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“A Hideously Difficult Task”: An Exploration of American Racial Identity through the Works of James Baldwin

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  1. ?Stranger in the Village? and The Fire Next Time were written almost ten years apart.
  2. One of the many problems that blacks face in America is the impossibility for them to identify with any group other than themselves.
  3. Baldwin was the literary and intellectual voice of the Civil Rights Movement.
  4. The identity of black Americans is found not just in the history of slavery, but also in Christianity and the influence of black churches.
  5. Elijah Muhammad has been able to do what welfare workers, committees, resolutions, reports, housing projects and playgrounds have failed to do
  6. In Europe, Baldwin knew that he would not face the same overt racism that he had endured in the United States.
  7. The story about the ?buying? of the African natives also draws a parallel to civil rights leaders identifying with the end of colonialism in Africa

In a style similar to other minority works of literature, James Baldwin's writing encompasses the recurring theme of identity?what it means and from where it originates. This theme stems from incomplete identity of the black American community. Baldwin's writings try to explain the difficulties that this group of people has faced with a past that was essentially created by whites and reinforced by stereotypes that must be overcome in spite of racial oppression. Although Baldwin saw himself simply as an American, to the white world he was a black man and a homosexual, therefore, not truly American. Baldwin unwillingly took up the role as a spokesperson for blacks. His job was to show white America that the ?Black Problem? was an American problem because blacks were not the ones who originated the racial problems in the United States. Blacks had been on the North American continent along with whites for over three hundred years by the time the Civil Rights Movement began, but were not given the same rights and were hardly even considered to belong to the mainstream American society. The identity of American blacks was created in America and is apart of the collective history of white and black Americans. Through his writing, Baldwin tries to express to the white population that this history and this identity cannot be disregarded. It must be legitimately recognized before any progress can be made.

[...] Baldwin saw that choosing to accept an identity from whites would be the downfall of the black community especially if they turned their understanding into hate. Lawrie Balfour expands upon the relationship between DuBois's and Baldwin's views on race, saying Story of America' is thus a story of double consciousness ?we' battle the memory of slavery and the knowledge that a coincidence of birth still condemns millions of Americans to life outside the promises of freedom? (354). In order for there to be any type of racial progress, Baldwin argues that both whites and blacks must not turn a blind eye to history, but use it to move forward. [...]


[...] Baldwin uses an extensive portion of The Fire Next Time to talk about Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. Although he does not agree with the doctrine of the religion, he does acknowledge the importance of NOI to the black community. Elijah Muhammad has been able to do what generations of welfare workers and committees and resolutions and reports and housing projects and playgrounds have failed to do: to heal and redeem drunkards and junkies, to convert people who have come out of prison and to keep them out, to make men chaste and women virtuous, and to invest both the male and the female with pride and a serenity that hang about them like an unfailing light. [...]


[...] By the time that the sit-in started and the racial riots broke out, whites were so disassociated with their historical identities that they didn't know what to make of what was going on, or how to fix it. The Brown v. Board of Education ruling was seen by many whites to be the beginning and end of black civil rights. If blacks were equal to whites, at least in the legal sense of the term, what else could they want? [...]

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