|J Baldwin and M L King|
I have been reading James Baldwin during the last several weeks, reading Nobody Knows my Name and The Fire Next time. Since the 60’s Baldwin has been the most recognizable African-American writer in the U.S. and the de facto spokesperson and leading literary voice for the Civil Right Movement. Baldwin was a complex person who has and continues to challenge the individual to know oneself. In her 1963 thesis, Eliza Young summarized,
[T]o find and to know oneself whether on a personal or social or religious level is not simply a problem among Negroes (though they so drastically need it), but a problem for white Americans and to an extent for Europeans.
This prophetic message is heard in “Down at the Cross” when Baldwin wrote,
To accept one’s past—one’s history . . . is learning to use it. An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought. How can the American Negro’s past be used? [I add the white person too] The unprecedented price demanded . . . is the transcendence of the realities of color, of nations, and of altars.
Received from reading Baldwin are his deepest insights as a writer and a black man of his day--his unique, awareness of the psyche, the cultural challenges with integration, the "great American illusion", and the ultimate challenge and need of human beings for self-examination where there is a . . .
. . . collision between's one's image of oneself and what one actually is is always very painful and there are two things you can do about it, you can meet the collision head-on and try and become what you really are or you can retreat and try to remain what you thought you were, which is a fantasy, in which you will certainly perish. [Moreover,] I didn’t meet anyone in the world who didn’t suffer from the very same affliction that all the people I have fled from suffered from and that was that they didn’t know who they were.
For me and we on this great day, recall the cause and dream of Martin Luther King, and allow James Baldwin spur us on to tackle the ultimate human challenge.
Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death—ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us. But white Americans do not believe in death, and this is why the darkness of my skin so intimidates them.
 Eliza Marcella Young, “The Search for Identity in the Works of James Baldwin”, MA Thesis, Atlanta University, 1967, 53.
 James Baldwin: Collected Essays Ed. Toni Morrison. “Down at the Cross” of The Fire Next Time. New York: The Library of America, 1998, 333.
 _________, Nobody Knows my Name (first published in 1954) Paperback, Vintage, 1992.
 Collected Essays, 339.