115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

May The Force Be with You as James Baldwin Unveils Ubuntu

Lane Davey, University of Hawaii Manoa

Evolutions of biblical exegesis in apocalyptic literature reveal that African religious ethics have survived through Christian syncretism in the black church. This provocative rhetoric is preserved in the earliest forms of African American protest pamphlets, which culminate in the social critiques of James Baldwin and cultivate the Civil Rights Movement.

Proposal: 

This paper is a contribution to the role of religion in the African American liberation struggle. It traces an evolution of biblical exegesis through a thread of apocalyptic rhetoric that emerges in some of the earliest forms of African American protest pamphlets, culminates in the social critiques of James Baldwin and cultivates the underlying principles of the Civil Rights Movement. Authors of this genre generally rely on the readers’ faith in a philosophy of divine justice which permeates the theology of the black church, liberation theology and ultimately Pan Africanism. While this sentiment is often attributed to the non-violent teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, the parables of Jesus or the biblical themes of social justice, I argue that it survives as a syncretized form of ubuntu, which can be defined through a Zulu proverb that states, “I am a person through other people, my humanity is tied to yours.” This African religious ethic is embedded in Baldwin’s complex definitions of freedom, equality and love which are deeply rooted in the human struggle and released through an active “force,” that can be accessed through participation in song, culture or elements of performance. For Baldwin, love is not a state of being, but rather an agent, that removes “the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.”

My research compares the writings of Martin Delany, Fredrick Douglass, Sutton Griggs and James Baldwin across the historical context of slavery, Jim Crow and civil rights marking significant shifts in religious thought and biblical interpretation. Delany and Douglass are distinguished by a divide in African American philosophy, which is deliberated in Imperium in Imperio through Sutton Griggs' fictional discourses concerning black sovereignty. Delany reacts to white supremacy with black superiority whereas Douglass rejects this desire for power as a key element imposed by European colonization and institutions. “The slaveholder, as well as the slave, is the victim of the slave system,” says Douglass in reference to the New Testament passages of 2 Peter that bleed into negro spirituals and are eventually coined as the title of James Baldwin’s monumental text, The Fire Next Time. This study is centered on his book which precedes some of the most defining moments of the Civil Rights Movement including Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream speech and the death of John F. Kennedy. It stands a landmark text that takes the torch from a long tradition of apocalyptic African American protest literature and passes it to a new generation who wait perpetually at Baldwin’s table seeking to break bread and usher in a New Covenant that is genuinely African, yet authentically American.

 While I apply the scholarship of Luke Timothy Johnson, Adele Berlin and Christian B. N. Gade in my discussion of biblical exegesis and religion, I still seek to incorporate other academic studies that deal more specifically with apocalyptic African American literature and religious syncretism. I expect to expand this portion of my research before the conference.