James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time explores the power of Black Muslim speech, what he calls an “idiom” that recognizes and conveys the truth of the black experience in America. Baldwin writes that the tone of this language “is as familiar to me as my own skin,” suggesting not just a color and a vocal sound but also a mood and a music. Baldwin draws on hymns of black religion and the black church (“the fire next time,” “down at the cross”) to depict a contrapuntal relationship between the Christian-inflected civil rights movement and Black Muslim mobilization. Using apocalyptic language, he pleads for balancing the scales of racial justice with an eye toward a day of accounting. Black Muslim speech, he argues, calls out the moral crime of white racial terror against black life, though its catalytic role in what we now call the civil rights era remains under-documented. Baldwin uses music to explore the cadences and rhythms of black Muslim speech, but also questions of identity, naming, and authorship. In so doing, he points to a deeper truth about the origins of Black Muslim language: that the black church and its hymns emerged out of African religion, language, and culture, including Islam. As recent scholars observe, these truths about black religion, language, and music continue to be sung, in the poetry of the black arts movement, in hip-hop’s “Nation conscious wisdom,” and beyond.
James Baldwin and the Power of Black Muslim Language
Ellen McLarney is associate professor of Arabic literature and culture at Duke University, focusing primarily on Islamic cultural production. She is the author of Soft Force: Women in Egypt’s Islamic Awakening (2015). She was a Stanford Humanities Fellow in religious studies and a Hurford Family fellow at the National Humanities Center.
Ellen McLarney; James Baldwin and the Power of Black Muslim Language. Social Text 1 March 2019; 37 (1 (138)): 51–84. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/01642472-7286264
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