Customer Reviews of The Fire Next Time
A prescient assessment of racial relations, past and future
James Baldwin caused quite a stir in 1961 when he published "Letter from a Region in My Mind" in The New Yorker, followed by "A Letter to My Nephew" in The Progressive the next month. He collected these two essays in this small volume, and it's considered (along with "Notes of a Native Son") his best work. His biting, heartfelt analysis on race relations flings its barbs equally at the legacy of American white supremacy and the duplicity of liberal white guilt; although it was written more than forty years ago, it reminds us both how far we've come and how far we have yet to go.
Baldwin frames his observations around two thematically related biographical episodes: his brief three-year stint as an adolescent Pentecostal preacher in Harlem in the early 1940s and his journalistic visit to the headquarter of the Nation of Islam in Chicago's South Side twenty years later. Both institutions, Baldwin finds, suffer from an ambivalent myopia: Christianity in general "helped to protect and sanctify the power that was so ruthlessly being used by people who were indeed seeking a city, but not one in the heavens, and one to be made, very definitely, by captive hands"; the Nation of Islam "inculcated in the demoralized Negro population a truer and more individual sense of its own worth" through the "fearful paradox" of creating a hopeful future with "an invented past." Blacks, he seems to say, have traded in the belief system forced on them by their oppressors to a understandable longing for an illusory past. His conclusion is aggressive but perceptive: "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."
But that's only half the story--or certainly less than half. Baldwin has far more to say about this nation's white majority; the underlying subject is the predicament of " 'the so-called American Negro,' who remains trapped, disinherited, and despised in a nation that has kept him bondage for nearly four hundred years and is still unable to recognized him as human being." Baldwin correctly posits that, historically, the usual recourse by an oppressed group in such desperate circumstances has been violent upheaval. Throughout history--white history--it is incontrovertible that "violence and heroism have been made synonymous," from the Norman Invasion to the American Revolution. And, indeed, in such a nation as ours, "there is no reason that black men should be expected to be more patient, more forbearing, more farseeing than white; indeed, quite the contrary."
Despite the historical legacy and Baldwin's dire warnings of the potential for bloodshed, Baldwin nevertheless remains cautiously hopeful for the future, and he predicted--correctly, notwithstanding church bombings and assassinations and riots--that integration and civil rights victories and black advancement might be achieved with relatively little violence, certainly when compared to the horrors other revolutions have engendered. For one thing, blacks had--and have--an advantage: they understand, all too well, white Americans, while the reverse is not--and has never been--true: "Ask any Negro what he knows about the white people with whom he works. And then ask the white people with whom he works what they know about him."
For another, American black history has, if anything, been testimony "to nothing less then the perpetual achievement of the impossible." Only by acknowledging the past and confronting the future Americans can "achieve our country, and change the history of the world."
This book by James Baldwin left me with more than just the simple enjoyment of a good read, but it also left me to think deeper about the issues and reasons behind racism and races, power and control, and the even the various proposed resolutions to end racism. In the beginning, Baldwin shares how he (and a lot of minorities) come into knowing racism as a child growing up. A lot of what he shared I can remember feeling or questioning when I was growing up. Baldwin also analyzes the solution proposed to end racism and also gives his opinion on what it would take for all races to actually achieve total equality amongst all. Even today, this book makes you look deeper into this issue and at the people involved and why we all act and react the way we do. Only after understanding can we begin to apply valid solutions. This book should be read by everyone.
Perspective Determines Change
Originally published in 1963, James Baldwin's, "The Fire Next Time", is an indicator of what society was like as many viewed it, and forces questions about the degree of change that has happened since he originally wrote the work. The position or the perspective of the reader, will greatly affect how each reader reacts. One issue that I do not believe can be doubted is that this is a powerful, and passionate book, written and published at a time the Author risked all manner of hatred and violence upon him. Published when Mr. Baldwin was 39, the book is not the rose colored view of youth, nor the writing with an entire lifetime to reflect upon. It does not suffer from the first, nor does it fall short do to the latter. It is writing that will elicit powerful emotions by all those who read it.
Great change for the better has taken place. Former Joint Chief Of Staff Colin Powell will soon occupy the most powerful post ever held by a person of color in this Country's History. This was probably unmanageable in 1963. However this example does not represent the state of change in our Society. As an argument for how much change has taken place for the better between the races, a person pointed out to me the march on the anniversary of the sick events in Selma Alabama, and the lack of any violence. My feeling was that if the President Of The United States had made the same march with the same people in 1965, as the President did recently, the violence would surely have been different. The participation of The President and all that surround him tend to minimize Civil Rights abuse in his presence.
There is no definitive measure of how much change has taken place, who is responsible, and who if anyone is to blame. The ease with which "The Race Card" is played by individuals of any color, at any level of our Country may not measure change, but it certainly does indicate that whatever change is needed is not yet completed.
A very powerful work about a conflict that still occupies too much time as an issue in our Nation. This book is one man's views, and his shared personal experiences. He writing is not the final word, but after 38 years, the fact that his work and his thoughts are still relevant, speaks for the work and the man who wrote it.
A work of prophetic power
Of all of the great authors of the 20th century, James Baldwin was probably closest, both in style and moral authority, to some of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. "The Fire Next Time," first published back in 1963, represents Baldwin at his most impassioned. This book consists of an open letter to Baldwin's nephew, along with an extended autobiographical essay. Throughout the book, Baldwin writes with insight and compassion about the complexities of race in the United States.
Baldwin writes of his spiritual crisis as a teenager--a crisis which led to his career as a youth minister in an African-American Christian church. He writes bitterly of his ultimate disillusionment with the emptiness and hypocrisy he found in the church. Baldwin also writes of his meeting with Elijah Muhammad, the fiery leader of the Nation of Islam sect and mentor to controversial Black leader Malcolm X.
Baldwin's testament is a harsh critique of 20th century Christendom. Reflecting upon the rise of the Nazis in one of the world's most "Christian" nations, Baldwin declares, "From my own point of view, the fact of the Third Reich alone makes obsolete forever any question of Christian superiority, except in technological terms."
"The Fire Next time" is both an illuminating historical document of a turbulent era, and a superb piece of literary craftsmanship. All those interested in the art of nonfiction prose should take time to experience Baldwin's mastery of the medium. But even more importantly, we should all take time to consider his ideas on race, on religion, on prejudice, and on hope.
A powerful snapshot of America in the 1960's
I was born in 1968, six years after The Fire Next Time was published - I lived the period that Baldwin chronicles vicariously through my parents. There are few essayists who equal Baldwin's gift for finding the right phrase to communicate a concept, both intellectually and emotionally. Indeed it's the emotion that Baldwin so effectively weaves into his prose that gives The Fire Next Time its impact. At its core, this essay is a plea.
Baldwin dissects the nature of Black-White relations in the early sixties. He rejects the both the pandering of White liberals and the separatist rhetoric of Black radicals as simplistic; the former as condescending and insincere and the latter as unrealistic and reactionary. The conclusion that he reaches is that Blacks and Whites, whether they realize it or not, are locked in a symbiotic relationship, and destruction for one will mean destruction for both. Put positively, however, the key to their salvations are linked. No one is free until all are free.
Baldwin focuses on two important anecdotes. The first deals with his seduction by the church, his brief career as a child minister, and his subsequent rejection of Christianity. The second deals with an encounter with Elijah Muhammad, then leader of the Nation of Islam. Both show religion as an escape mechanism, and both are told with a convincing immediacy and a sense of candor.
Baldwin's rejection of Christianity appears to be a crucial step in his awakening, and in his rejection of the beliefs that 60's White society expected Black people to hold. The church for Baldwin was an escape mechanism, but having been consoled he soon fled the church, overwhelmed by its hypocrisy and abuses, both historical and current. He concludes "...whoever wishes to become a truly moral human being...must first divorce himself for all of the prohibitions, crimes, and hypocrisies of the Christian church." In the end Baldwin refuses to accept Christianity's (and, by implication, White society's) definition of him as the descendent of Ham, cursed forever.
Baldwin turns the same critical eye on the Nation of Islam. He's sympathetic to the emotions and suffering that have pushed Black people into internalizing the NOI's separatist rhetoric, but he recognizes that this will not be the salvation of the Black community. Baldwin writes "...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. The paradox...is that the American Negro can have no future anywhere, on any continent, as long as he is unwilling to accept his past."
Despite his cutting commentary on 60's White society, Baldwin in his heart is an integrationist. His rejection of the Nation of Islam and their philosophy is his rejection of the idea of adopting the very tactics that Whites have used against Blacks; "Whoever debases other is debasing himself", he states emphatically. Baldwin understands imitation and aggression as a tactic, but he finds awe not in an eye-for-an-eye, but in a community who's dignity has produced children of kindergarten age capable of walking through a mob to get to their schoolhouse.
Not every metaphor which Baldwin uses in this essay works, and he does at time stray in his musings, but as a snapshot of the state of America in the sixties The Fire Next Time is a powerful piece of writing. As I read this book there were passages with which I identified personally; sentiments that I myself have felt but could never have articulated so effectively. There were other passages in which I was an outsider looking in. As a Black American reading this essay some forty years after it was published, this gives me a good yardstick as to how far America has come, and in what areas we are still lacking.