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