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.”