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The Perception of the Nation of Islam in “The Fire Next Time” by Baldwin


Religion is an essential element of many cultures and countries that often determines the attitudes of the general population toward specific questions, behaviors, or social structures. Authors sometimes exploit religion as a tool for elucidating a particular problem. For example, James Baldwin views anger and racial discrimination through the lens of the Christian Church and the Nation of Islam in one of his best works, The Fire Next Time (Ostrom and Macey 8). Baldwin highlights that these institutions operate from the place of selfishness and fear in their attempts to liberate black people from discrimination (Mitchell and Davis 131). The author appears to be not religious, but he is not an atheist either. The writer was convinced that he would be a better advocate for African American rights if he removed any religious associations (Holmes 246). This paper aims to examine Baldwin’s perception of the Nation of Islam using literary criticism methods. The Fire Next Time represents the Nation of Islam as a paradoxical concept that inspires a black community to unite for a good purpose, but the wrong methodology and distorted perception of the problem.

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Methodological Framework

The Review of Literature and Topic Choice Justification

Freedom does not exist in places where part of the country’s population is being oppressed and has to turn to myths of religion to gain enough bravery to fight for their rights. James Baldwin was a prominent voice in the civil rights movement, which promoted non-violent methods that should not deceive people with divine power, which was the same tool used to enslave them (Holmes 245). Indeed, according to McLarney, Baldwin was resistant to the ideas of Black Muslims because he believed that their contradictory views were equivalent to an ideology of white Christians who utilized religion to justify slavery (53). Although Baldwin used to be an active attendant of the Black church during his adolescence, the author identified himself only as “nothing” and “a writer” (Baldwin 117). Furthermore, Baldwin could not accept their worldview because he was confident that violence could not bring peace because any religion used not to promote love and peace is destructive (Rose and Chanthiramathi 924). However, silent obedience did not bring freedom to slaves either; thus, it was probably the combined effort of progressive groups to minimize racial inequity in the United States.

Religion might not be the best instrument for social movement because it possesses particular bias. Both black and white people close to religion are convinced that they know an authentic way of human existence. Liu claims that neither a violent nor peaceful approach to racial discrimination would be helpful because African Americans could not simply conquer white people’s minds and change their perceptions (8). It is hard to say that Black Muslims who experienced their families being murdered, like Elijah Muhammed, are wrong in their desire for vengeance (Liu 6). Still, people who chose a non-violent approach in the post-Civil War period also deserved admiration (Liu 7). The literature describes that James Baldwin was resistant to the Nation of Islam’s vision; thus, he did not join this organization despite active propaganda from their side. However, his opinion of methods to eradicate discrimination against African Americans is not discussed clearly because some parts of his narrative expressed admiration for Elijah Muhammad, his attitude to people, and his methods.

Theoretical Methods

In this research paper, several methods of literary criticism will be utilized to evaluate the perception of the Nation of Islam in The Fire Next Time by Baldwin. Specifically, such methods as cultural studies, formalistic approach, critical race theory, and Marxist theory will be used to analyze this book. The cultural studies method is used to examine the text in the socio-cultural context (MasterClass). The formalistic approach assesses literary tools that the author applies to understand the more profound meaning of a book (MasterClass). Critical race theory aims to evaluate a writer’s work through racial issues (MasterClass). Marxist theory utilizes socialists’ ideas to reveal social class conflict in literature (MasterClass). These four types of literary criticism will be used to understand Baldwin’s perception of the Nation of Islam and what hidden messages were sent to readers about his vision. Furthermore, the author’s overall attitude towards the role of religion in this political issue will be discussed.

The Portrayal of the Nation of Islam in The Fire Next Time

Down at the Cross: Hatred or Indifference to Religion

Like many other African Americans, it is easy to assume that Baldwin had all reasons to feel rage and anger toward all white people. Indeed, his childhood and adolescence were filled with pictures of young people who dropped out of school and went to cities to become workers with the lowest possible salaries, alcoholics, drug addicts, or prostitutes (Baldwin 27). James admits that the primary motivation for him to go to church was to avoid the faith of his neighbors and schoolmates. Moreover, he had an initial religious excitement about church service and angel-like chorus voices. However, he quickly realized that there was no sincerity and love to humanity in the church: “I really mean that there was no love in the church. It was a mask for hatred and self-hatred” (Baldwin 65). Since slaveholders initially aggressively promoted Christianity to keep black people’s obedience, African Americans should have logically developed resistance to this religion. Indeed, some black people converted to Islam; others, like Baldwin, became indifferent. Although the author admits that his ancestors acquired this name from their masters, he does not express anger and accepts this fact.

The lack of anger and indifference to racial and religious contrast is the maturity and social consciousness indicators. When Elijah Muhammad asked Baldwin about his religious commitments and attitude towards white people, James was not afraid to reveal that he does not belong to religious groups and does not hate white people (Baldwin 116-117). Conversely, he said he loved his white friends because “isn’t love more important than color” (Baldwin 57). Nevertheless, Baldwin portrays the leader of this organization as a calm person who views these objections to his teachings as a misunderstanding. The rough perception of the author about these Black Muslims is that members of the Nation of Islam believe everything Elijah tells them because he has a strong faith in that absurdity himself (Baldwin 109). Since Baldwin developed indifference to the divine sense of belonging that religious society can create, he chose not to participate in this destructive movement. This organization aimed to spend millions of dollars on promoting anti-white ideas among the black American population using a distorted representation of the religion foreign to this country.

The Role of the Nation of Islam in Baldwin’s Essay

Apart from simple descriptive purposes, Baldwin talked about his encounter with the Nation of Islam members to demonstrate insanity and semi-extremist views veiled with altered religious beliefs. Although the writer withholds his judgment about their activity, he peacefully resists their worldview. Interestingly, neither Elijah Muhammad nor other organization members considered Baldwin’s rejection as the final decision. Indeed, the Nation of Islam presented itself more like a hospital for souls than a religious institution (Halstead 18). They believed that everyone who joined their organization could become cured of their old views and dangerous predilections (Halstead 19). Similarly, they thought Baldwin needed time to be cured of his beliefs and acquire new ones that stated that “all white people are cursed, and are evils, and are about to be brought down” (Baldwin 82). He presented this meeting with Elijah not to show that this movement is wrong and unholy but to illustrate how the influence of one leader can change the mindset of thousands of people.

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Elijah Muhammad’s leadership skills were undeniable, and his faith was unshakable. Baldwin described him as a slender and delicate individual who treated everyone with respect (Baldwin 104). He utilized his natural communication skills and collective hatred between black and white people to create this movement of Black Muslims. Indeed, the author does not deny all the cruelty that African Americans had to witness and endure: “For the horrors of the American Negro’s life, there has been almost no language” (Baldwin 114). Still, this organization became successful because of the brutal attitude of white people: “In a society that is entirely hostile…it begins to be almost impossible to distinguish a real from a fancied injury” (Baldwin 112). Baldwin did not believe in the self-righteous anger that Black Muslims used to justify theoretical and possible future violence against white Americans because he considered it unnecessary. However, he realized that he is devoid of Elijah’s authority in this group; thus, he decided not to try proving they were wrong in their attempts to stop this silent war with aggression.

Beyond Evil

The Nation of Islam is not viewed by James Baldwin in his narrative as a malicious group because they promote anti-social ideas but as an organization that is beyond evil. The reason why Baldwin gave up explaining to these people that white people could become friends with black people was because their bigotry was caused by anger, not excitement. It is hard not to diagnose these people with collective psychosis because they proclaimed a man, Fard Muhammad, to be their God (Halstead 20). Simultaneously, these people were abstaining from alcohol, tobacco, and illicit drugs, treating each other with respect, fasting, and praying five times a day. This almost stoic approach to life is a frightful power in the hands of people who have the wrong objective in life. Still, “no one seems to know where the Nation of Islam gets its money,” which indicates that some interested parties invested in this organization to maintain resistance between the races and religions (Baldwin 136). Although this religious group played a significant role for African Americans and extremist organizations that were formed later, it had a vast influence on the distorted perception of Islam.

Damage of the Nation of Islam to the Muslim World

Inaccurate representation of Islam in the United States started earlier than Al Qaida’s terrorist acts in New York. Indeed, the Nation of Islam promoted an altered version of Islam that, unlike traditional Muslims, believed that their God and teacher was Fard Muhammad. Their teachings were more prevalent among Black Muslims than Arab sources (Halstead 14). They thought that black and white people were genetically different because the former were created by God, while the latter resulted from scientific experiments in laboratories (Halstead 22). Because human genome sequencing was not available at that time, this myth could be quickly disseminated among uneducated people full of rage. Although the Nation of Islam was not involved in any extremist activity, their prejudices, false presentation of the Quran, and separatist ideas portrayed Muslims negatively.

Islam and Christianity Are Contradictory Concepts in The Fire Next Time

Formalism Reveals Author’s Attitude

The formalistic approach of literary criticism allows for revealing Baldwin’s mixed attitude to the Nation of Islam. The way the characters are depicted in the narrative demonstrates the ambivalence of the author’s feelings about this group of people. Baldwin seems to admire Elijah Muhammad’s leadership skills, but his vision of racial issues repels him. His sympathy is revealed when he stated that “the power of the white world is threatened whenever a black man refuses to accept the white world’s definitions” (Baldwin 115). However, Baldwin believed more in Martin Luther King Jr.’s peaceful approach to regain equal rights for black people because he could not tolerate the future without “all that beauty” in the world (Baldwin 173). Moreover, Baldwin was featured by the cultural center Rainbow Sign, which offered people food for body and soul, showing that preserving culture was more important for him than meetings of holy people full of anger (Rissacher and Saul). His characters do not express anger conventionally but reveal it in their meditative smiles and in conversations about possible massive murder for the divine cause invented by a group of people.

Cultural Studies for Baldwin’s Essay

It is essential to examine this narrative in the context of the socio-cultural environment during the Civil Rights movement. Indeed, Baldwin always describes his essay group of people more than individuals. Society was more important than a person because this period of American history is full of various movements led by people who could not exist separately from these organizations. For example, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Nation of Islam, Black Student Unions, and Black Lives Matter movements were formed in the United States at that time (R. Dennis and K. Dennis 14). Many of these groups had controversial beliefs and values that were simply mirroring white slaveholders’ ideals in the light of black people (R. Dennis and K. Dennis 15). Similarly, Baldwin demonstrates in The Fire Next Time how the Nation of Islam, armed with rage and hostility to people with white skin, created the myth of divine mission. American society of that period seemed to be trapped in a loop of hatred and self-deception to justify both races’ desires to eradicate one another.

The Fire Next Time is a meditation on collective psychological issues. Baldwin’s neighbors and classmates who left their homes for cities developed multiple addictions. Furthermore, the writer mainly presents these people in groups: “I realized that we had been produced by the same circumstances” (Baldwin 27). He highlighted that a significant portion of society in the wealthiest country in the world could not strive for a better life because they were not even familiar with it. Another example of collective insanity is an unconditional agreement between the Nation of Islam members because they all believed everything their leader claimed (Baldwin 107). Interestingly, how people’s need to belong to a family is demonstrated in this narrative by forming groups who consumed alcohol together, prayed in the church, or dreamed about revenge on white people. This dysfunctional relationship between races is due to “a collective failure, on both sides of the color line, to recognize the connections that bind all Americans” (Jenkins 90). Therefore, Baldwin, who was aware of this connection, felt alienated from people who tried to make a sharp boundary between black and white citizens.

Baldwin’s Reflection on Christianity and Elijah’s Islam

It is hard to omit to discuss Baldwin’s attitude towards Christianity when discussing his experience meeting the Nation of Islam members. Indeed, during his meeting with Elijah Muhammad, Baldwin recalls his time with his father in church and excerpts from the Bible (Baldwin 106). Since all mental activity is associated with memory, the writer’s denial of Elijah’s speech relates to his earlier experience with the unpleasant sides of church (Richards 189). The author does not like the church because of its hypocrisy and corruption (Evans 114). However, this Islamic organization’s views are foreign to him because the author understands that the United States is his only home country (Baldwin 21). Therefore, the writer refused to join the Nation of Islam that could offer him tremendous benefits and decided to remain vulnerable to all the dangers this fight for equality exposes people (Eddy 9). Indeed, Baldwin’s decision was dictated by the voice of all the leaders who aimed to gain equal rights for African Americans through peaceful demonstrations.

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How the Black Muslim Movement Is Different

The formation of the Nation of Islam seems to be a logical consequence of a longstanding opposition between black and white Americans. Although many black people acquired Christianity by default before and after the Civil War, the religion of their former slaveholders was not satisfying for those who fought for equal rights in the United States. The Nation of Islam was founded in 1930 in Detroit, where Elijah Muhammad met Fard Muhammad and learned about his holy mission to lead African Americans (Halstead 20). This organization’s teachings are different from conventional Islam, making them slightly similar to some of the modern extremist groups that Muslim religious leaders criticized. However, the Civil Rights Movement Act influenced the main direction of this institution, converting it into a Sunni Islam group that no longer used Elijah’s prophecies about racial supremacy (Halstead 14). Before the death of their first leader, the Black Muslim movement altered African Americans’ perception of themselves, raising their collective self-esteem and providing protection and support to impoverished people. Still, their views were aimed to divide the country and evoke hatred between the races that could result in violence and bloodshed.

Religion and Slavery: Baldwin’s Vision

The fact that religion has often been used to manipulate large groups of people. Similarly, American slaveholders utilized the Bible to maintain black slaves’ obedience (Rose and Chanthiramathi 922). Baldwin highlights the fact that Christianity and slavery created a unique group of black people: “the descendant of slaves in a white, Protestant country, and this is what it means to be an American Negro” (Baldwin 139). Furthermore, the author claims that God that allowed this historical injustice over several generations of African Americans should be forbidden. Indeed, Baldwin is sure that Christianity’s ambivalence and arrogance caused the inter-racial transgenerational conflict (Baldwin 77). The writer’s rejection and hostility towards slavery and racial oppression are apparent in his writing. Nevertheless, he believes that only through integration and destruction of all prejudices about races generated by their ancestors can America become great: “We can make America what America must become” (Baldwin 21). It appears that the central message of this narrative was to withdraw any religion from this purely political issue to make clear and conscious decisions.

Religion and Racism: Baldwin’s Vision

Although Baldwin had a solid connection to the church in his youth, he became withdrawn entirely from religion later in life. He talks about the lack of sincerity that he had to observe for years: “Whoever wishes to become a truly moral human being…must first divorce himself from … crimes, and hypocrisies of the Christian church” (Baldwin 78). However, Baldwin does not seem to be inspired by the Nation of Islam either, satirizing that God, according to this organization, became black “for all practical purposes” (Baldwin 77). Indeed, white supremacy justified by Christian religious leaders was reflected in the ideas of the Nation of Islam that promoted black power with some excerpts from the Quran. The author does not strive to criticize spirituality in this narrative. Conversely, he demonstrates that the lack of true faith created groups that considered religion a valuable tool for managing this political problem or maintaining racial war. It may sound like a conspiracy theory, but the history of the Civil Rights movement is complex; thus, it is hard not to consider this idea.

Critical Race Theory and the Nation of Islam

Race conflict was the cornerstone of the Nation of Islam’s ideology since the foundation of this organization and until the death of Elijah Muhammad. In the perspective of critical race theory (CRT), the Nation of Islam practiced the same racial discrimination as white slaveholders did. This theory is used to study the role of racism and race in societies and cultures (Dixson and Anderson 121). According to CRT, discrimination by color implies other forms of oppression of human rights and freedom (Dixson and Anderson 122). For example, racists, regardless of their color, seem to have other prejudices about class, gender, and sexual orientation (Dixson and Anderson 122). The Fire Next Time collected and showed these issues from the viewpoint of white and black people, highlighting the fact that the color perspective impedes further progress of the United States. The author, who refuses to participate in this political game with religious features, reveals to Elijah Muhammad his loyalty to white people and mixed marriages (Baldwin 118). Baldwin admits that he is angry about his ancestors’ past, but he states that creating a different future demands a new attitude and approach.

Racial discrimination was a sensitive topic at that time; therefore, this narrative is full of rage about slavery and racial discrimination. CRT claims that white supremacy still exists in the United States because “formal-race categories…are disconnected from …social attributes and histories” (Dixson and Anderson 125). Similarly, Baldwin shows in his essay that racial discrimination is an artificially created and maintained phenomenon. Both races continue to view each other as opposites: “The white man’s Heaven…is the black man’s Hell” (Baldwin 74). This opposition was painfully evident to people who wanted to unite American society and have equal rights for everyone. They believed that anger should not be allowed to leave people’s minds to prevent armed conflicts on the streets. On the other hand, the Nation of Islam, led by Elijah Muhammad, could see only one radical option of destroying the oppressors.

One of the reasons for the long-term existence of racial issues in the United States is the denial to accept the problem by many white Americans. For example, Baldwin writes that the decision of the Supreme Court to ban racial segregation in schools in 1954 happened only because of the Cold War competition (144). Indeed, in the conversation with James Baldwin, a famous anthropologist, Margaret Mead refused to accept that racial discrimination still existed in the U.S. in the 1970s (Rana 3). As evident from his denial of Elijah’s teachings, Baldwin did not seek revenge for the horrors of slavery that his ancestors had to endure. Conversely, he aims to find a peaceful way to achieve social justice (Lucas 1). His attempts to change American society were related to race, but they also involved class differences that were inevitable in the realities of America during the pre-Civil Rights movement.

Marxist Theory and the Nation of Islam

The power of the Nation of Islam is in its ability to unite different classes and provide assistance to people in need. Since Elijah Muhammad was interested in Marxist philosophy, he built this organization accordingly (Logeshwari and Sangeetha 166). Many black people lived below the poverty line at that time; thus, the idea of eliminating racial injustice and social inequality was compelling despite the potential methods of achievement of that goal. The Nation of Islam solved some social problems that the American government could not: “Elijah Muhammad has been able … to heal and redeem drunkards and junkies … to make men chaste and women virtuous” (Baldwin 84). The power of this semi-socialist organization with religious background offered black people hope for a better life which is an enormous asset for any social movement. Still, their mission was ambivalent because they strived to provide this life only to African Americans, claiming that all white people are devils and deserve to be obliterated. This duplicity was the main reason for Baldwin to refuse to join Elijah Muhammad.

Baldwin shows in The Fire Next Time his perception of the Black Muslim movement. He admires their socialist ideas and ability to uplift African Americans’ self-esteem (Lucas 6). However, Baldwin denies the hypocrisy of the Nation of Islam in the same way as he refused the insincerity of the church, neither of which could resolve racism in the United States. One of the main reasons this organization was not the antidote against racial discrimination is that it was founded by a person with a traumatic childhood experiences associated with racism (Lucas 5). Furthermore, most Nation of Islam members probably had a similar background, making them unable to release their rage from a long-term insult from white people. Although it may sound like a cliché, violence cannot be stopped by violence despite all the benefits that a group of people receives from it. All citizens could only be freed only if their racial and class prejudices disappear: “We cannot be free until they are free” (Baldwin 22). Therefore, the Nation of Islam was never recognized as an essential contributor to the Civil Rights movement despite all the benefits it brought to black people.

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To sum up, Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time is a reflection of the horrible consequences of physical and moral abuse of the black population of the United States. Specifically, in the second part of his narrative, the writer focuses on his meeting with the Nation of Islam leader, Elijah Muhammad. Baldwin demonstrates that this organization is fundamentally different from other religious and governmental institutions in North America. He admires Elijah Muhammad for his ability to inspire black people to strive for a better life, providing full social support to many of them. However, the author is resistant to their central belief about black superiority and white people’s sinister nature. He is a proponent of the country’s true unification through the eradication of racial discrimination. The purpose of this paper was to analyze Baldwin’s attitude toward the Nation of Islam in The Fire Next Time using several methods of literary analysis: formalism, cultural studies, critical race theory, and Marxist approach. The research showed that the writer elucidated controversies of the Black Muslim movement through the lens of his experience in church, where he also saw the duplicity of Christianity.

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. Vintage, 1963.

Dennis, Rutledge, and Kimya Dennis. “Confrontational Politics: The Black Lives Matter Movement.” The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Race, Ethnicity, and Nationalism, 2020, pp. 11-27.

Dixson, Adrienne D., and Celia Rousseau Anderson. “Where Are We? Critical Race Theory in Education 20 Years Later.” Peabody Journal of Education, vol. 93, no. 1, 2018, pp. 121-131.

Eddy, Bethel L. “Love Outside the Walls: Richard Rorty, Jane Addams, and James Baldwin on the Dangers and Vulnerabilities of Right Relation.” Practical Matters, no. 13, 2020, pp. 1-13.

Evans, James H. “A Hermeneutic of the Cross: Religion and Racialized Discourse in the Thought of James Baldwin.” Black Theology, vol. 15, no. 2, 2017, pp.112-116.

Halstead, Tyler. “The Nation and the Church: What the Church can Learn from the Nation of Islam Today.” OKH Journal: Anthropological Ethnography and Analysis Through the Eyes of Christian Faith, vol. 3, no. 2, 2019, pp. 14-25.

Holmes, David G. “Black Religion Matters.” Reinventing (With) Theory in Rhetoric and Writing Studies: Essays in Honor of Sharon Crowley, edited by Andrea Alden et al., Utah State University Press, 2019, pp. 243-268.

Jenkins, David. “James Baldwin and Recognition.” American Political Thought, vol. 8, no. 1, 2019, pp. 82-107.

Liu, Minzhao. “James Baldwin on the Question of the Identities of Americans and the Black Muslim Movement.” Outstanding Gateway Papers, vol. 17, 2018, pp. 1-10.

Logeshwari, A., and S. Sangeetha. “Racial Politics in James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time.” Literary Endeavour, vol. 10, no. 44728, pp. 165-168.

Lucas, Carly Renee. “Prophetic Urgency: The 1963 James Baldwin and Martin Luther King, Jr. Warnings to America.” Symposia: The Journal of Religion, vol. 8, 2017, pp. 1-15.

MasterClass. Literary Theory: Understanding 15 types of Literary Criticism, 2021, Web.

McLarney, Ellen. “James Baldwin and the Power of Black Muslim Language.” Social Text, vol. 37, no. 1, 2019, pp. 51-84.

Mitchell, Verner D., and Cynthia Davis, eds. Encyclopedia of the Black Arts Movement. Rowman & Littlefield, 2019, pp. 126-131.

Ostrom, Hans A., and J. David Macey, eds. African American Literature: An Encyclopedia for Students. ABC-CLIO, 2019.

Rana, Junaid. “Anthropology and the Riddle of White Supremacy.” American Anthropologist, vol. 122, no. 1, 2020, pp. 1-13.

Richards, Ivor Armstrong. Principles of Literary Criticism. Routledge, 2017.

Rissacher, Tessa, and Scott Saul. “For the Love of People: Berkeley’s Rainbow Sign and the Secret History of the Black Arts Movement.” Current Research in Digital History, vol. 2, 2019, Web.

Rose, Brighton. A., and V. Chanthiramathi. “Religion and the Society: A Critical Study of James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountains.” Journal of Xi’an University of Architecture & Technology, vol. 12, no. 8, 2020, pp. 921-926.

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