America at a Crossroads

As I flip through the Chicago news channels all reporting on the murder of a 6-year-old Palestinian-American boy stabbed 26 times by his landlord amidst the outbreak of war in Israel all while I am sitting on my couch during fall break, I cannot help but be reminded of James Baldwin’s warning to America nearly 50 years ago. While he focused primarily on white and Black race relations, what I perceive to be his greater concern regarding a lack of love in our country closely relates to this horrific event and other hate crimes like it. I believe Baldwin is undoubtedly timeless in his writing style; however, he has also been made timeless (and arguably unfortunately so) by the content of his writing. By this I mean that the issues and goals Baldwin enunciated in his various works are far from achieved, namely his call for some form of national love and brotherhood that transcends all violence and hate. 

I found the parallels between contemporary America and the America Baldwin wrote about to be made most evident by the existentialist theme of “Down at the Cross” and I Am Not Your Negro. In “Down at the Cross,” Baldwin argues, “He [the Black man] is the key figure in his country, and the American future is precisely as bright or dark as his… Hence the question: Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?” (340). In a similar vein, he later writes, “In short, we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation” (342). In both of these statements, Baldwin contextualizes the problem of racial bigotry in a greater conversation about nation-building, contending that the strength and longevity of our country, currently a “burning house,” as a whole hinge upon our ability to end the discrimination and hate towards Black Americans. Relatedly, in I Am Not Your Negro, Baldwin’s efforts to connect the future of our nation with the relationship between Black and white Americans become even clearer. In the film he is quoted saying “No kingdom can maintain itself by force alone.” Though this statement was used in direct reference to police brutality, another issue emerging from America’s problem with race that persists today, Baldwin’s underlying call for love and existentialist concern for the future of his country, said “kingdom,” shine through. That is, the current violent path America is on is not sustainable; something else must be present to save our country– love. In sum, both of these works depict America at a crossroads, one that it has not entirely departed from today. For this reason, and despite this dreary picture of America, Baldwin’s words of hope, “If we do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world,” also still ring true today should we choose to finally heed them (347). 

2 thoughts on “America at a Crossroads”

  1. I definitely agree in regards to Baldwin’s relevance nowadays, and I think he may be even more relevant now with the resurgence of human rights issues facing America and the world. I don’t know if this is just me, or just being more aware of the world, or maybe just growing up, but it seems things are spiraling downwards faster than ever. More shootings, more police brutality, more wars, more violence, more hatred, everything seems to be escalating. I think America is even closer to the crossroads, and as a result, each direction is pulling harder and harder to follow their respective paths. I also wonder what role religion has on that crossroads, for America and the world. Religion is at the heart of the Israel-Hamas war, and is deeply rooted in a lot of the social tension and rights debates in America. The crossroads are growing ever-more daunting.

  2. I really enjoyed your connection of Baldwin’s work to the issues confronting our world as we speak with the genocide occurring in Palestine and the hate crimes that are happening in the U.S. as a result of that. I also agree that Baldwin’s stress on love for all which, as you note, can be seen outside of the black-white perspective, is something that our world clearly needs right now. While several unfortunate racial and ethnic problems persist today, many of them are driven by hate and bigotry, which further intensifies these issues however, as Baldwin suggests, love and hope can be a potential solution or pathway to a solution.

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