“…[T]he terms ‘civilized’ and ‘Christian’ begin to have a very strange ring,
particularly in the ears of those who have been judged to be neither civilized nor Christian,
when a Christian nation surrenders to a foul and violent orgy…”
In 1963 James Baldwin first published “The Fire Next Time”, an urgent missive from a world embroiled in a fight for civil rights and justice. Baldwin spoke truth to power; he also spoke truth to the everyman, his readers for decades to come.
The mark of a true classic is its ability to stand the test of time, and “The Fire Next Time” is the real thing. It is extraordinary both in its ability to capture an historic moment and its soul-wrenching relevance more than 50 years later.
Cracking open this weighty tome, I felt ready to do my best to absorb some age-old wisdom, approaching it, perhaps, a bit like a wayward student. I knew James Baldwin was a powerful and persuasive writer. But oh, what a joy to bask in the beauty of his prose! Baldwin’s writing is forthright, direct. He speaks directly to his reader in a way that is inclusive and irresistible, and every passage is a poem.
The first part of “The Fire Next Time” is staged as a letter to Baldwin’s nephew, a missive full of wisdom and encouragement.
“The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you. Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity and fear.”
Baldwin’s words are justifiably dark at times. He has seen too much oppression, felt too much heartache.
“I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it. And I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.”
In the second part of the book, Baldwin writes a “Letter from a Region of My Mind”, an equally personal, profound, and damning criticism of race in America. Again, and perhaps even more than in the “Letter to My Nephew…”, Baldwin looks his reader in the eye and speaks from his heart.
“[I]f the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it. For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here and will again, and we can make America what America must become.”
In the current state of the world today, particularly in the racially charged Trump America, Baldwin’s words are simultaneously damning and inspiring. “The Fire Next Time” is a classic which I can only hope will one day be quant and antiquated, reminding its reader of a time and turmoil long past.
“Time catches up with kingdoms and crushes them,
gets its teeth into doctrines and rends them;
time reveals the foundations on which any kingdom rests,
and eats at those foundations,
and it destroys doctrines by proving them to be untrue.”