What’s Auntie Reading Now: Race in American Science Fiction
Review: The Fire Next Time
Title: The Fire Next Time
Author: James Baldwin
Publisher: Vintage Internationall
Publisher’s Blurb: With clarity, conviction, and passion, James Baldwin delivers a dire warning of the effects of racism that remains urgent nearly sixty years after its original publication.
In the first of two essays, “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation,” Baldwin offers kind and unflinching counsel on what it means to be Black in the United States and explains the twisted logic of American racism.
In “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind,” Baldwin recounts his spiritual journey into the church after a religious crisis at the age of fourteen, and then back out of it again, as well as his meeting with Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam. Throughout, Baldwin urges us to confront the oppressive institutions of race, religion, and nationhood itself, and insists that shared resilience among both Black and white people is the only way forward. As much as it is a reckoning with America’s racist past, The Fire Next Time is also a clarion call to care, courage, and love, and a candle to light the way.
“You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger.”
In the cover photo of James Baldwin on my edition of The Fire Next Time, he looks concerned. Worried even. Almost hopeless. I wouldn’t blame him, being a black man in America is horrible. Both Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates taught me that. Their words paint a picture of near hopelessness for racial issues in America.
Recently, a friend asked what I got out of reading fiction. It was an intellectual meeting of the minds. He reads predominately science, I read mostly SF/F. And while what I have read by Baldwin and Coates (Between the World and Me) are personal essays, my answer applies. The stories I read show me what it’s like to be someone different from who I am. Coates, Toni Morrison (Beloved, Jazz, Sula), and now Baldwin, show a glimpse of what it’s like to be black in America. They help me try to understand.
Those are stories I could never hear by asking someone to tell me. I’m a white woman with white privilege. How do I get to know someone well enough they trust me with their story? How do I learn to relate to it? Reading provides access to an otherwise closed world..
The book The Fire Next Time is comprised of two essays. “My Dungeon Shook,” a letter to his nephew about being a black man in America and “Down at the Cross,” about Baldwin’s experience with organized religion and where it led him..
Baldwin’s letter to his nephew pulls no punches. It cannot be overstated, this country was founded on racism, works like these are important for understanding what that means. (Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of America tells the real history of America’s racist and sexist founding. It is a hard read to get through.)
My notes are littered with quotes from “The Fire Next Time,” each brutal and deeply honest. It’s hard to write without just letting Baldwin hold the floor. While he reminds his nephew, James, “… most of mankind is not all of mankind,” he also says, “You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being.” Is there a more merciless way to make sure someone (a family member, no less) understands what it is like to be a black male in America?
As it was in 1963 when this essay was published, 100 years after Emancipation, so it is now nearly 60 years later. “The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you.” Everyone’s life is dictated by what white men say, this cuts across all forms of prejudice. But being black and male in America is its own special hell-dimension. Imagine having to warn your children about how to behave while around white people. Imagine having to prep them to go to school, the grocery store, and learn how to drive. Because the people they meet cannot be trusted to behave in a sane and safe way. Further, imagine having to warn your children that you’ve done nothing wrong but be born with a darker skin tone. It’s completely unfathomable to me.
“Whoever debases others is debasing himself.”
“Down at the Cross” continues this theme but turns to a more tightly focused story about Baldwin’s experience with organized religion, both as an adolescent preacher and his adulthood meeting with Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam. The conclusions Baldwin reaches are the same millions have reached, religion is filled with hypocrisy and offers little hope for a truly better life on this plane. No one knows about any other rewards elsewhere.
“…but I do not know many Negroes who are eager to be ‘accepted’ by white people, still less to be loved by them; they, that blacks, simply don’t wish to be beaten over the head by the whites every instant of our brief passage on this planet.” How many times have I read about people going along just to get along? Keeping our heads low and not drawing attention to ourselves is how we hope to avoid bullying. Anyone ever bullied knows anything is fodder for today’s smack down. Nothing we do will ever appease our bullies. Nothing an African-American can do will appease the racists around them. There is no “passing.” Their skin color is a reminder of the shame white supremacists feel and refuse to deal with.
Two quotes about Baldwin’s adolescent relationship with his father stand out. (1) “The fear that I heard in my father’s voice, for example, when he realized that I really believed I could do anything a white boy could do, and had every intention of proving it was not all like the fear I heard when one of us was ill or had fallen down the stairs or strayed too far from the house.” and (2) “My father slammed across the face with his great palm, and in the moment everything flooded back – all the hatred and all the fear, and the depth of a merciless resolve to kill my father rather than allow my father to kill me – and I knew that all those sermons and tears and all that repentance and rejoicing had changed nothing.”
Baldwin’s need to outdo his father is the motivation for staying and thriving in the church. Adolescence is a complex time to begin with, and Baldwin’s adolescence as a black teenager in Harlem is especially fraught. His parents hold him to strict Christian standards but he is surrounded by evidence that God is for white people. He learned all the tricks of the ministerial trade and was popular among Harlem congregations.
After a visit from a Jewish schoolmate, which brought into focus the hypocrisies of Christianity, in all its forms. His father asks, “Is he Christian?” and Baldwin’s response “No, he’s Jewish … and a better Christian than you” leads to physical abuse. It is at this point Baldwin realizes, “And the blood of the Lamb had not cleansed me in any way whatever. I was just as black as I had been the day that I was born.” Being other than white and male is transgressive and while religion teaches about the rewards in heaven, their God is a heavy taskmaster. Shortly afterward, he left his popular ministry.
Years later, Baldwin is invited to have dinner with Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam in Chicago. The richness of the home Baldwin is invited to, and the private car which later drops him off in another part of the city are well commented on. Riches for those who oppress others in the name of “love.”
Here the comparison of the Nation’s version of Islam with the Christianity Baldwin knows so well points out the same hypocrisies. It is not the tenets of the Middle Eastern prophet, the Jesus figure, who professed love and turning the other cheek, The man to whom the Beatitudes are attributed, who was murdered by his own people to satisfy a vague promise of “justice.” Neither of these religions are about love, but about power over others in order to bring order that can only be satisfied if non-members are oppressed. Elijah Muhammed preached that all white people were the devil, and that Black Christians hadn’t yet found their way to his tenets of Islam (not the tenets of Muhammad, the Prophet who brought Allah into being.)
“People always seem to band together in accordance to a principle that has nothing to do with love, a principle that releases them from personal responsibility.”
Baldwin’s eloquence and passion are framed in the all-consuming topic of being black – that is to say, descended from slavery. How else can a black writer think and write about what affects his attitudes most?
“I am called Baldwin because I was either sold by my African tribe or kidnapped out of into the hands of a white Christian named Baldwin, who forced me to kneel at the foot of the cross. I am, then, both visibly and legally the descendant of slave in a white Protestant country, and this is what it means to be an American Negro, this is who he is – a kidnapped pagan, who was sold like and animal and treated like one, who was once defined by the American Constitution as ‘three-fifths’ of a man, and who, according to the Dred Scott decision, had no rights that white man was bound to respect.”
It has been 400 years since the first slave ship landed in what would become the United States of America. At the time of The Fire Next Time’s publication, a mere hundred years had passed since Emancipation. At no time has there ever been a respite for black Americans. In 2021, race is still a big issue. Historians will no doubt write about this period, pointing out that politics made it easier and acceptable for what once could only be muttered behind white hoods now to be expressed in the open. Implicit bias has become a hot topic at work places. George Floyd’s killer got 22.5 years, a white cop has been held accountable for his murderous actions.
I read these authors and these books so I can learn to be better, and try to overcome the biases I have unwittingly taken on. Further, I read so I can understand better what bigotry has wrought on society. I search for the ability to love as Baldwin himself wrote, “I use the word ‘love’ here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace – not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”
What’s Auntie Reading Now? The Fire Next Time
New to the Stacks: 2021
The Art Of Dale Chihuly by Burgard, Tim
How to Change Your Mind by Pollan, Michael
Out front the following sea by Angstman, Leah
Asimov’s Guide To The Bible by Asimov, Isaac
The Alien Stars by Pratt, Tim – read (to do list)
Villains by Necessity by Woods, Sara
In Your Eyes by Derus, Richard M. -read (to do list)
The Girl Wakes by Lau, Carmen
Remapping Wonderland by Various
Footnote 1 by Various – read
Footnote 2 by Various
Binti: The Complete Trilogy by Okorafor, Nnedi
Women in Purple: Rulers of Medieval Byzantium by Herrin, Judith
The Four Agreements by Ruiz, Don Miguel – read
God in the Qur’an by Miles, Jack
The book of delights by Ross, Gay
Coyote Songs by Iglesias, Gabino read (to do list)
Devil in a Blue Dress by Mosley, Walter
A Rage in Harlem by Himes, Chester
Zero Saints by Iglesias, Gabino – read (to do list)
Forging the Franchise: The Political Origins of the Women’s Vote by Teele, Dawn Langan
Book Of Revelation by Beal, Timothy – read
The Miraculous Flying House of Loreto by Velez, Karin
New to the Stacks: 2020
Love in the Time of Cholera by Marquez, Garcia Gabriel (Pearl Ruled)
The Shore of Women by Sargent, Pamela – read
When Will There Be Good News? by Atkinson, Kate – read (No Review)
The Book of Joan by Yuknavitch, Lidia – read (No Review)
Out of mesopotamia by Salar, Abdoh
In Search Of The Lost Chord: 1967 And The Hippie Idea by Goldberg, Danny read (to do list)
To Hold Up the Sky by Liu, Cixin
A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories by O’Connor, Flannery- read (No Review)
The Wives of Henry Oades by Moran, Johanna- read (No Review)
Spirits and Thieves by Rhodes, Morgan – read (No Review)
The Rush’s Edge by Smith, Ginger – read
The women’s revolution, Russia 1905-1917 by Cox, Judy – read
George Orwell Illustrated by Smith, David
Marx’s Capital by Smith, David -read
The Fire Next Time by Baldwin, James – read
Sex in the world of myth by Leeming, David Adams Read
The goddess by Leeming, David Adams
The conspiracy trial of the Chicago Seven by Schultz, John
A People’s History of the United States by Zinn, Howard – reading
The Weight of Ink by Kadish, Rachel – read
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Clarke, Susanna
Thinking in Pictures by Grandin, Temple
My Beloved World by Sotomayor, Sonia
The Sirens of Titan by Vonnegut, Kurt
Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology by Reynolds, Richard – read (No Review)
The Relentless Moon by Kowal, Mary Robinette
The Language Of The Night by Le Guin, Ursula K.
Trapped in the Mirror: Adult Children of Narcissists in Their Struggle for Self by Golomb, Elan
Watchmen as literature by Van Ness, Sara J.- read (No Review)
Parable of the Sower by Butler, Octavia E.
Junk City by Boilard, Jon -read (No Review)
The Music Book by Osborn, Karen – read
Back to the wine jug by Taylor, Joe
Watchmen by Moore, Alan – read (No Review)
The Nickel Boys by Whitehead, Colson – read
The Water Dancer by Coates, Ta-Nehisi
Dark mirror by Gellman, Barton – read (No Review)
Playing in the Dark by Morrison, Toni
Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene by Ehrman, Bart D.
Berkeley at War: The 1960s by Rorabaugh, W.J.
Things that can and cannot be said by Roy, Arundhati – read
Cinderella Liberator by Solnit, Rebecca – read
Berkeley: The Student Revolt by Draper, Hal – read
The Books of Earthsea by Le Guin, Ursula K.
Robert Duncan in San Francisco by Rumaker, Michael -read (No Review)
History as mystery by Parenti, Michael – read (No Review)
Feminisms redux by Edited by Warhol-Down, Robyn and Herndl, Diane Price
American Audacity: In Defense of Literary Daring by Giraldi, William
A Book of Book Lists by Johnson, Alex – read (No Review)
Becoming Superman by Straczynski, J. Michael
Howl on Trial by Morgan, Bill and Peters, Nancy Joyce – read (No Review)
Future Perfect: American Science Fiction of the Nineteenth Century by Franklin, H. Bruce
Legends edited by Silverberg, Robert – read (No Review)
Six Memos for the Next Millennium by Calvino, Italo
Why I Read by Lesser, Wendy
Side Life by Toutonghi, Steve – read (No Review)
This is how You Lose the Time War by El-Mohtar, Amal and Gladstone, Max
The Future of Another Timeline by Newitz, Annalee – read
Gideon the Ninth by Muir, Tamsyn – read
Sixteenth Watch by Cole, Myke – read (No Review)
The City In The Middle Of The Night by Anders, Charlie Jane – read
The Lost War by Anderson, Justin – read (No Review)
Small days and nights by Tishani, Doshi – read
The Shadow King by Mengiste, Maaza – read
Mickey Mouse: From Walt to the World by Deja, Andreas
To Do List: The Nickel Boys
Title: The Nickel Boys
Author: Colson Whitehead
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Publisher’s Blurb: In this Pulitzer Prize-winning, New York Times bestselling follow-up to The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead brilliantly dramatizes another strand of American history through the story of two boys unjustly sentenced to a hellish reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida.
When Elwood Curtis, a black boy growing up in 1960s Tallahassee, is unfairly sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, he finds himself trapped in a grotesque chamber of horrors. Elwood’s only salvation is his friendship with fellow “delinquent” Turner, which deepens despite Turner’s conviction that Elwood is hopelessly naive, that the world is crooked, and that the only way to survive is to scheme and avoid trouble. As life at the Academy becomes ever more perilous, the tension between Elwood’s ideals and Turner’s skepticism leads to a decision whose repercussions will echo down the decades.
Based on the real story of a reform school that operated for 111 years and warped the lives of thousands of children, The Nickel Boys is a devastating, driven narrative.
Oh lordy, this book is searing, devastating and enthralling at all once. Whitehead’s powerful writing tells the story of two boys in a hell hole of a juvenile detention home in Florida. No one could possibly believe in a “post-racist” society while events like this happen.
Full review to come.
To Do List: The Memoir of 7Stillwell
A memoir has been chasing me for years and I’ve kept running. Recently, like the last three years or so, it keeps popping up in writing assignments or conversations with mentors and teachers.
Today’s revelation by Billy Porter that he’s been living with HIV for 14 years wasn’t stunning. The things he had to say about shame, and hiding his status because of that shame was stunning. Little electric thrills ran around my brain.
Then things really clicked for me when he spoke about figuring out why he was still alive to tell the story. I was brought to tears at the bravery and vulnerability he showed.
My journey for several years has been to understand myself and what feminism means for me. You might recall I wrote about Kameron Hurley‘s book The Geek Feminist Revolution making me ugly cry and having a profound affect on me. After realizing I can only look at a book through the lens of Feminist theory made me decide to go all in and declare I specialize in SF/F feminism.
There’s a gaping hole in the SF/F community where good critical theory would fit nicely. There’s an even bigger hole where equal rights should go. I want to be a part of the fight to make things better for everyone in the community.
Every day, there are little revelations and realizations about the gaping holes in my emotional structure. The trauma and dysfunction that I somehow survived, and managed to come through. Healing and understanding is a lifetime process. It is slow, frustrating, and terrifying.
Given the state of women’s rights around the world, the not so creeping misogyny and sexism, I realized I can’t run anymore. My memoir insists on being written, and so it shall. Slowly, frustratingly, and very terrifyingly.
I have much to be grateful for, and today I give a big chunk of it to Billy Porter for being the light.
To Do List: The Rush’s Edge
Title: The Rush’s Edge
Author: Ginger Smith
Publisher: Angry Robot Books
Publisher’s Blurb: Halvor Cullen was built to be a hero. But he’s never felt like one.
As a gene-spliced, tech-enhanced ‘VAT’ super soldier, Hal was made to fight hard and burn out young, then spend the short remainder of his life forever chasing an elusive adrenaline rush. Thankfully his best friend and former commander is determined to prevent that from happening by keeping Hal busy salvaging crashed spaceships along the Spiral’s Edge.
But when a new member joins their crew, and a mysterious sphere they bring aboard the ship unleashes an alien presence, Hal’s desires and malfunctions threaten to bring them all to the point of destruction…
The Rush’s Edge is a great SF quest/opera/family/romance novel. Debut author Ginger Smith gifts readers with an adventure story which delves into the meanings of humanity and morality.
Full review to come.
To Do List: The Shore of Women
Title: The Shore of Women
Author: Pamela Sargent
Published: 2014 (originally published 1986)
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publisher’s Blurb: A dystopian tale of a power struggle between the sexes in the post-nuclear future, perfect for readers of Margaret Atwood and Ursula K. Le Guin.
After a nuclear holocaust, women rule the world. Using advanced technology, they’ve expelled men from their vast walled cities to roam the countryside in primitive bands, bringing them back only for the purpose of loveless reproduction under the guise of powerful goddesses.
When one young woman, Birana, questions her society’s deception, she finds herself exiled among the very men she has been taught to scorn. She crosses paths with a hunter, Arvil, and the two grow close as they evade the ever-threatening female forces and the savage wilderness men. Their love just might mend their fractured world—if they manage to survive.
Hailed as “one of the genre’s best writers” by the Washington Post Book World, Pamela Sargent is the author of numerous novels, including Earthseed and Venus of Dreams. The winner of the Nebula and Locus awards, she has also coauthored several Star Trek novels with George Zebrowski.
A dear friend knowing my proclivity for all things feminist in SF/F took some of his hard got by money and bought the ebook for me.
Things in 1986, when it was written, were much different than 2020, when I read it. But I’m still appalled The Shore of Women would be considered feminist. My review is part of a larger project I have in mind considering the treatment of women in books I’ve recently read, both in LitFic and SF/F.
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