by James Baldwin, 1963
“A civilization is not destroyed by wicked people; it is not necessary that people be wicked but only that they be spineless.”
I read that sentence and it was as if I had been struck. Much of the book hit me in this way, coming at me as if its words were desperate to be seen. For although The Fire Next Time was written over 50 years ago, its message is, to put it indelicately, TIMELY AS FUCK. This should be history, I thought to myself. I should not be able to identify with this as closely as I do. We should have moved past this by now. Yet there I was, feeling the full weight of Baldwin’s call to action as if it had been published yesterday. It is disheartening and maddening to know how much we need Baldwin’s writings today, but how amazing it is that we have his voice to put out into the world what many of us struggle to put into words. We need writers to do this for us and, even after his death, James Baldwin does the job perfectly.
Written during the centennial anniversary of the Emancipation, The Fire Next Time comprises two essays. The first is a letter to Baldwin’s nephew titled “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation.” The letter is a warning to Baldwin’s nephew, a plea that he should not grow up and believe what the white man tells him he is, that he is worthy of more than history has given him. He explains that society has placed limits on him simply because he was born black, not for anything he has done, and yet he states that his nephew must come to love these oppressors, for they have no hope and are “trapped in a history which they do not understand.” Baldwin’s explanation is that the whites have to think black men inferior to them because it’s wrapped up in their identity, that even if they know better, they find it impossible to act upon that knowledge:
Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar: and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.
Now, before you think “we’ve come so far since then” and “#notallwhites,” I promise you we are still grappling with this loss of identity today and it can be seen in far more than the ongoing strife between black and white. What Baldwin is essentially discussing here is loss of privilege. If a group we thought below us is suddenly afforded the same rights as us, what does that make us? How do we come to terms with being equal with what we thought inferior? I have heard numerous arguments against healthcare and education for immigrants, I have been appalled by the debacle over transgender individuals’ choice of bathrooms, I am terrified to think that, as a woman, I am believed to be unable to govern my own body. All this comes down to fear of loss of privilege by the majority group who believes themselves to be superior, for who are they if we are suddenly proven to be their equals? Might they be forced to admit we are human, if we are not oppressed?
Baldwin’s second essay, titled “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind,” is a similar, if more scathing look at the black man’s place in contemporary America. Attacking police activity, Christianity, the Nation of Islam, and history as a whole, Baldwin’s critique reaches into our lives today. I found his excoriation of Christianity particularly fitting, as he states that he found the principles of the white church to be similar to those the black church:
Blindness, Loneliness, and Terror, the first principle necessarily and actively cultivated in order to deny the two others. I would love to believe that the principles were Faith, Hope, and Charity, but this is clearly not so for most Christians, or for what we call the Christian world.
Baldwin goes on to speak of the Holocaust, saying,
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.
We are still hiding behind the rallying cry that we are a Christian nation, that we must save our country from infidels, we claim we are preventing terrorism by banning those of a certain religion from crossing our borders, and yet how Blind, how Lonely, how Terrified we are.
I could go on. In a mere 106 pages Baldwin writes such an intelligent, pointed attack on an oppressive society that remains deplorably in place. I encourage you all to read this book. We have made strides, yes, but we have also made so many backwards steps and I fear that those of us who were once so obviously oppressed believe that oppression has disappeared forever, and in believing that we are free, have only turned around to oppress another group, to claim our superiority in a country built on bloodshed and inequality. I’ll end with the following eerily prescient quote. Baldwin could not have known where 2017 would find us, and yet his warning is as urgent as it is pertinent:
Time and time and time again, the people discover that they have merely betrayed themselves into the hands of yet another Pharaoh, who, since he was necessary to put the broken country together, will not let them go.
[Book Riot Read Harder Challenge: read a classic by an author of color.]