According to James Baldwin, what is the importance of not being silent in the fight for civil rights?

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James Baldwin is a key figure of the civil rights movement in America. Though he identified with being a novelist early on in his career, his essays on racial discrimination in the 1950s and 60s are what propelled him into his significant place in literature. His most important contributions were...

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James Baldwin is a key figure of the civil rights movement in America. Though he identified with being a novelist early on in his career, his essays on racial discrimination in the 1950s and 60s are what propelled him into his significant place in literature. His most important contributions were his essay collections Notes of a Native Son (1955), Nobody Knows my Name (1961), and The Fire Next Time (1963). These were historically pivotal, as they came out during the most intense demonstrations of the civil rights movement. He gave voice to many black people, particularly those living in the South, who were constantly living in fear of deeply entrenched racial violence across America, especially with civil rights workers falling victim to brutality, some of which even led to their deaths.

His voice is among the many who sought to break the silence surrounding such grave injustices. He wrote in a preface to his play, "Blues for Mister Charlie" (1964):

What is ghastly and really almost hopeless in our racial situation now is that the crimes we have committed are so great and so unspeakable that the acceptance of this knowledge would lead, literally, to madness. The human being, then, in order to protect himself, closes his eyes, compulsively repeats his crimes, and enters a spiritual darkness which no one can describe.

What James Baldwin means by this is that actively choosing to remain silent and not participating in stopping the social atrocities that run rampant are the very things that will plunge the nation into a "spiritual darkness"—a time so devoid of morality with the way humans maltreat their fellow humans based solely on the color of their skin, and the perceived superiority of those who enact such violence. When people remain complicit with violence and discrimination, abuse becomes normalized.

It then becomes part and parcel of daily life, subjecting black communities to irreversible social subjugation until their rights are so diminished that they are no longer recognized. The power, then, lies in resisting these forces and systems that perpetuate these injustices by speaking up, pushing back, participating in demonstrations, and harnessing the power of literature in giving voice to the experiences and stories of the oppressed. Baldwin warns in Notes of a Native Son that

[p]eople who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.

Without a doubt, breaking the silence is the most crucial step to fighting inequality. Not only does it make people come together and lend them the power to fight for people's rights during the most intense power struggles, it exists to resonate far beyond its time, in order to serve the next generations towards building a better nation.

Henry Gates, a professor of English and Afro-American Literature at Cornell Universoty spoke of James Baldwin:

[He] educated an entire generation of Americans about the civil-rights struggle and the sensibility of Afro-Americans as we faced and conquered the final barriers in our long quest for civil rights.

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