In James Baldwin’s essay “Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation” in The Fire Next Time, Baldwin advises his black, adolescent nephew living in the 1960’s during the African-American Civil Rights Movement on what living a free life means based on Baldwin’s own experience as an adult. As an existential thinker, Baldwin attributes a person’s identity to the collection of accomplishments and failures in his or her entire lifetime, as opposed to accepting a person as determinately good or bad.
In order to be truly free of oppression, according to Baldwin, African Americans must seek to be authentic by not conceding to the expectations and restrictions of racist white Americans. A person’s authenticity lies in his or her willingness to take risks, accept responsibility for any consequences, and live by personal experience, not by the constraints or unattainable expectations of others. A person must cherish and cling to his or her own beliefs in what is right or wrong, despite difficult circumstances.
Any man or woman is only free up to how much he or she is willing to risk, claiming freedom and dignity and accepting neither inferiority nor superiority. Taking risks requires a person to be of good faith and conscience. A person in good faith commits fully to the responsibilities of life and death with sincerity and earnestness, addressing both predictable and unforeseen consequences. By avoiding responsibility and risk, a man lives a fraudulent life. His is relatively safe, his life uneventful and unfulfilling.
Baldwin charges his nephew, James, “to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it” (10). James is in charge of his own life, his own successes, his own freedom, and his own identity. Cruel and hateful white Americans may attempt to restrict James with laws of segregation, like the Jim Crow laws, or an unspoken code of conduct for how they expect him to act, sit, stand, and speak in public. His physical body may be confined, but he can never be stripped of his mental freedom if he lives in good faith.
His success as a human being who is kind, tolerant, and free is measured by taking necessary risks and facing any challenges directly. Though James may endanger the comfort and safety of daily life when he defends or questions what is important to him, he gains self respect and distinction, proactively altering his reality in a potentially positive way. Some Americans live in an artificial reality of white supremacy simply because of their history and the color of their skin. They are inflexible towards the idea of changing their existence, where black and white people are equal.
These white Americans live in bad faith, restricting people’s basic freedoms and rights, as well as forcing them to bear the weight of society’s problems instead of facing their own racism, insecurity, and values. All people are born into restrictions on freedom, with expectations for their futures dependent upon where they were born. A white boy or girl born in a rich white family has a greater chance of finding social and monetary success in the 1960’s than a poor, black girl or boy.
For Baldwin’s nephew, an “innocent country set [him] down in a ghetto in which... it intended that [he] should perish” (7). James is not expected to find success or even be granted freedom in the form of basic rights merely because he is black. Great things are expected from white people because of the commonly accepted idea at the time that white people are superior to black people. Both black and white Americans live in this forced, false reality, though some choose to try to alter it for the benefit of society as a whole.
To be free, James has to escape the criticism and restrictions placed on him at birth by challenging and rejecting the “nigger” label and stereotype that has been thrust upon him, an act that could cause potentially dangerous repercussions. He does not have the luxury of legal freedoms and high social expectations as white people do. Nevertheless, social status restricts white people as well. By allowing social status, skin color, and money to be the main defining factors of a person’s worth, that person struggles to live an open and ambiguous life.
A woman cannot define precisely who she is and what she represents until the moment of her death, though she is constantly surrounded by criticism and the stereotypes of society. If a man or his community have already decided that he is superior, worthless, or content when he has only lived a portion of his life, he will struggle to maintain this rigid identity for himself, resisting even small or positive changes in himself. Though many white men fight with violence, all black men must fight back with acceptance and love, which poses significant physical threat to the black man.
The nonviolent black man is brave enough to act on what he knows: a black man is no better or worse than a white man. By acting rationally and without violence, a person can authentically maintain his or her dignity by being respectful, courageous, and accepting. These qualities are especially admirable when they exist in all areas of a person’s life, even in the face of physical danger, violence, and fear. When a person chooses to act on what he or she knows is right, this person understands that “to act is to be committed,” but “to be committed is to be in danger” (9).
A white American man takes no risk in claiming that an African American is inferior, especially since his fundamental reason for believing so, that the black man is black, is not rational. Because this inferiority complex is so deeply rooted in their minds, however, white Americans feel endangered when their established reality and roles in society are questioned. The problem of intolerance and prejudice, according to Baldwin, lies with the white man’s artificial reality and inability to see himself as anything but superior.
Instead of being limited and bound to a small piece of his identity and potential, a man should seek to always act according to what he feels is appropriate, maximizing his own freedom and maintaining a higher level of self respect. Though his actions may put him at risk, asserting ownership of one’s own freedom takes more than waiting for some else to help him. Baldwin tells his nephew to “trust [his] own experience” and not the “inhumanity and fear” of white people attempting to instill in him his own alleged inferiority (8).
For true equality, integration, and tolerance in society, all people have to accept each other for their strengths and flaws. First, however, all people must accept their own mistakes and imperfections. If James is to ever be loved or respected by a white man with a superiority complex, he needs to take the first step at connecting with him instead of waiting on an integration law to be passed or a public leader to address the unspoken insults and codes of conduct working against black people.
Claiming that the intolerance of white men stems from having unresolved misunderstandings in their history, Baldwin proposes that James needs to accept and forgive the white people because he knows that neither he nor James are “niggers” as white Americans have declared. Stereotypes such as this reflect back on the people assigning them, signaling tension or animosity. In KQED’s film report “Take This Hammer” on National Educational Television in 1964, James Baldwin says, “I’m not describing you when I talk about you. I’m describing me. All human responses, verbal and written, are never objective because they are always tainted with perspective. The term “nigger” has been assigned by the American white population to degrade and belittle African Americans because some white Americans have problems with intolerance and racism. The sting and power of an insult comes from the hatred of the person from whom it originated, not the inadequacy of the person being insulted. A man, black or white, should decide for himself throughout the course of his life what flaws and strengths make up his true character, never letting a degrading term decide for him.
A person’s character is not contingent on cruel names and words that have been thrust at her or him. Though true freedom for African Americans requires great courage and comes with great risk, they can free themselves from intolerance by discovering their own identities and respecting the freedoms and rights of the people around them. They should not allow themselves to harbor, assign, and reflect racist hatred as many white people do with their term “nigger. ” They can instead reflect hope, freedom, and tolerance with their words and actions.
Loving cruel people poses the greatest risk to a person seeking freedom, but people filled with hatred for others must be loved first before they can be expected to love. Referring prejudiced and racist people, Baldwin tells James, “We cannot be free until they are free” (10). Though Baldwin puts himself and his nephew at risk, James and his most loving and tolerant fellow man must begin the process of freeing all Americans from racism and hate for their lives to ever be free.