Frost: Are you Christian or Muslim?
Baldwin: (Laughing) I was born a Baptist.
Frost: It’s not funny!
Baldwin: It is to me.
Frost: And what are you now?
Baldwin: I am trying to become a human being.
Frost: And what does one know when one’s reached that stage?
Baldwin: I don’t think you ever do. You work at it, you know. You take it as it comes. You try not to tell too many lies. You try to love other people and hope that you’ll be loved.
– Except from Conversations in Zaborowska’s James Baldwin’s Turkey Decade: Erotics of Exile, 237)
A recurrent question in my engagement with Baldwin’s body of work is the “now what?” question. What does he want us to do with the barrage of criticisms of the society? Even though the universality of his message is not in doubt, the political, psychological, intellectual, spiritual, and sexual attitudes in America are at the heart of Baldwin’s discourse. If there is anything he wants from his readers, it is to effect changes in ourselves and to compel an attitudinal change in the society. Baldwin believes the ultimate aim of literacy is so that an individual can have a conversation with himself and ultimately with his society. This self-reflective attitude is an unending process of learning to learn, unlearn and relearn what is more important in life—our shared humanity. He emphasizes how one’s humanity should always trump any form of boundaries and biases imposed upon us by our society. According to Baldwin,
What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish. Anyone who thinks of himself responsible must examine society and try to change it and to fight it—at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change (“A Talk to Teachers,” 326)
The preceding statement sums up Baldwin’s attitude towards various issues he raises about the society in his fiction and essays. We are tasked to hold society up to itself to make it more humane and a habitable space for all mankind.
However, what I find most compelling in several of his writing is his treatise on religion and its tyranny in exerting obedience to societal rules. Religious beliefs and other forms of thinking have been foisted on us, and they have prevented us from seeing the many-sided picture of the world we live in. The subversive artistic and ideological violence Baldwin does to Christianity is awe-inspiring. He indeed compels the reader to wonder at how a man who is so invested in religion can denounce it in the same breath. Baldwin seems to have an axe to grind with the concept of God and its appropriation of black expressions in America. At the core of Baldwin’s spirituality is the aspiration towards becoming more human rather than seeking morally bankrupt religions as practiced by men. Baldwin is clear about this in The Fire Next Time. Baldwin writes, “If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him” (47). From the history and the lived experience of black people in America, and indeed all over the globe, the invoked God in Christianity and Islam can be said to be at the root of the unspeakable crime that men have done to one other. The absolutist postures of some of these religions have bred divisions, undying hatred, war and decadence to humanity. They have shaped our understanding of others around us and ourselves.
The flip side of this point of view is that the same religions have provided humanity with several mechanisms to cope with the problems they have caused. For the African American, Baldwin points to the fact that “In every generation, ever since the Negroes have been here, every Negro mother and father have had to face that child and try to create in that child some way of surviving this particular world…”(“The Uses of the Blues,” 60). Christianity largely influenced the gospel and several other art forms of black expression. The religion was used to justify slavery as well as a tool for fighting for the abolition of slavery. I guess this is why Baldwin will not entirely discard the influence of his Christian background as a child preacher. He has witnessed the hypocrisy of Christianity and its use by black people as a tool for ‘laughing to keep from crying.” Baldwin’s narratives are replete with Biblical allusions albeit appropriated in a way that will be considered blasphemous and ‘unchristian.’
In the interview above, Baldwin is very clear that he does not identify with labels and the ultimate aim is to strive to be human. This he also reiterates is a never-ending aspiration and at the core of this is the need to love and to hope to be loved. John’s love and hate for God’s paternity and dictatorial power, which is embodied in white America in Go Tell It on the Mountain, shows the author’s initial consciousness. In his later works, Baldwin has developed an attitude of dismissive scorn and outright rejection of the usefulness of religion to make one more human. This is captured in If Beale Street Could Talk and Just Above My Head. For Baldwin, religions tend to serve the powerful to oppress the weak. Hence, Europe’s and by extension, white America’s invocation of Heaven’s will to achieve domination over the rest of the world makes the God idea really dubious. Hence,
In the realm of power, Christianity has operated with unmitigated arrogance and cruelty—necessarily, since a religion ordinarily imposes on those who have discovered the true faith the spiritual duty of liberating the infidels…The spreading of the Gospel…was an absolutely indispensable justification for the planting of the flag. Priests and nuns and school-teachers helped to protect and sanctify the power that was so ruthlessly being used by people who were indeed seeking a city, but not one in the heavens, and one to be made, very definitely, by captive hands “(The Fire, 45-46)
This religious cruelty, to Baldwin, should cause us to reject the God it preaches. He preaches the transcendence of the spiritual entrapment and categories to seek to love and hope to be loved by others. And this love is not the one prompted by religious fear of punishment if one should default. It is a kind of love that rejects the hatred or exclusion of those who do not share one’s belief. This universal message of love outside of the calibrations of religion would deal with prejudice, hatred, and animosity and hope to see the brotherhood of men.
The implication of not reckoning with Baldwin’s call to transcend religion and embrace our shared humanity is evident in the destruction that we see all over the world in the name of God. The bane of religious extremism and insurgency is at an all-time high in the world, especially in Africa. The Al-Quaeda, Alshabab, Boko Haram and other Islamic extremist groups like them have killed and are still killing hundreds of thousands of people in the name of their God and prophet. Even though Christianity is not regarded as intrinsically violent in recent history, it has had its share of violence on others. Its seemingly benign state of violence on the mind is a case in point in postcolonial countries, where twisted prosperity Pentecostalism is holding sway.
Having lived in Nigeria where the indelible mark of colonialism has made Christianity and Islam de facto religions, I readily identify with Baldwin’s attitude towards organized religion. In fact, one of the postcolonial nervousness plaguing the country today is the manipulation of religion by priests, civil servants, bankers and politicians alike. Almost everybody is either a Christian or a Muslim. Religion in Nigeria is the panacea that a lot of people depend upon to escape their everyday misery. And it is also a significant factor that determines who takes over the seat of power apart from ethnicity. Christianity has been used to build colossal business empires. Pastors now own private jets, universities and mansions and all other luxuries in the name of God while most contributing church members are living in abject poverty. Sometimes one has to wonder if these religious leaders are even thinking of heaven at all. The extortion of the politicians by the priests to canvass votes and to anoint a candidate for a political position is mind-blowing. And every corrupt civil servant, businessman, or politician would invoke God anytime they need to stir people to action or to get sympathy.
Fela Anikulapo Kuti in “Suffering and Smiling” captures Baldwin’s vibe when he sings “Suffer…suffer suffer for world…Na your fault be dat…Suffer for world/ enjoy for heaven/ open your eyes …Pope na enjoyment, Imam na gbaladun.” The song simply captures the hypocrisy of a religion that requires one to endure suffering and sacrifice one’s resources for God on earth for a reward in heaven. Meanwhile, the spiritual leaders are living in luxury. Fela preaches that a God that has condemned the black man to suffer should be rejected. This song connects with Baldwin’s attitude in Beale Street that “…Albany isn’t exactly God’s gift to black folks…I don’t think America is God’s gift to anybody—if it is, God’s days have got to be numbered. That God these people say they serve—and do serve, in ways that they don’t know—has got a very nasty sense of humor. Like you’d beat the shit out of Him, if He was a man. Or: if you were”(30)
In a nutshell, reading Baldwin’s Go Tell, Beale Street and other novels and essays, I would strongly agree with his call to remove “God” from the human equation if it will help us to be better human beings. However, given the unrealistic nature of this thinking in the mentally colonized region of the black man’s mind, he will do well to take the Baldwinian approach of using it in whatever form to cope with the twenty-first-century nervousness. Even if this attitude to religion is not about to change anytime soon, it is our duty “to try to change it and to fight it—at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change”(A Talk to Teachers 326).