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The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
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The Fire Next Time (1963)

by James Baldwin

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My copy of this profound short work is littered with flags but I feel inadequate to the task of writing a "review." Baldwin uses his childhood in Harlem in the 1940s and 50s as the springboard for an essay on the relations between African Americans and white Americans, racism and religion, and the fear they both instigate and assuage. He is an optimist at heart and his steady moral compass is clear. But he is also angry and tired. And while left unpersuaded by the Black Muslim perspective of the late 1950s, he seriously questions the assumption that society as constructed by white Americans is inherently desirable.

"I cannot accept the proposition that the four-hundred-year travail of the American Negro should result merely in his attainment of the present level of the American civilization. I am far from convinced that being released from the African witch doctor was worthwhile if I am now - in order to support the moral contradictions and the spiritual aridity of my life - expected to become dependent on the American psychiatrist. It is a bargain I refuse. The only thing white people have that black people need, or should want, is power...."

He questions everything, including the greater validity of the Christian religion. He exposes the propensity of all religions to use their dogma to justify the oppression of others and the obliteration of their cultural foundations. He does this without questioning the good intentions of missionaries or neighbors; rather, his charge is placed at the feet of larger society and powerful nations.

I admit that I was made uncomfortable by Baldwin's assertion that the fear aroused in white Americans by angry and nonconforming black Americans is fundamentally no different and arguably *less justified* than that terror instilled in black Americans through centuries of abduction, slavery, abuse, torture, and murder both individual and mass. His reasoning, though, rang deeply true. I found myself gently nudging myself to read without defensiveness: to acknowledge the privilege and power inherently attributed to me by virtue of being born white, and the vast chasm between my occasional discomfort growing up in the segregated South and the pervasive dread experienced by the Black citizens of our small town (for example). I was at least partly successful. I was probably helped by Baldwin's own compassion and optimism as well as his impeccable reasoning. Remembering that this book was published in 1962:

"In short, we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation -- if we are really, that is, to achieve our identity, our maturity, as men and women. To create one nation has proved to be a hideously difficult task; there is certainly no need now to create two, one black and one white. But white men with far more political power than that possessed by the Nation of Islam movement have been advocating exactly this, in effect, for generations. If this sentiment is honored when it falls from the lips of Senator Byrd, then there is no reason it should not be honored when it falls from the lips of Malcolm X. And any Congressional committee willing to investigate the latter must also be willing to investigate the former. They are expressing exactly the same sentiments and represent exactly the same danger. There is absolutely no reason to believe that white people are better equipped to frame the laws by which I am governed than I am. It is entirely unacceptable that I should have no voice in the political affairs of my own country, for I am not a ward of America; I am one of the first Americans to arrive on these shores."

*The Fire Next Time*, Baldwin's exploration of the notion that "color is not a human or a personal reality; it is a political reality", is remarkable, readable, and poignant. I read a copy obtained from the public library but this is one to have in one's personal library, available to revisit again and again. ( )
4 vote EBT1002 | Sep 30, 2014 |
This short book describes the author’s life experiences growing up black in 1960s America. In clearly and carefully written prose the young man’s story unfolds through rebellion against his father; making life choices to avoid expectations—both bad and good; and the series of realizations that occur as maturity intervenes. The underlying message is that while many of the circumstances and reactions are common to adolescent males almost anywhere, the reality of racial difference in that place and time posed a much narrower range of choices, often with difficult and risky outcomes. Baldwin seems to have maintained enough self-awareness to have navigated some of the pitfalls successfully.
  JimPratt | May 1, 2014 |
I am not the first, nor will I be the last to exhort the writing of James Baldwin. His prose is profound and passionate at the same time. As a white woman, I, of course, felt uncomfortable and unsettled as well I should, as I read this. There is a solid thread of hope in the letter and the essay in this collection, which is what kept me reading. I can only hope that if he were writing to his nephew today, Baldwin would be able to see some change. ( )
  hemlokgang | Jan 3, 2014 |
I feel slightly embarrassed giving this 5 stars as four people on my Goodreads friends list, who are all also white, have given it 4 stars and I am concerned that it might look as if I'm trying to be "holier than thou", when I simply really like and connect with various aspects of the book. At least on here none or few of them will see it.
Baldwin is a wonderful writer whose words sweep me along, here just as in Giovanni's Room; he writes about politics more poetically than most twentieth century authors. Not that I can pinpoint quite how, but he uses generalisations in such a way that their subjectivity of coming from him at this time and place are implicitly stated, whilst the rhetorical power of the universal is retained in a way that's impossible when employing a zillion "usuallys" and caveats.

He describes the emotional experience of faith most wonderfully, in a way I can't recall from another who'd subsequently rejected religion, and I couldn't help but connect with the way he used religious practice and god as a secure attachment figure as a sort of refuge from his difficult stepfather although he was also involved with the church.

I rushed home from school, to the church, to the altar, to be alone there, to commune with Jesus, my dearest Friend, who would never fail me, who knew all the secrets of my heart. Perhaps He did, but I didn’t, and the bargain we struck, actually, down there at the foot of the cross, was that He would never let me find out. He failed His bargain. He was a much better Man than I took Him for. It happened, as things do, imperceptibly, in many ways at once.

This, then, is the best that God (the white God) can do. If that is so, then it is time to replace Him – replace Him with what?.

Writing about poverty nowadays is prim and didactic and rarely brave enough to say this:
I certainly could not discover any principled reason for not becoming a criminal, and it is not my poor, God-fearing parents who are to be indicted for the lack but this society.

The mostly American discussions of race on Goodreads, with implicitly or explicitly separatist, angry academic approaches to it are the sound of a different, more hostile world from various places I've worked, from British friends who've had mixed race relationships, or who teach in English inner city schools that are majority mixed race and/or have vast social mixes.
Baldwin rejects the separatism and religious practice of the Elijah Mohammed and Malcolm X's Nation of Islam.
Whoever debases others is debasing himself.
‘I love a few people and they love me and some of them are white, and isn’t love more important than colour?’
What one would not like to see again is the consolidation of peoples on the basis of their colour. But as long as we in the West place on colour the value that we do, we make it impossible for the great unwashed to consolidate themselves according to any other principle.
(I get the impression that American cities are divided by race, with extremely ghettoised areas, whereas here at least outside the very wealthiest suburbs, large cities have a more ethnically diverse population distribution. (Helped by the housing boom that means young white professionals now commonly live in areas like Brixton.) Changes in language show how children and teenagers mix - the same sort of slang as in the film Attack the Block. I'm definitely not saying there's no racism, but in big cities there are a lot of people who are comfortable with different ethnicities side by side, and London is 40% non-white. There are huge contrasts such as some urban local authorities being major employers of BME people - who in any case aren't minorities in their areas - and having top bosses who are non-white, alongside increased discriminationin rhetoric from central government who are increasingly anti-immigration and make cuts to voluntary sector organisations helping disadvantaged BME people.))

Baldwin may not be a separatist but this is no easy conciliatory chat with the powers that be:
White Americans find it as difficult as white people elsewhere do to divest themselves of the notion that they are in possession of some intrinsic value that black people need, or want. And this assumption – which, for example, makes the solution to the Negro problem depend on the speed with which Negroes accept and adopt white standards.
And makes an interesting interpretation that the timing of civil rights freedoms may be linked to a cynical desire not to alienate the newly independent African states and the possibility of business opportunities there.

A couple of other reviews mentioned that Baldwin was contradictory: e.g. white people need to learn that you do not threaten them whilst on other pages there are references to criminals etc as above. I took it to mean that most white people behave(d) as if black people were a threat and were therefore discriminatory; that discrimination creates conditions which spark criminal behaviour – because of social structures and in particularly provoked individuals. (Can't really be firm with tenses because of great differences between places, occupational sectors and even small networks of people.) ( )
  antonomasia | Dec 29, 2013 |
I found Baldwin's short book which included two essays to be somewhat dated. The essays, both examining the so called "Negro Problem" in America in the early 1960's ("Negro" was the term then in use for African-American, and is used interchangeably with the term "black" in this book. The use of both terms in this analysis is therefore reflective of their usage in the book, and of the socio-cultural-literary context in which they were written). Themes other than "the Negro Problem" explored by the book include an examination of the shallowness and ineffectiveness of religious faith, and of inter-generational influences and relationships.
While his superb writing style shown through the rough edges of his idealogical commentary I could not help but wonder what changes he might have made had he written the essays a decade later in 1973 instead of 1963. Nonetheless his commentary presents strong views from the perspective of the Black community. The book stands as a historical document in the long process of political and historical change of the relationship between the races in America. ( )
  jwhenderson | Jun 12, 2013 |
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Epigraph
"God gave Noah the rainbow sign,
No more water, the fire next time!"
Dedication
for James

James

Luc James
First words
Dear James:

I have begun this letter five times and torn it up five times.
Quotations
Whoever debases others is debasing himself.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 067974472X, Paperback)

It's shocking how little has changed between the races in this country since 1963, when James Baldwin published this coolly impassioned plea to "end the racial nightmare." The Fire Next Time--even the title is beautiful, resonant, and incendiary. "Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?" Baldwin demands, flicking aside the central race issue of his day and calling instead for full and shared acceptance of the fact that America is and always has been a multiracial society. Without this acceptance, he argues, the nation dooms itself to "sterility and decay" and to eventual destruction at the hands of the oppressed: "The Negroes of this country may never be able to rise to power, but they are very well placed indeed to precipitate chaos and ring down the curtain on the American dream."

Baldwin's seething insights and directives, so disturbing to the white liberals and black moderates of his day, have become the starting point for discussions of American race relations: that debasement and oppression of one people by another is "a recipe for murder"; that "color is not a human or a personal reality; it is a political reality"; that whites can only truly liberate themselves when they liberate blacks, indeed when they "become black" symbolically and spiritually; that blacks and whites "deeply need each other here" in order for America to realize its identity as a nation.

Yet despite its edgy tone and the strong undercurrent of violence, The Fire Next Time is ultimately a hopeful and healing essay. Baldwin ranges far in these hundred pages--from a memoir of his abortive teenage religious awakening in Harlem (an interesting commentary on his first novel Go Tell It on the Mountain) to a disturbing encounter with Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad. But what binds it all together is the eloquence, intimacy, and controlled urgency of the voice. Baldwin clearly paid in sweat and shame for every word in this text. What's incredible is that he managed to keep his cool. --David Laskin

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:57:57 -0400)

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Contains a letter to Baldwin's nephew on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Also describes his childhood, views on Black Muslims, and his visions.

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