigree with Steve Biko with his disdain of “liberals” (in this context, they both mean White liberals). In the film, Baldwin has a lot to say about this:

Everywhere I’ve been in this country, white people think race relations are excellent.

Liberals are looking for an alleviation, a protection of their own consciousness.

Liberals can’t be fake and be heroic too.

White people think of themselves as missionaries…but we don’t want you to do it for the Negro, we want you to do it for you.

His critique is not of liberalism, but of dishonest, half-hearted activism. Activism and organizing are based upon trust, and Baldwin did not trust white liberal activists in many cases.

This tension still exists in some circles today. Most interestingly, it creates a chasm between those arguing over whether the shortest path to equality and freedom in this country is through racial reconciliation or class-based economic struggle. Baldwin, Biko, myself, and others saw this as a false choice, but it creates a very real debate for many activists and thinkers.

Where do we go from here?

Baldwin in the film is neither overly optimistic nor terribly pessimistic. He does offer some thoughts that give insight into his thoughts on the future:

Buildings without foundations will inevitably come down.

I can be fooled, but my kids won’t be…either we will correct what’s wrong, it will be corrected for us.

This is something that’s been hitting close to home with me in recent years. The aspirations and assumptions of one generation are often realized, debunked, and adjusted by the next. Baldwin speaks specifically about ideas such as the “fakeness” of the American dream (i.e. having a garage) and what is actually meant when politicians & developers say “redevelopment” (to Baldwin, that means “remove the Negro”).

As my generation of activists, thinkers, leaders, and citizens chart our course through this dynamic social landscape, we can learn a lot from those that came before us. However, learn means neither repeat nor ignore. Instead, it means absorbing the knowledge and experiences, examining the current context for similarities and differences, applying what we’ve absorbed where appropriate, and innovating where necessary.

One Love. One II.

Photo credit: Ben Wheeler on Flickr

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About Garlin Gilchrist II

I am the City of Detroit's first ever Deputy Technology Director for Civic Community Engagement. My job is to open up the city's public data and information for the consumption and benefit of all Detroiters. I currently live in Detroit, my hometown, with my beautiful wife Ellen and our twins Garlin III and Emily Grace. I'm from Detroit. I created Detroit Diaspora, and was formerly the National Campaign Director at MoveOn.org. I also co-hosted The #WinReport on "The Good Fight," a an award winning, nationally syndicated radio show that was one of Apple's Best of 2013. After graduating with degrees in Computer Engineering and Computer Science from the University of Michigan, I became a Software Engineer at Microsoft. By day, I helped build SharePoint into the fastest growth product in the company's history. On my personal time, I sought out opportunities to connect my technical skills with community building efforts across the country. This led to my co-founding The SuperSpade: Black Thought at the Highest Level, a leading Black political blog. I served as Social Media Manager for the 2008 Obama campaign in Washington, and then became Director of New Media at the Center for Community Change. I spent two years creating and implementing a strategy for the Center to take it's 40 years of community organizing experience into the digital age. I speak before diverse audiences on effective & responsive government, empowerment in revolutionary new organizing spaces, increasing civic engagement & participation through emerging technologies and protecting civil rights in the age of the Internet. Full bio here.

6 responses to “Take This Hammer: James Baldwin talks Race, Religion, and Activism”

  1. Brandon says :

    This is really a great post. I had never heard of this documentary…but I very much love James Baldwin. I think one of the main ways in which this country is different now from how it was when he made this documentary–one stark and very drastic difference is that this is a country that is in the midst of decline. And I think that fact makes it quite the difference. I literally was asking myself the other day if Americans would have voted for Barack Obama if they were not hungry….I am not a cync and the question is a real one. So, I think that in a very real sense, Baldwin’s assessment was right. I have heard his speech at Berkeley which I think is brilliant and whic hI I had my students at Purdue listen to nearly every semester lol. His last quote that you present here also hits home. I have often said myself that a house built on a bad foundation cannot stand….and I think that he recognizes that America does not have a good foundation…

  2. Young, Black, Educated and living in the D says :

    The 3:50 mark poses the question….

    Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hDjaqhuSqQE&feature=related

  3. v m.ganesan says :

    this baldwin’s docu is striking and revealing.very useful for my research.

  4. Alex Cherian says :

    Garlin: we’ve just released an interview with the director of Take this Hammer, who discusses working with Baldwin in 1963 and how the production was affected by censorship. Here’s a URLL video link: https://diva.sfsu.edu/collections/sfbatv/bundles/210522

  5. Garlin II says :

    Brandon, thanks for the thoughtful comment.

    I have wondered the same thing about President Obama’s victory, and whether it would have happened if our nation/world was in a different state. That question is both fair and unfair. It’s unfair because all victories exist in a larger context. In this sense, Obama’s win this year is no different than Bush’s in 2000 or Clinton’s in 1992. It is fair because it is clear that people don’t make a choice to make change without sufficient disappointment in the status quo. Things had to get pretty bad (or be “different” to use Baldwin’s word) for America to elect this particular President.

    One Love. One II.

  6. Garlin II says :

    That is quite an interview. I’ve never heard Baldwin articulate this, but I think, sadly, that he was/is absolutely right:

    Martin was a great man and a great leader with a great cause. He, however, would not be able to reach a complete solution on his own.

    What this means, more holistically, is that neither one man, nor one method, will achieve a complete solution to a complex problem.

    Thanks for the link to this great interview. I embedded it in your comment so others could see it immediately.

    One Love. One II.

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