Posted by Christopher A. Smith on 2/26/2002
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.