“Like Life Itself, Thank God, Many Many Colors”: A Note On The Spiritual Pulse Behind James Baldwin’s Prose
By Rolando André López Torres
“Courage, noble soul!
Reflect upon yourself, reflect on the splendour you bear within you:
Are you not honored above all other creatures by your resemblance to God?
Disdain all that is small, for you are created for what is great!”
–Meister Eckhart, Of the Kingdom of God1
“God gave Noah the rainbow sign,
No more water, the fire next time!”2
So sings the slave whose song arrives to us today in the title of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, published in 1963. Baldwin’s claim in the book is clear: America can only heal if we—“the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others”3—recognize and act on the insight that the black man “is the key figure in his country, and the American future is precisely as bright or as dark as his”4; as such, the price of the country’s redemption “is the unconditional freedom of the Negro.”5 Barring that, then it’s the fire next time, as per the law of cosmic vengeance.6
Baldwin did not merely envision this fire; he saw it and lived it in the everyday suffering of the black American, for what we envision is only the reverberation of what we experience. Following W. E. B. DuBois,7 Baldwin held that slavery imposed the color-line into the American psyche; in instituting it, the white man created both white neurosis and black pain—as a result, these two souls, white and black, became at once divided into two separate universes of pain and bound in a mutually poisonous cycle of suffering that unfolded over centuries: “It is so simple a fact,” Baldwin pleads in The Fire Next Time, “and one that is so hard, apparently, to grasp: Whoever debases others is debasing himself.”8 Yet these separate universes of suffering took long to fully speak across to each other, generating a distance that exacerbated the conflict in Baldwin’s time—and continues to do so today.
Before the possibility of a social collapse, however, Baldwin admonishes us to be, of all things, like lovers: to struggle, but always with love, because without love, struggle is merely fruitless languishing. As a river cannot flow without the dynamism of the current, so can we not heal as a human family without the dynamism of relationship, that perichoretic movement that is the very life of a You and an I, that is, love.
A text so potent can only be read from within that location in the human where flesh and spirit converge, where Revelation makes its claim to one’s most naked I. I believe Baldwin can reach this place in every individual, because the power of his prose proceeds from that capacity he had to commune with his own solitude and so with the boundlessness of his self—that almost-infinity of voices, those streams pulsating with ceaseless being that, as a whole, we name soul. Ever complex, the soul is the seat of our darkness: “the object of one’s hatred is never, alas, conveniently outside but is seated in one’s lap, stirring in one’s bowels and dictating the beat of one’s heart.”9 More fundamentally, however, the soul is the ground of our ever-living more-than:
“[The human creature] is not, after all, merely a member of a Society or a Group or a deplorable conundrum to be explained by Science. He is—and how old-fashioned the words sound!—something more than that, something resolutely indefinable, unpredictable. In overlooking, denying, evading this complexity—which is nothing more than the disquieting complexity of ourselves—we are diminished and we perish...”10
Our body expresses the many dimensions of our infinitude, and the label—ethnic, racial, sociopolitical—diminishes us; it “may seem to define you for others, but it does not have the power to define you to yourself.”11 Baldwin saw the reality to which a label pointed and then opened it up to the unknown, expanding our perspective on the reality until the label became too small for it—hence his claim that, sexually, we are all “androgynous,” containing within ourselves “the spiritual resources of both sexes,”12 never simply man or woman; and his claim that, in terms of our color, all of us, deep within, once we actually get to know ourselves and each other, are neither white or black but “like life itself, thank God, many many colors.”13
The color line is thus the intrusion of a political reality upon our spiritual boundlessness; labels only fortify us against our own true nature; and in frustrating our natural thrust towards the infinite, we become less than ourselves. It is an either/or: given that finding the truth of myself means inevitably realizing that I am more than myself, it follows that adherence to the strictures of a label is only a means of insisting on my own belittlement, a kind of death. I am either full or emaciated, expansive or small—and Meister Eckhart, that great heretic, taught us to always “disdain all that is small, for you are created for what is great!” Disdain the label and the world that forced it upon you, for only something small could create something as small as a label; and you, in your infinite complexity, are great.
In expressing that vast interiority within him in his prose, Baldwin paved for us a field in which we could access our own interiority, whether we had never accessed it before or that access had been obstructed by an unarticulated misunderstanding. It is once we hunger for revelation—once we realize that this was always the hunger, and no other—that the words of one like Baldwin can finally strike us where they aim and dismantle our misunderstanding. In the either/or battle between less-than and more-than, it is the soul, solitary yet always bound to all, which makes the decision to listen across its own boundless universe to the universe of another.
Baldwin, James. Collected Essays. New York: The Library of America, 1998.
de Lubac, Henri. The Discovery of God, trans. Alexander Dru. New York: P. J. Kennedy and Sons, 1960.
1. qtd. in Henri de Lubac, The Discovery of God, p. 17
2. Baldwin, “Down at the Cross,” Collected Essays, p. 347
3. Ibid., p. 346
4. Ibid., p. 340
6. Ibid., p. 346
7. Ibid., p. 345
8. Ibid., p. 334
9. “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood,” p. 824
10. “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” p. 13
11. “Freaks,” p. 819
12. Ibid., p. 814
13. “The Price of the Ticket,” p. 839