What is the main argument of James Baldwin in "Down at the Cross" in The Fire Next Time?
The central argument of this essay concerns the intolerable level of racism experienced by African Americans on a daily basis. Baldwin argues that this is so great that he lived his early life in overwhelming fear, both of his parents and of white people at large. He describes movingly of the terror he remembers seeing in his parents' eyes if he as a child were to do anything that would get him into trouble with white people, or even lead to his death. One example of this is Baldwin's own hopes to complete school and become a writer, which is resisted violently by Baldwin's father because he feels that his son has hopes that are impossible and dangerous to achieve in a white dominated world. From his father's perspective, he is actually doing his son a favour by crushing these dreams now rather than letting him potentially get hurt far more if they are crushed later.
As a result of this fear and terror experienced by African Americans, Baldwin argues that every African American person needed a "gimmick" to help them survive:
Every Negro boy... stands in great peril and must find, with speed, a “thing,” a gimmick, to lift him out, to start him on his way. And it does not matter what the gimmick is. It was this last realization that terrified me and--since it revealed that the door opened on so many dangers--helped to hurl me into the church. And, by an unforeseeable paradox, it was my career in the church that turned out, precisely, to be my gimmick.
One of the central arguments that Baldwin makes therefore in this essay is about the intolerable levels of racism experienced by African Americans, and the need as a result for a "gimmick" in order to help them survive a life dominated by fear and terror. For Baldwin, this "gimmick" was the church, and this enables him to explore the role of religion in his life and how it made him into the writer he became.
In this essay (published first in the New Yorker in 1962 and titled in full "Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind"), Baldwin examines the ways in which Christianity and the Nation of Islam have treated African Americans and rejects the idea of race as more than what he refers to as a "political reality," rather than a "human reality." He recounts his salvation in a Harlem church when he was a teenager. He sought refuge in the church because he was deathly afraid of growing up as an African American man and facing the dismal possibilities of adulthood he saw around him. He condemns Christianity, which he ultimately rejected, and writes, "In the realm of power, Christianity has operated with an unmitigated arrogance and cruelty." He thinks that Christianity has perpetuated the power structure that has relegated African Americans to the bottom of the social ladder.
He discusses the power of the Nation of Islam and recounts his meeting with Elijah Muhammad, who seems to want to cultivate Baldwin for his movement. Baldwin believes that the Nation of Islam has been powerful because it has given African Americans the concept of a black God, but, in the end, he rejects the movement's focus on segregation by race (even if the Nation of Islam regards African Americans as superior to whites). In the end, Baldwin calls for the end of the idea of race and racial segregation and the beginning of racial acceptance and love. He writes, "everything white Americans think they believe in must now be re-examined." He believes that without this re-examination, white America will face the prophecy of "the fire next time," meaning violence.