On September 22, 1963, the Sunday following the Ku Klux Klan’s bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, which killed four young girls—Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley—James Baldwin and the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr appeared together on NBC to discuss, as the program’s title indicated, “The Meaning of the Birmingham Tragedy.” Interviewed by civil rights leader Thomas C. Kilgore, Jr., Baldwin and Niebuhr were first asked to offer some interpretation of a stained-glass window from the church, damaged in such a way that Christ’s face was missing, but the rest of him remained basically unscathed. Whereas Niebuhr found in the window the failure of America’s white Protestant church, Baldwin saw “something of an achievement, since we’ve been victimized so long by an alabaster Christ.” Baldwin continued:
And it suggests, much more seriously, something else—and to me, it sums up the crisis we are living through. If Christ has no face, perhaps it is time that we, who in one way or another invented and are responsible for our deities, give him a new face, give him a new consciousness, and make the whole ideal, the whole hope, of Christian love a reality. In as far as I can tell, that has never really been a reality in the two thousand years since his assassination.
Responding to Baldwin, Niebuhr shifted the focus slightly from love to justice—“one of the failings of the Protestant church,” he said, “is always to say love”—and insisted again and again on the revolutionary quality of the moment and the prominent role in the revolution of the “Negro church.” For Niebuhr, the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., embodied in his commitment to nonviolent resistance, situated him and his movement on the proper side of “the great ethical divide between the people who want to be pure and those who want to be responsible.” As Baldwin saw it, that great ethical divide represented, in his moment, a racial divide as well. “What you say about the Negro church,” he told Niebuhr, “I think is entirely true.” King was then, Baldwin continued, using “the Negro church really as a kind of tool not only to liberate Negros, but to liberate the entire country”—a responsibility, he insisted, taken up only really by African Americans.
The only people in the country who believe either in Christianity or the country are the most despised minority in it.… It’s ironical, I’m trying to say, that the people who were slaves here, the most beaten and despised people here, and for so long, should be at this moment—and I mean this—absolutely the only hope this country has. It doesn’t have any other.
I first heard the conversation in 2008 while preparing for a first-year writing course I teach at New York University and Eugene Lang College. Each fall, the focus of my class was on religion. I was interested, that election season, in teaching a recent revival of Niebuhr, whose ideas, since 9/11 and the beginning of the war on terror, had been invoked by political writers of all stripes. The renewed interest in Niebuhr was the subject of a 2007 essay by Paul Elie, published in The Atlantic, which corresponded with an appearance on public radio’s Speaking of Faith (now On Being), with Krista Tippet, who dedicated an hour to “Moral Man and Immoral Society: Rediscovering Reinhold Niebuhr.” Audio of “The Meaning of the Birmingham Tragedy” was archived as part of the Speaking of Faith retrospective.
My syllabus that fall included Niebuhr the same week in early October we were reading Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, which is having its own renaissance in our moment, in large part because of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Baldwin-inspired Between the World and Me. The book is Baldwin’s accounting of his own early life in the Church. It’s also a report of an encounter in Chicago with Elijah Muhammad and his followers in the Nation of Islam, an encounter that ends “with everything curiously and heavily unresolved” and Baldwin feeling that he “had failed a test” or “failed to heed a warning.” It’s also a long, impassioned meditation on the place of American blacks in the history of the United States, the possible uses of a “Negro past” in the pursuit of freedom with dignity, and the relationship between personal responsibility and the “torment and necessity of love.” It is also many other things to many other people.
To hear from Baldwin that Christ had been assassinated was a surprise to my students, not something they seemed to have considered before. The language seemed too strong for what they’d learned in church or in a history class or in what they’d read of the Bible as literature. Assassination was a modern word, yet a word not so much of our own moment as it was a word from Baldwin’s. King would be assassinated. Malcolm X. And in the lead-up to Obama’s election, the death of four girls in an Alabama church, killed by the Ku Klux Klan, and now the subject of a scratchy audio recording of two dead men, seemed more like a history lesson than any summation of an ongoing crisis we, too, were living through. Though the results were still in doubt in early October, the nation seemed poised—it was possible and then it became real—to elect an African-American president.
That morning, and then for those same chill fall mornings each semester throughout Obama’s first term, my students responded more to Niebuhr—who spoke and wrote more reasonably, less emotionally—than Baldwin. Niebuhr: who was not ever cynical, and whose ideas had already been presented to them in light of the war and the election, even by the candidate (and then President) most of them seemed to endorse, the first they’d have the chance to vote for, and, for my part, the one I’d been most proud to help elect. Asked by David Brooks during the campaign why he found Niebuhr so important, Obama replied:
I take away the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away… the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.
The Fire Next Time seemed real but bitter then. It was hard to swallow, and hard even to understand what Baldwin had meant when he wrote, “The white man’s unadmitted—and apparently, to him, unspeakable—private fears and longings are projected onto the Negro.” I recall one student, who was white (like most of my students over the years, and like me), finding Baldwin too condescending, too critical, too angry—at her. (When I asked this student recently, first by phone and then by email, whether she recalled our experience with Baldwin, she wrote: “From our seats of white and class privilege, we did not understand why he was so mad at us—after all, we were not racist! Now, though, I think I could not be more wrong.”) He’d said,
The American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed that collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world’s most direct and virile, that American women are pure.
Such claims against white Americans didn’t make sense to students who believed they had never believed such things.
Captured in audio, Baldwin spoke to his own time, about Barry Goldwater and James Eastland—“I don’t want them to like me”—and sometimes in ways that seemed to us idealistic and naïve, as, for instance, when, in response to the Birmingham bombing, he supported a boycott of the holiday in the lead up to Christmas.
Niebuhr, on the other hand, was slow and serious; his speech, impeded by a stroke he’d suffered in the 1950s, required us to lean in and pay close attention. When he spoke to Baldwin and Kilgore of the “great ethical divide,” he sounded aphoristic. And there are few greater gifts to the inexperienced or underprepared teacher, which I was then, than the abstraction at the heart of aphorism.
For many years, I have been a great fan of Baldwin. I teach him in a writing class because his books have been as profound a writing teacher as I’ve ever had. What’s more, I’ve looked to his work for guidance through my own racial biases, finding consolation and encouragement in his understanding that ours is a “common trouble,” that Americans have “been forbidden—and on pain of death—to trust, or to use, our common humanity, that confrontation and acceptance which is all that can save another human being.”
Thinking back, though, about teaching him, I cannot say I have always been a great reader. My copy of The Fire Next Time is nearly destroyed, the binding’s given way, and the pages are covered in confident markings of red, black, and blue. I’ve read it a lot. My book has become a prop I use to show students what it means to read something closely. Pages fall out when I lift it.
And yet, as I consider teaching Baldwin again this fall—in the wake of a new election—he once again advises, in ways I’ve realized I’d long ignored, against assuming that white Americans are “in possession of some intrinsic value that black people need, or want.” Yet not too long ago, I scratched the name “obama” alongside the very example Baldwin offers of how this assumption “is revealed in all kinds of striking ways,” including “Bobby Kennedy’s assurance that a Negro can become President in forty years.” The same “obama” appears in the margins a few lines above there, as well, alongside this line: “He is the key figure in his country, and the American future is precisely as bright or as dark as his.”
That is a terrible reading, exactly the opposite of what Baldwin says. And it only became clear to me as I taught the book over the past few years—Niebuhr now nowhere to be found—following the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, as we discussed the protests in Ferguson and the renewed vigor and revolutionary moment captured by Black Lives Matter, that Obama is not the key figure in this country. I had been wrong: the American future is precisely not as bright or as dark as his. And my students, who have paid attention to a chokehold on Staten Island and a shooting in greater St. Louis, and who remembered a black teenager killed in Sanford, Florida, and who are reckoning with recent killings in Tulsa and Charlotte and Los Angeles, now know what Baldwin was talking about. They’ve seen the private fears of white Americans projected onto American blacks. We see it every day. This is our ongoing crisis; there is serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And my students know this now. They’ve seen anger in the world, and it makes sense to them, and now it seems right to see it on the page.