Fear is Power

“Black Belt” by Archibald John Motley

Fear can be a funny thing.  It can be both motivating and crippling for humans. In James Baldwin’s essay collection The Fire Next Time fear is the common denominator for why people act or not act as they do. It undercuts Christian kindness and love; it demands respect through empowerment; and it controls the very way we think about ourselves and interact with each other.

In “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation” Baldwin conveys to his nephew the realities of the world his nephew was born into. “This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish…. You were born where you were born and faced the future you were faced because you were black and for no other reason.” [1] He urges his nephew to become the better man in this struggle and accept his white oppressors with love, for they are trapped by their own fear.  For Baldwin, fear is an inhibitor to change.  White Americans are so defined by their relationship to African-Americans, that change would threaten their own identity in the natural order of the universe. [2]

In “Down At The Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind” fear permeates throughout the course of the essay.  It is both an instigator and an inhibitor; it was a means to control a situation.  For him there were all types of fear that a man or a boy could suffer or experience.  His own fear drove him into the church. [3] But whether as a way to face his fears and anxieties towards his father or as a means to escape a fate of belonging to the streets, I am unsure.  His eventual disillusionment of the Christian church becomes evident when he states: “the principles governing the rites and customs of the churches… were Blindness, Loneliness, and Terror.” [4] Baldwin seems to be saying in part that within the Christian church African-Americans submit to the fears which they have grown up with. This is similar to the way African-Americans are suppose to be submissive to white Americans.

Bladwin’s experience with the Nation of Islam movement is one that turns the natural order of things on its head.  He observed how African-American’s held the upper hand of power during the speeches, and white Americans were the ones who were in fear because of the powerlessness that they felt.  Nation of Islam doctrine empowers African-Americans by providing divine confirmation that white men are cursed [5].  “Years ago, we use to say, ‘Yes, I’m black goddammit, and I’m beautiful!’ – in defiance, into the void… [Now] black has become a beautiful color – not because it is loved but because it is feared.”  Fear is power for Baldwin in this case.

In his concluding sentiments, Baldwin reflects on the continual suffering that an African-American man endures every day.  He proposes that through “continually surviving the worst that life can bring, one eventually ceases to be controlled by a fear of what life can bring; what ever it brings must be borne.” [6] He seems to be saying that the hate and bitterness that follow fear melt away because the individual it able to discover his or her own self-worth and own identity – not what American society tells him or her they are worth.

[1] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Vintage International, 1962), 7.

[2] Baldwin, 8-9.

[3] Baldwin, 27

[4] Baldwin, 31.

[5] Baldwin, 48-50

[6] Baldwin, 99.

6 thoughts on “Fear is Power

  1. I too was fascinated with the theme of fear in these readings. Not only does Baldwin address fear through race, but also through religion. I was most intrigued at his description of the church as a well rehearsed theatre and the altar a symbol for manipulation. Interesting stuff!

    1. Yes, I also thought his opinions on fear as a means of manipulation were interesting. I was particularly struck by his comment that, as a boy, he wanted people to love God because they loved God, not because they were afraid of going to hell. He wants so badly for people to be motivated by love, whether it be love of God or love for their fellow human beings, because fear is so limiting. And he blames fear (he calls it spinelessness in the passage) for destroying civilizations, “a civilization is not destroyed by wicked people; it is not necessary that people be wicked but only that they be spineless.”

    2. I agree with you that fear, as seen in religion, is interesting. I believe that it was in this reading where Baldwin writes about people’s following of Christianity because they are afraid of going to Hell. It’s interesting to contemplate whether this fear of Hell was a factor in dissuading certain people from resisting white supremacy.

  2. I agree Naomi, fear is such a strong theme in Baldwin’s work, but more than that, I was fascinated by the way he intertwined it with his views on sexuality. Particularly in the “black is beautiful” section you cited, it seems fear and sexuality/sensuality are one issue for Baldwin. Considering the history of lynching in America, I would not disagree, I’ve just never seen an author do so in such an explicit manner.

  3. To echo everyone, it’s a fascinating theme. I was particularly interested in the way that Baldwin expressed his understanding that fear, and provoking fear, can be a reasonable response to race relations, while still making it clear that he was deeply uncomfortable with fear’s power. He dances (and sometimes bobs and weaves, and sometimes twists and turns) around that line between deep empathy for the fearful and condoning fear, and succeeds in expressing the latter while not presuming the former.

  4. Fear does seem like a big thing. It always looks like Baldwin and his contemporaries are looking for a way out with drugs, alcohol, crime, Christianity, or the Nation of Islam. The Nation of Islam is interesting because it attempted to upend the power structure.

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