A vast collection of folklore, traditions, and legends continue to mask an American truth, that, “Well, the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar, and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.” In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin’s commitment to bringing the past to consciousness requires America to confront their construction of racial lines, both physical and nonphysical. White American myths such as, “their ancestors were all freedom-loving, heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace,” maintain racial lines and the steadfast failure to face the truth regarding race. Unable to come to terms with reality, White Americans ignore the social conditions that Black Americans experience.
A specific American myth that continues to repress African Americans behind racial lines is the myth of “the Negro artist.” While there are some exceptions, most spheres of fine art in America have had mediocre contributions from Black Americans. Thy myth of “the Negro artist” has cultivated a racial narrative that all Black art is a piece of “protest,” or a work “that not only criticizes and protests society, but that suggests, either explicitly or implicitly, a solution to society’s ill.” While the protest label arguably narrates the particular experience found within some African American work, the racial narrative also reveals, “something consequential that will follow in the lives of people or characters in ways that are presumably reflective of their membership in a particular racial group.” The racial narrative of the protest label articulates: When Black artists create work, they provide social, political, and economic commentary about Black life; therefore, their work is merely considered social commentary, not a serious work of art. African American visual artists, literary artists, and performing artists are all confined into the protest label, into a single, limited story.
Artists and their legacy, therefore, are never given extensive evaluation in regards to their craft. Viewers must delve beneath the race of an artist or their works social impact, and understand the gifted skill used to construct the work; arguably, understanding the craft transcends the social value. To ignore the creative facet of Black art not only reorganizes African American artists along racial lines but prevents the spheres of art from acknowledging the influence of Black artists’ craft. Black artists deserve a critique that recognizes their authentic and artistic merit and avoids simply adopting the Black artist myth and its protest label. The American myth of the Black artist manifests the racial narrative of the protest label, creating a racial project that ignores the skill of African American artists and the depth of their work. Black artists, therefore, are framed as solely spokespeople for African Americans rather than artists worthy of acknowledgment.
The myth of “The Negro artist” gangs Black artists into a creative ghetto, confining Black Americans’ work behind racial lines. Specifically, the myth of the Black artist is parallel to life within Harlem, New York City as James Baldwin describes in the novel The Fire Next Time. The particular experience Baldwin addresses to his nephew, “I said it was intended that you should perish, in the ghetto, perish by never being allowed to go beyond and behind the white man’s definition, by never being allowed to spell your proper name.” The oppressive conditions to which Black people experience appear in all realms of society. America has not only imprisoned African Americans into physical ghettos, but artistic ghettos. Black artists are characterized as a “fixed star” or “immovable pillar,” because “the Negro artist” myth only recognizes the race of the artist, disregarding the other individualistic characteristics each artist possesses. With the construction of these racial lines comes the grouping, labeling, simplifying, or classifying of Black artists and their work. A Black artist cannot only be an artist; rather their race deprives the work any ability to voice concerns for humankind, not only Black American. When an African American artist bears work, their work must already face a myth that segregates Black talent, and, therefore, suppresses that talent. The myth haunting Black American artists continues to trap their work within the confines of race.
With the myth of Black artists comes the creation of an oppressive racial label, categorizing all Black art as a work of protest. African American artists fall victim to the racial narrative that Black artistry lacks individuality and represents a particularly collective category: a pure pursuit of protest. The American myth organizes the racial narrative that all art created by African American individuals under the category of protest. A racial narrative such as the protest label is a story, and Imani Perry argues that these stories are, “schematization of race and individuals as racialized subjects.” (44) The myth of the Black artist racializes their work, ascribing the protest label. The racial narrative regarding Black artists within American art oversimplifies Black talent into a one-dimensional genre, thwarting the unrestrained expression and depth of African American artists. This one-dimensional genre, protest, discuss’s Black artists’ work in terms of how well it serves as an instrument in the fight against racism. Designating the protest label for all African American art dismisses Black artists’ work as individualistic pieces of art with particular aesthetics and skills.
Because African American artists traditionally concern themselves with the experience of being a Black person, critics have ascribed the racial narrative of the protest label to Black American’s art. African American artists create fine art that speaks to the uncharted depths of the human condition, but a racial narrative formed in response. When African American artists explore the Black soul, what follows is the racial narrative of their work: the protest label. The racial narrative articulates that all Black art appears to lack individuality because of the social setting in which the art arises, and what the art addresses: being Black in America. In More Beautiful and More Terrible, Imani Perry introduces her work with the poem “Justice” from Langston Hughes’ volume Scottsboro Limited: Four Poems and a Play in Verse:
That Justice is a blind goddess
Is a thing to which we black are wise
Her bandage hides two festering sores
That once perhaps were eyes.
Perry described the piece as “a work of protest literature.” that “followed an established tradition within African American arts of providing social and political commentary through creative expression.” Hughes published “Justice” in response to the infamous Scottsboro trials, exploring the baneful relationship between America’s judicial system and the African American experience. Referring to the Roman goddess Justitia, Hughes satirically redefines the blindfold, a symbol of impartiality in the justice system, suggesting impartiality is a facade due to racial inequality. Hughes’ art creatively addresses the American hypocrisy that victimizes African Americans; however, his work is only categorized as a protest because he calls attention to what appears as solely political or social commentary. While Hughes’ poem is addressing the political or social commentary regarding the American justice system, he is also dealing honestly with Black life in America.
But the racial narrative marks Black artists’ works as a protest because Black art can address America’s crimes against the Black human spirit and call attention to the particular damage of constructing race within a nation that preaches freedom. African Americans have unashamedly created art in response to the multifaceted experience of being Black in America. Expressing hope, courage, or joy amid sorrow and oppression, Black artists excavate meaning as their nation continues to deny them humanity. The beauty of Black art lies in its ability to create personal amid political; African Americans’ work arranges the sores of society into a healing artwork. The work of a Black artist, however, is considered merely a political or social statement. The protest label becomes a descriptive phrase that circumscribes African American artistry, designating a prescription that all Black art is a form of revolt.
Categorizing all African American artistry to the protest label confines Black artists by substituting the authentic and artistic within their work, as political, or social. Notably, James Baldwin undertakes what it means to come of age in The Fire Next Time, “Owing to the way I had been raised, the abrupt discomfort that all this aroused in me and the fact that I had no idea what my voice or my mind or my body was likely to do next…” Throughout the novel, Baldwin grapples with his youth and the struggle to invent himself both physically, mentally, and emotionally in America. Moreover, Baldwin also addresses themes such as religion, sexuality, and identity. The consequences of the protest label, however, stifles and suppresses Baldwin’s artistry to a Black manifesto or sociological work. Baldwin’s novel received a critique from the New York Times Book Review that identified his work as a “sermon, ultimatum, confession, deposition, testament, and chronicle… all presented in searing, brilliant prose.” These list of nouns essentially categorize Baldwin’s piece of literature as an evangelist’s speech for the civil rights movement, or a powerful priest’s revolt against the nation. Baldwin’s work, however, is not merely a preacher sermonizing about the wrongdoings of America. It would be futile to deny that Baldwin’s essay has tremendously impacted society, but the protest label equally ignores the depth of authenticity in his artistic achievement. The protest label creates a single story for almost all Black art; because the confining label protest is associated with Black art, the work is solely assumed a social piece: revolt against the economic, political, and social conditions of Blacks in America. Black American artists are confined because of the protest label and the consequences of the narrative, which substitute the artistry within the work as sociological.
By consigning the protest label, not only is Black American’s work assumed a social critique, but the Black artist becomes a spokesperson for the social conditions of African Americans. The protest label marked on African American artists’ work changes viewers’ conception of the artist, because, “racial narratives have a greater potential to intervene in deliberation and decision making because they both operate in people’s minds as knowledge.” The protest label creates the notion that Black artists’ work is a social or political comment; therefore, the artist is a voice for Black people. With unlimited freedom, Baldwin’s novel The Fire Next Time expresses Black conditions by conjoining the authentic with the social; he reckons with a threatened nation while coming of age. Yet critics cannot see Baldwin in a broader context, as simply a writer. Because the protest label applied to The Fire Next Time transformed James Baldwin as a spokesman, because reviewers from the… described Baldwin as a man who, “galvanized the nation and gave passionate voice to the emerging civil rights movement.” Baldwin challenged the “innocence,” or ignorance, of America, and honestly addresses the complexity of the Black and White identity in America. Baldwin, however, also renders an artistic rhetoric; he displays an individualistic and gifted command of language that reads beyond the voice of the African American people. Yet Black artists are not considered significant beyond their social value; therefore, denied their artistic skill and authentic achievement.
To disregard the creative facet of Black artists such as Baldwin and his work confines him into a creative slum; instead, one must analyze how he masters his material with a powerful command of prose, defying the label protest literature. The Fire Next Time is more than a civil rights manifesto that casts a spotlight over the American psyche; the novel is also a searing, torturous personal account of a youth coming of age in Harlem. In the nonfiction novel, Baldwin’s artistry is like a powerful lens that focuses on the intolerable conditions of Black Americans forced to survive in this country every day:
For the wages of sin were visible everywhere, in every wine-stained and urine-splashed hallway, in every clanging ambulance bell, in every scar on the faces of the pimps and their whores, in every helpless, newborn baby being brought into this danger, in every knife and pistol fight on the Avenue, and in every disastrous bulletin: a cousin, mother of six, suddenly gone mad, the children parcelled out here and there; an indestructible aunt rewarded for years of hard labor by a slow, agonizing death in a terrible small room; someone’s bright son blown into eternity by his own hand; another turned robber and carried off to jail. It was a summer of dreadful speculations and discoveries, of which these were not the worst. Crime became real, for example—for the first time—not as a possibility but as the possibility.
Baldwin’s mastery of rhetoric takes readers into the streets of Harlem. While maintaining an immense control of imagery, Baldwin’s prose style not only reveals the social ills of African Americans, but universal themes that emerge when living in society’s evil: isolation, and sin or its temptations. The explicit images and the tone and pace of the passage, forces readers to confront reality. Particularly, Baldwin’s repetition of “in every” reads as a rhythmic drum. Readers see the Avenue, but because of Baldwin’s repetitious rhythm, readers also feel the monotonous tragedies of life: the fury, the pain, the frustration, the fear, the rage, and the despair. Not only is the physical condition of the Black environment described, but the insights of the moral and psychological ghetto arise. Readers can envision the particular experiences of the “cousin” or “mother of six” or “ aunt” because of Baldwin’s keen eye for detail. What could have been a flat description of a ghetto in America becomes a delicate blending of physical and emotional details; Baldwin balances these details by juxtaposing a “helpless, newborn baby” with “pimps and their whores,” and “every knife and pistol fight.” The listing of these indignities, these conditions to which America has become totally apathetic, produces a shocking effect designed to offset the complacency of illusion. Baldwin’s fiery rhetoric in the phrase, “someone’s bright son blown into eternity by his own hand,” not only depicts the life of oppression but the inevitability of these streets determining one’s destiny. Precisely, Baldwin’s work illustrates the cycle of poverty and despair that trapped Harlem residents, when he simply changes the article in front of the word crime. The Fire Next Time defies the label protest literature because Baldwin’s writing possesses an artistic skill that transcends its social value.
Like a “fixed star” or “immovable pillar,” Black artists and their work cannot be separated from their race. The American myth of the Black artist and the racial narrative of protest labels, groups, and compares all African American artist and their works. This American myth surrounding the Black artist and its manifestation of the racial narrative of protest, not only prescribes a meaning to African Americans’ work but defines the merit of these Black artists. A discriminatory practice, the American myth, and its racial narrative, must be dismantled because the characterization emphasizes only assessing the value of work in terms of its critique against society’s wrongdoings. Protest, an oppressive label, substitutes craft and authenticity for political or social activism; the protest label sterilizes African American artists into a genre: simple, similar social commentator. Black artists and their efforts are dismissed or denied artistic acclaim. Critics must come to terms with the importance of each Black artist’s particular aesthetic and begin analyzing African Americans’ work on the basis that their pieces of art are authentic and required great skill. One must evaluate the impact of Black artists’ work in terms of artistry and how that creative talent impacts society. Black artists’ work must expand beyond racial lines.