James Baldwin’s book entitled No Name in the Street is a personal recounting of his experience with racism and inequality in America. He expended considerable space in discussing the hearth-wrenching impact of the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X to the supporters of the Civil Rights Movement. In this book, Baldwin expressed his anger and frustration with regard to the struggle for equality, justice, and freedom for African-Americans. Baldwin made his scathing remarks against those who perpetuated inequality and racism. However, he also asserted that the failure of the radical activism of the 1960s was due in part to the flawed ideology that hampered the growth of the movement.
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James Baldwin is one of the great writers who exemplified the saying that the pen is mightier than the sword. He is arguably one of the one hundred top writers of the 20th century. However, his popularity and significance can never eclipse other writers and speakers who took the cudgels to fight for the rights and privileges of African Americans. James Baldwin is a great writer. However, his contribution to the Civil Rights movement was more as a witness or as a chronicler as opposed to an active participant. One remembers the quote from Theodore Roosevelt that says people are not impressed by great talking heads and commentators. People are interested to know more about those whose face is bloodied because they stepped into the arena and were not afraid to risk life and limb in order to experience the joy and tragedy of mortal combat.
Without a doubt, James Baldwin is a courageous man because one has to be courageous to write the way he did during a time when African-Americans were treated as second-class citizens. One needed the courage to speak to a society that perpetuated segregation in public transportations, restaurants, and schools. Nevertheless, James Baldwin was no Martin Luther King, Jr., or a Henry David Thoreau. Martin Luther King, Jr. (“MLK”) was imprisoned because of his participation in the Civil Rights Movement. The same thing can be said of Henry David Thoreau, who suffered from the humiliation of getting arrested because of his decision to stand up for his beliefs. There is no arrest warrant or similar type of government record that can be linked to Baldwin
It is, therefore, important to point out the mixed feelings he may have to deal with in relation to the murders of his two associates and partners in the struggle towards freedom and inequality. Without a doubt, he was angry at the turn of events that conspired to snuff away from the lives of two great leaders in the movement. Nevertheless, one can argue that Baldwin suffered from the impact of guilt, the same type of uncomfortable feeling common to survivors of war. Soldiers coming home to America are thankful to survive the ordeal and at the same time feeling guilty that their friends were felled by bullets even as they were standing next to them.
Consider, for instance, the difference between Baldwin and Malcolm X when it comes to the social circles and the associations they were able to nurture through their active years. It can be argued that Malcolm X was not welcomed in the places where Baldwin was considered a valuable asset. For example, Baldwin moved with ease in certain Hollywood circles. He was a recipient of numerous awards that honored his contribution to the literary world. However, the same thing cannot be said of Malcolm X, who was too dangerous in the eyes of the government.
MLK did not only write incendiary pieces that ultimately caused his death, but he was also an active participant, a visible reminder that the Civil Rights Movement is a powerful force that the government cannot afford to ignore. In a CBS Report documentary regarding the turbulent days of the year 1968, MLK went to the place of his death in order to support workers who were on strike. He was gunned down by an assassin’s bullet when he was in the middle of the action. This revelation may have weighed down heavy on Baldwin’s mind, and therefore, his guilt mixed with his anger brought about a fiery commentary of the assassination and other related events.
Baldwin’s book provides an insider’s account of the turbulent years that brought about the bloody 1968 assassinations and demonstrations. Other writers paint a picture of economic struggles, political instability, and sociological issues to help explain the reason why American cities in 1968 were like ticking time bombs. Baldwin, on the other hand, does not rely too much on economic and political analysis. Baldwin chose to talk about the human element and provides an emotional backdrop to the Civil Rights Movement.
In order to have a better grasp of the economic and social factors that shaped the anarchy-plagued societies of the 1960s, it is best to consult other works and other sources. One of the excellent sources of information regarding this era is the articles and observations made by commentators like Howard Zinn. In Zinn’s commentary on the unlawful and biased trial of African Americans, rape suspects underscored the type of inequality experienced by black-skinned citizens of the United States of America.
Baldwin’s book can be interpreted several ways, but one of the more poignant aspects are those that talk about the frustration of Malcolm X when it comes to the Gandhi-like stance of civil disobedience that MLK wanted to replicate in Washington, D.C. and other key cities in America. Baldwin commented on Malcolm X’s displeasure, and more importantly, he seemed to agree with him. Nevertheless, the author concluded at the end that the methods devised during the decade of the 1960s left much to be desired (Baldwin 146). Unfortunately, Baldwin cannot provide a solid counter-argument or an alternative solution that could radically alter the way the majority view the minority as envisioned by MLK and Malcolm X.
Baldwin’s book left many things out that could have helped readers understand the other aspects of the Civil Rights Movement or the violent demonstrations that swept America in the 1960s. Nevertheless, his book provides an emotional tour guide to the battered landscape. For example, a CBS Report documentary and the Eyes on the Prize documentary provided graphical images of the clashes, the images of flowing blood and bullet-riddle bodies were easy to see. However, the psychological and emotional justification for the actions taken by both sides of the conflict was not easy to understand. It is through the personal recounting of the events through the eye of a witness and expert storyteller that one can appreciate the root cause of the actions and the underlying current that propelled people to behave a certain way.
Consider, for instance, a clip in one of the documentaries wherein a resource person marveled at the influence and impact of the Black Panther movement to the lives of desperate and hopeless young people. The narrator said that in ordinary times, the same volunteers do not have the strength and the enthusiasm to get up every morning and report to work. The narrator said that their normal routine was to act like lazy and worthless bums. However, with the emergence of the Black Panther movements, the same “worthless” fellows were seen getting up at the crack of dawn in order to wait for Black Panther leaders on the side of the streets as early as five in the morning. They are present not only to be inspired by the speeches but also to contribute, such as in humanitarian activities like helping members of the community and feeding undernourished children. Baldwin’s book provided insights into the mental aspect of leading revolutions and how leaders like MLK and Malcolm X were perceived by the minds and hearts of the oppressed.
James Baldwin is one of the most popular and respected writers of the 20th century. However, his popularity and influence can never eclipse that of MLK and Malcolm X. The main reason is that Baldwin is more of an intellectual than a radical. MLK was willing to do the dirty work, and Malcolm X was willing to pay the ultimate price of ex-communication or ostracization from friends and family in order to accomplish a dream goal. Although Baldwin did not do anything that compelled government authorities to hurl him into prison, he was courageous and brilliant enough to speak against the evils of inequality and racism. Baldwin’s major contribution was to create some form of an emotional tour guide that enabled readers and researchers to understand the emotional and psychological underpinnings that caused the Civil Rights Movement and the bloody riots of the 1960s.
Flora, Joseph. The Companion to Southern Literature. LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2002. Print.
King, Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” African Studies Center. University of Pennsylvania, 1963. Web.
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Peterson, Linda. The Norton Reader: An Anthology of Nonfiction. New York: Norton & Company, 2011. Print.
Rieder, Jonathan. Gospel of Freedom. New York: Blumsbury Press, 2013. Print.