The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin offers a strikingly personal and intimate account of James Baldwin‘s early life in Harlem while examining the consequences of racial injustice. Rooted in an intellectualism that is simultaneously and unapologetically provocative by design and delivery, The Fire Next Time this 106-page personal search for meaning wedded with civil rights call for action for 1963 America. These two essays (or letters?) were targeted to a white and black American audience, 100-years after the Emancipation Proclamation, attacking the terrible legacy of racism and calling for legitimate cultural and social action in American civil rights.
I am a male in my forties, married without kids, “parent” to a well-mannered dog. In reading Mr. Baldwin, there are parts of the struggle that I intellectually recognize as difficult. I can look back to inequities in the outcomes and treatment for people of color in the day and see wrong. I see efforts to legislate change as well meaning movements towards justice aimed at the legacy of institutional wrong. I see the struggle there is with race in elements of society in 2017, and the honest difficulty people have in how society thinks about racial violence, policing, access to fair treatment in professional opportunities, and more. My early experiences with race are not the same as James Baldwin‘s in Much of the account is deeply personal, getting into the daily frustrations. Baldwin helps you feel the intimately devastating realities of needing to have a gimmick to struggle with being black and poor in Harlem. He provides the context of needing a “gimmick” to overcome the carnal or religious seductions of this time and place; he sees education as a path that led to nothing for too many. Regarding education, Baldwin sees that merit in educational accomplishment wasn’t rewarded with professional opportunity.
The first letter in The Fire Next Time was “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation.” This reflected Baldwin‘s evaluation on the racism in America in the 1960’s, along with guidance to his nephew for behaving as a catalyst for changing the fortunes of an aggrieved black population. Baldwin contends, as this excerpt from eNotes shares, that “White America holds fast to ideals that are not actually practiced. This failure to practice its ideals is proven in its steadfast denial of the value of black lives. Baldwin tells his nephew that American society has narrowly circumscribed his world so that his dreams will never move beyond the street corner of the Harlem ghetto.”
The second, longer essay for The Fire Next Time is “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind.” In this essay, Baldwin first discusses the how growing up in the Harlem ghetto lead him to becoming involved in the church, almost competing with his father who simultaneously preached at the church. Later, Baldwin reflects on the black nationalism as occasioned in meeting with Elijah Muhammad of the Nation of Islam. In the the third movement here, Baldwin offers solutions to the racial conflict confronting America in 1963.
Much of the account is deeply personal, getting into the daily frustrations. Baldwin helps you feel the intimately devastating realities of needing to have a gimmick to struggle with being black and poor in Harlem. He provides the context of needing a “gimmick” to overcome the carnal or religious seductions of this time and place; he sees education as a path that led to nothing for too many. Regarding education, Baldwin sees that merit in educational accomplishment wasn’t rewarded with professional opportunity.
(Quote from The Fire Next Time)
The broader message, that is solution, that James Baldwin offers in The Fire Next Time was that both white America and black America broaden its conceptions of reality in order to transcend their experience, beliefs, and fears with relation to their own stereotypes of themselves and others. The effort to reach across the gulf of difference in a real sense, not simply through legislation but in actual practice, is where meaningful change would and could be realized for the benefit of an aggrieved and aggrieving population.
Overall, I give the book 3.5-stars out of 5.
Matt – Monday, May 29, 2017