One night in the fall of 2003, during my first semester in high school, I reclined in bed and read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time in one sitting. An LAPD helicopter made endless revolutions above my neighborhood as I cradled the book in my hands and turned its pages—gingerly, lest the reverie I’d fallen into evaporate just as suddenly as it had descended upon me.
I was fourteen, perhaps the same age as Baldwin’s nephew James, and I thought that in writing to James he was writing to me as well. When, in “My Dungeon Shook,” Baldwin asserted that the “black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar” whose decision to move might shake society to its core, he’d conferred upon me an identity I’d never known before. I was not a black boy in a white world, condemned to interminable and internecine conflict with white America, but a black boy whose status as a human being afforded me an agency and dignity that could not be pried from me. To encounter Baldwin was to encounter myself floating free, unhinged from the axis around which I’d been rotating my whole life.
My enthusiasm thinned upon reading the volume’s second essay. Whereas “My Dungeon Shook” is an affirmation of black people’s ability—their duty, even—to fashion an identity separate from the nigger fantasy of white America’s imagination, “Down at the Cross” is a sober and incisive indictment of American race relations, and a call to accomplish a destiny that, fifty-four years removed from the book’s publication, seems elusive as ever. We find Baldwin wrestling with the new contours of the “Negro Problem,” the dangers of which multiply exponentially in the wake of the Holocaust’s unfathomable violence. For him, Nazi Germany’s genocidal campaign against European Jews excavates new depths to the white supremacist order’s murderous disdain for people of color. These depths are enabled not just by technological process, but also by the indifference and savagery white supremacy engenders in the human heart. The possibility that such violence might erupt in America—and that black people will be its inevitable targets—haunts Baldwin.
“For my part, the fate of the Jews, and the world’s indifference to it, frightened me very much,” he writes. “I could not but feel . . . that this human indifference, concerning which I knew so much already, would be my portion on the day that the United States decided to murder its Negroes systematically instead of little by little and catch-as-catch can.” But Baldwin’s fears aren’t confined to what white America’s hatred of black people might manifest. He’s also concerned with the reaction the Holocaust might trigger in African American minds. Confronted by the stark revelation of the barbarity at the Western world’s heart, how will black people respond? Will they undertake the thankless task of love that the white man himself cannot bear to shoulder, or will they turn to unvarnished hate? For Baldwin, the fate of the democratic experiment seems to rest on this question.
He finds a disturbing possibility in the Nation of Islam, a black separatist organization that joins aspects of Black Nationalist ideology and Islamic theology. Founded in Detroit in 1930 by Wallace Fard Muhammad, the Nation teaches that African Americans aren’t American at all, but God’s chosen people, members of a lost Islamic tribe stolen from Africa and stranded in the West. Fard, who materialized in the city during the tail end of the Great Migration, prophesied that God would deliver them from their earthly suffering and destroy their white oppressors, who weren’t humans at all, but devils in disguise. In this new world, African Americans would have their own nation, carved out of the Southern states. Fard Muhammad’s converts thought him to be the messiah, arrived to usher in a new social order. Though he vanished in 1934, the organization continued expanding for a time under the leadership of Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X.
Fard Muhammad built his organization by proselytizing to Southern refugees—recently arrived in Detroit—who escaped the Jim Crow South’s rigid caste system and routinized violence, only to contend with Northern segregation. For so long, they’d choked on a bitter ideology that told them they were subhuman and unworthy of respect. They must have been ravenous for something heartier, for anything that told them they were possessed of dignity and explained their miserable place in American society.
For Baldwin, this dream is a pernicious lie, nothing more or less than white supremacy’s mirror image. He considers them twin ideologies that rest on the same principle: “the glorification of one race and the consequent debasement of another.” The Nation merely inverts America’s racial hierarchy rather than upending it, replacing the Christian West’s white God with a black one. Standing on a crowded Harlem street corner, Baldwin hears a Nation minister speak and concludes that, “as theology goes, it was no more indigestible than the more familiar brand asserting that there is a curse on the sons of Ham . . . it has been designed for the same purpose; namely, the sanctification of power.”
In short, the Nation represents Baldwin’s worst fear come to life: that African Americans, rather than eschewing white supremacy’s poisonous racial politics, might embrace it as the basis for a new but no less unjust social order, one that is not worthy of the pluralist promise embedded in American democracy’s principles.
An unbearable tension seized me upon reading Baldwin’s critique of the Nation. Though his insistence on love—not a feeble thing to be granted easily, but a tough-minded understanding that insists on accountability for America’s wrongs—moved me, I also possessed a perspective that Baldwin dismissed out of hand as naïve and morally bankrupt. I grew up in Los Angeles as a member of the Nation of Islam.
As a child, I swallowed the Nation’s ideology as easily as the Harlem residents Baldwin observed, though my life couldn’t have been further from their suffering. My mother and father escaped poverty and used their resources to provide my brother and I every material advantage denied to them as children.
But trauma’s reach is long, and a mere change in economic fortune can’t ease its grip. Despite my parents’ success, they had come of age during the racial ferment of the 1960s and ’70s. They had witnessed too much of America’s reaction against racial equity for the Civil Rights Movement’s faith in democratic progress to imprint itself on them. They were not yet teenagers when Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, and their sense of America’s racial politics took shape in the aftermath of the Watts and Detroit riots, and subsequent white flight from the inner cities. In an era when a paroxysm of brutal violence presaged America’s retreat from its responsibilities, my parents found the Nation of Islam’s explanation of racial politics as plausible as any other.
The glossy optimism of Bill Clinton’s America wasn’t the dominant tenor of my childhood. I came of age in the shadow of Ronald Reagan’s racial counterrevolution, and my parents taught me how white supremacy continued to damage black communities. I didn’t have to harken back to the Jim Crow past to understand this. In the ’90s, South Los Angeles—then a majority black region suffering from de facto segregation and an economic collapse—resembled a tomb filled with the walking dead. Spurred on by widespread joblessness and a failing education system, gang activity had become a fixture of our reality, and few families weren’t touched by the violence that plagued our streets. Meanwhile, the crack cocaine epidemic’s lingering effects were plain to see in damaged eyes of every relative who’d fallen prey to the drug. Every challenge assailing my community confirmed that the white world was engaged in a conspiracy against black life. I knew few white people, but white supremacy’s fruit was plain to anyone who had eyes. It was nothing to me to think that the absent people who inflicted such damage were devils. I was young, but already my parents’ fear and anger had become my own.
Baldwin doesn’t dismiss the anger and bitterness that such conditions generate. Reflecting on the hatred that settled into his childhood church congregation, he concludes that “the Negro’s experience of the white world cannot possibly create in him any respect for the standards by which the white world claims to live.” For him, the Nation of Islam’s explanation for inequity is predictable human reaction to living under oppressive conditions. Baldwin doesn’t want to dismiss that anger—he is, after all, concerned with humanizing African Americans, imbuing them with the psychology and emotional life that the nigger figure banishes—but he certainly can’t condone an ideology that sanctifies prejudice.
Ultimately, though, he is unable to treat the Nation with the soft insight he brings to reflections on his childhood church. Early in “Down at the Cross,” he seems to condemn his congregation for embracing Christ as “a measure of how deeply we feared and distrusted and . . . hated almost all strangers, always, and avoided and despised ourselves.” In the very next paragraph, though, Baldwin relents, admitting, “But I cannot leave it at that.” After all, he has lived in this congregation, and he knows it as a living community whose bitterness belies a nuanced set of rituals that bind individuals together in a complex humanity.
Baldwin is not so charitable to the Nation. He reserves no such mercy for its members because, ultimately, he has not lived their lives. There is something of a limit to his seemingly boundless empathy. When, in the essay, Baldwin looks at a Nation of Islam member, the writer can only perceive the young man as an unwitting, vacuous fool who is “held together, in short, by a dream.” I wondered what Baldwin would see if he looked at me. What if he dared to look harder?
In the ’90s, Los Angeles’s sky was still laden with smog, and while it was terrible to breathe it turned the city’s sky into a spectacle. So at dawn I awoke not just to pray, but also to admire sunrises that were riots of pink and orange light streaking across the sky, and linger at my window to admire the sight of multi-colored clouds slowly moving across the sky like globs of oil rising to water’s surface. As my parents taught me, I’d perform my morning ablutions before dawn, sweep the living room floor, and fall into silence as I waited for the sun to rise. Then I’d make salat . I’d memorized the prayer so well that its words tumbled from my mouth without any particular effort: In the name of Allah, the beneficent, the merciful . . . Meanwhile my mother would enact a curious ritual: My mornings began with gospel music’s tones rousing me into the day, so that often the first thing I’d hear was either Aretha Franklin or Mahalia Jackson’s voice slinking through the house, preparing the day before my feet hit the floor.
My mother, the daughter of a Southern migrant, grew up as a Christian in a Baptist household, and I don’t think she’s ever considered the Christian ritual she borrowed from her youth to be at odds with the Islamic ritual she’d adopted in her adulthood. Singing along to Aretha’s version of “Mary Don’t You Weep,” she’d improvise, replacing “Jesus” with “Allah” with an agility and ease belying the fact that she was melding two disparate cultures. For my part, I grew up thinking that black Christianity and Islam were complementary, so much so that I saw no problem in letting my grandmother, who lived with us, read to me from the Bible, or even in attending her Baptist church from time to time. My family mingled and switched between various cultural practices with the ease with which a bilingual person alternates between languages.
This was the household in which I was raised, a point of intersection where myriad cultures converged and cross-pollinated one another. Though the Nation of Islam’s rigid doctrine of racial separation informed my earliest conception of race relations, my lived experience—which wouldn’t have been possible outside of the Nation’s bounds—taught me that cultural and racial identities are malleable, that they exist on a continuum where cultural elements interpenetrate one another to form an intricate mesh.
In this sense, the Nation is a strange chimera, a peculiarly American amalgam that’s always demonstrating the fitful fulfillment of what Ralph Ellison called “the mystery of American cultural identity”: the protean nature of a nation whose culture is premised on incessant and chaotic exchange.
This is the nuance that, for all of his empathy and understanding, Baldwin can’t quite capture. It’s something that I implicitly understood when, in 2000, my parents enrolled me at Orville Wright Middle School, an impressively integrated public school on the city’s Westside. There, I was assigned to honors courses where most of the other faces were non-black ones. I had my first intimate contacts with students of other races—including white kids, whom I only knew through a representation as outlandishly distorted as Baldwin’s nigger .
But it’s difficult to doubt someone’s humanity when they stand before you in the flesh. I ate with these children on the blacktop, exchanged mixtapes with them, spent afternoons at their houses playing video games, and met their families. This newfound familiarity was not always easy—sometimes these people’s behavior left me bitter and confused, as when they touched my hair without my consent, or lost interest in me when I failed to meet their expectations of how a black kid should behave. But even these incidents were lessons to teach myself how to be black in a multiracial space. Interracial community was no longer inconceivable; it had become something concrete, a site for recurrent dialogues that helped build understanding and empathy. This was a community that my friends and I had to achieve as best we could, not one that we could lazily slide into.
Discovering Baldwin codified and confirmed my experience. The Fire Next Time was proof that someone had trod this ground before me, and had vouchsafed not just for the possibility, but the necessity of the community I was building. I took Baldwin’s condemnation of the Nation to mean that my freedom was not merely a matter of power , as Fard Muhammad had preached, but also of an exit from morally bankrupt racial politics that white supremacy had initiated.
As I’ve aged, though, I’ve also been struck by how much Baldwin could not see, by all the places his empathy could not go. If I ultimately outgrew my life in the Nation of Islam, it is because the Nation unwittingly provided me the tools to do so. My childhood faith was more a part of the American pluralist promise than Baldwin could have known.