“The Fire Next Time” by James Baldwin

James Baldwin and, of course, The Fire Next Time have held prominent positions on my reading list for a long time, but I was finally spurred on to buy the book and dive into it after reading Ta-Nehisi Coates talk about Baldwin in We Were Eight Years In Power.

When I reread The Fire Next Time in this seventh year, it seemed clear to me that no one was writing like him. More, I felt that no one was trying. beauty, I felt, had been handed over to poets and novelists, to essays that never escape the living room.

I wanted it back. I called my agent, Gloria Loomis, to tell her about this feeling. “Well Jimmy, he was one of a kind,” she said. “No one could ever write like Jimmy.”

I cut her off. “Gloria, I think I want to try.” …

I talked about how I’d read the book in one sitting and the challenge I imagined of crafting a singular essay, in the same fashion, meant to be read in a few hours but to haunt for years…

We Were Eight Years in Power, Ta-Nehisi Coates

At this point, I had only read one short narrative piece of Baldwin’s in an anthology, but Coates painted an almost magical quality to Baldwin’s essay writing that I couldn’t resist.

Baldwin’s beauty – like all real beauty – is not style apart from substance but indivisible from it. It is not icing on the cake but the eggs within it, giving it texture, color, and shape.

We Were Eight Years in Power, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Needless to say, I picked up a copy of The Fire Next Time as soon as I finished We Were Eight Years in Power and I was not disappointed.

The book is a short 106 pages even after wide margins and a comfortably sized font. So, if you want to go the route of Ta-Nehisi Coates, it’s a very doable read for one sitting, but you can also easily split the book up over just a few days.

As for structure, The Fire Next Time is split up into two rather independent sections (and the subtitles do a rather good job at setting them up).

  1. “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation”
  2. “Down At The Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind”

At first glance, it can be tempting to assume “My Dungeon Shook” would contain more personal stories with “Down At The Cross” providing the bulk of Baldwin’s intellectual observations, but this is far from the truth.

Each contains a gorgeous blend of all the elements that make Baldwin’s writing so compelling. The entire book reads like a personal and thoughtful conversation meandering through all things important to both Baldwin and our larger community.

However, I could never communicate these ideas as eloquently as Baldwin. So, instead of walking through a point by point exploration coupled with my own commentary, I’ll try to stay out of the way as much as I can here.

The body of this post will consist of little more than a semi-organized, non-linear compilation of extended quotes from The Fire Next Time. Maybe if I narrowed my lens I could write a decent essay about one or a couple of these themes, but there is just so much more here than can easily articulate.

I hope you can take the time to read through these quotes, and I hope this spurs you on to buy or borrow your own copy of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time.

“My Dungeon Shook”

Now, my dear namesake, these innocent and well-meaning people, your countrymen, have caused you to be born under conditions not very far removed from those described for us by Charles Dickens in the London of more than a hundred years ago.

(I hear the chorus of the innocents screaming, “No! This is not true! How bitter you are!” – but I am writing this letter to you, to try to tell you something about how to handle them, for the most of them do not yet really know that you exist. ..

pg 6

Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality. 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

… and, by a terrible law, a terrible paradox, those innocents who believed that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grasp of reality.

But these men are your brothers – your lost, younger brothers. And if 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 friends, 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.

You know, and I know, that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon. We cannot be free until they are free.

God bless you James, and Godspeed.

Your Uncle, James

pg 9-10

“Down at the Cross”

Psychological Analysis of White America:

…Negroes know far more about white Americans than that; it can almost be said, in fact, that they know about white Americans what parents – or, anyways, mothers – know about their children…

pg 101

… White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this – which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never – the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.

pg 22

… They (white people) are terrified of sensuality and do not any longer understand it. The word “sensual” is not intended to bring to mind quivering dusky maidens or priapic black studs.

I am referring to something much simpler and much less fanciful. To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.

It will be a great day for America, incidentally, when we begin to eat bread again, instead of the blasphemous and tasteless foam rubber that we have substituted for it.

And I am not being frivolous now, either. Something very sinister happens to the people of a country when they begin to distrust their own reactions as deeply as they do here, and become as joyless as they have become.

It is the individual uncertainty on the part of white American men and women, this inability to renew themselves at the foundation of their own lives, that makes the discussion, let alone elucidation, of any conundrum – that is, any reality – so supremely difficult.

The person who distrusts himself has no touchstone for reality – for this touchstone can be only oneself. Such a person interposes between himself and reality nothing less than a labyrinth of attitudes.

And these attitudes, furthermore, though the person is usually unaware of it (is unaware of so much!), are historical and public attitudes. They do not relate the present any more than they relate to the person.

Therefore, whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.

pg 43

Malcolm, Elijah, and the Nation of Islam:

In the United States, violence and heroism have been made synonymous except when it comes to blacks, and the only way to defeat Malcolm’s point is to concede it and then ask oneself why this is so.

Malcolm’s statement is not answered by references to the triumphs of the NAACP, more particularly since very few liberals have any notion of how long, how costly, and how heartbreaking a task it is to gather the evidence that one can carry into court, or how long such court battles take.

Neither is it answered by references to the student sit-in-movement, if only because not all Negroes are students and not all of them live in the South.

I, in any case, certainly refuse to be put in the position of denying the truth of Malcolm’s statements simply because I disagree with his conclusions, or in order to pacify the liberal conscience.

Things are as bad as the Muslims say they are – in fact, they are worse, and the Muslims do not help matters – but there is no reason that black men should be expected to be more patient, more forbearing, more farseeing than whites; indeed, quite the contrary.

pg 58-60

(talking about Elijah’s understanding of “White Devils”)

There is nothing new in this merciless formulation except the explicitness of its symbols and the candor of its hatred. Its emotional tone is as familiar to me as my own skin; it is but another way of saying that sinners shall be bound in Hell a thousand years.

That sinners have always, for American Negroes, been white is a truth we need’t labor, and every American Negro, therefore, risks having the gates of paranoia close on him.

In a society that is entirely hostile, and, by its nature, seems determined to cut you down – that has cut down so many in the past and cuts down so many every day – it begins to be almost impossible to distinguish a real from a fancied injury.

One can very quickly cease to attempt this distinction, and, what is worse, one usually ceases to attempt it without realizing that one has done so.

All doormen, for example, and all policemen have by now, for me, become exactly the same, and my style with them is designed simply to intimidate them before they can intimidate me. No doubt I am guilty of some injustice here, but it is irreducible, since I cannot risk assuming that the humanity of these people is more real to them than their uniforms.

Most Negroes cannot risk assuming that the humanity of white people is more real to them than their color. And this leads, imperceptibly but inevitably, to a state of mind in which, having long ago learned to expect the worst, one finds it very easy to believe the worst.

pg 68

(While at dinner with Elijah)

In the eeriest way possible, I suddenly had a glimpse of what white people must go through at a dinner table when they are trying to prove that Negroes are not subhuman.

I had almost said, after all, “Well, take my friend Mary,” and very nearly descended to a catalog of those virtues that gave Mary the right to be alive. And in what Hope? That Elijah and the others would nod their heads solemnly and say, at least, “Well, she’s all right – but the others!

pg 73

(Talking about Elijah after dinner)

I felt that I knew something of his pain and his furry, and, yes, even his beauty. Yet precisely because of the reality and the nature of those streets – because of what he conceived as his responsibility and what I took to be mine – we would always be strangers, and possibly, one day, enemies

pg 79

The Future of the United States:

A bill is coming in that I fear America is not prepared to pay…

… it is for this reason that everything white Americans think they believe in must now be reexamined…

I know that what I am asking is impossible. But in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least that one can demand – and one is, after all, emboldened by the spectacle of human history in general, and the American Negro history in particular, for it testifies to nothing less than the perpetual achievement of the impossible.

pg 103-104

… but the political institutions of any nation are always menaced and are ultimately controlled by the spiritual state of that nation. We are controlled here by our confusion, far more than we know, and the American dream has therefore become something much more closely resembling a nightmare, on the private, domestic, and international levels…

pg 89

But in order to change a situation one has first to see it for what it is: in the present case, to accept the fact, whatever one does with it thereafter, that the Negro has been formed by this nation, for better or for worse, and does not belong to any other – not to Africa, and certainly not to Islam…

pg 81

… What it comes to is that if we, who can scarcely be considered a white nation, persist in thinking of ourselves as one, we condemn ourselves, with the truly white nations, to sterility and decay, whereas if we could accept ourselves as we are, we might bring new life to the Western achievements, and transform them.

The price of this transformation is the unconditional freedom of the American Negro… he is the key figure in this country, and the American future is precisely as bright or as dark as his.

pg 90-94

The final and most famous quote of the book:

If we – and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others – do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.

If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us:

God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!


Wrapping it Up

If you’d like to take a deeper dive into other formative books on American Racism, I’ve since written similar posts on Ta-Nehisi Coates’s ‘We Were Eight Years in Power’ and Dr. James Cone’s ‘The Cross and the Lynching Tree’. In addition, I recommend you check out a Medium article I wrote on Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing (1989).

3 thoughts on ““The Fire Next Time” by James Baldwin

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