“God gave Noah the rainbow sign,
No more water, the fire next time!”
I picture James Baldwin writing this short pair of essays as he sits before a typewriter with a lit cigarette in a humid Harlem apartment; with his ashtray overflowing and coffee stains littering the surfaces around him. The centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation that declared that black men “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free” loomed heavy in his hands as an echo of a promise unfulfilled. It was a freedom that never came, in spite of the fact that he lived in what he argues is “the richest and freest country in the world,” but he understands his membership in its society is tenuous and conditional, and that the access to that level of freedom enjoyed by white men has never been available to him.
The dedication that opens his brief text is a prayer and a poem for his nephew, his namesake, James. It speaks to his beauty and his power, but also to the realities of being born black in a country that seemingly has no place for his beauty or his power if it cannot be controlled or curtailed. He tells his nephew that the sin of his country is that “they have destroyed or are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives, and do not know it, and do not want to know it,” when he speaks of the tears he listens for behind the laughter of his brother, James’ father. He assures James that the “authors of this devastation” are not to be considered innocent, and that indeed the innocence, or what we refer to now as privilege is the passive action of the crime and marks in the masses their complicity.
“You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. 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. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity.”
It seems a dark and foreboding narrative for a text that’s meant to serve as a roadmap for revolution, but also as a governor on that revolution, cautioning against the perils of uprising and the dictators who often rise from the fallout. However, the body of the work is not mired in a depth of negativity or hatred, even though Baldwin has every right to lean in that direction. It is instead an evaluation of the baser nature of man, and more specifically white men that brought this reality through time and into the middle of the twentieth century. He speaks at length about the failure of the church, and organized religion in general, to do anything more than inspire fear and attitudes of supremacy in any person who follows the doctrinaire visions of their so-called faith. He warns of the psychological manipulations of the congregation from the pulpit and how that upsweep of emotionality maintains the attendance of the church and assures that they return and can therefore continue to be ruled by the fear that they’re so ruthlessly injecting into their sermons.
“Heavenly witnesses are a tricky lot, to be used by whoever is closest to Heaven at the time. And legend and theology, which are designed to sanctify our fears, crimes, and aspirations, also reveal them for what they are.”
Man’s fear is the essential focus of The Fire Next Time. Whether it’s the white man’s fear that they’re such a minority on this planet that they need to subjugate and enslave and colonize mass swaths of land and people in order to artificially extend their influence. Or the fear inspired by dictators that causes entire nations of people to cower and cover allowing themselves to be ruled because they’ve run out of hope and are so marked and scared of war that they’re willing to be less than they could be because the fear of the revolution is fresh in their mind. More presciently to today’s circumstance, he speaks of the fear of the Russians. He speaks about how the insidious, creeping nature of their government spreads because of the midcentury lack of knowledge on how to counter it, and their fear that society would not win in such a battle because Russians express a confidence in themselves that cannot be found in a civilization based on an inflated inferiority complex that grew into empire.
“The glorification of one race and the consequent debasement of another—or others—always has been and always will be a recipe for murder. There is no way around this. If one is permitted to treat any group of people with special disfavor because of their race or the color of their skin, there is no limit to what one will force them to endure, and, since the entire race has been mysteriously indicted, no reason not to attempt to destroy it root and branch.”
The aspect of the text that drove me wasn’t the focus on fear or the driving hope for unity –that I admit I have a difficult time understanding exists in a narrative written by a man who by his own account lived a harrowing life because of our country’s divisiveness – no, it’s his use of a metaphorical or possible holocaust that is now permanently embedded in my psyche. Throughout the essays he references the horrors of World War II, and the atrocities of the masses of death that made the holocaust so shocking to black Americans. He notes that black Americans live with the knowledge each day that their existence is purely conditional, and that at any point, what happened with Hitler could happen in the United States.
At this point I began to draw conclusions for how this book would look if Baldwin could write it in 2017. Would he see the countless deaths of black men at the hands of the police as further proof of the tacit acceptance of white people to remain with their foot firmly on the necks of blacks, or would he see it as I see it, as a systematic demoralization through silencing tactics as old as the empire itself? No, it’s not one man ordering the erasure of an entire segment of the population, but sometimes it feels as close as to make no nevermind. Would Baldwin, if he could’ve lived to see today, lose the faith he had for the future in The Fire Next Time?
It cannot be argued that today’s society is a more integrated or just society than it was in 1963 when this book was written. It is simply more sanitized. You cannot say that America is any less a nation of hate when fifty-three percent of white women voted to elect a man who called an entire population of people rapists and murderers, and mocked a man’s disability publicly and shamefully. How would Baldwin feel if he knew that the city in which he grew up treats its black citizens no better today than it did in 1963?
I think Baldwin would keep writing. I think that if a reader can glean anything from this book it’s that Baldwin understood the power of his own intelligence, whether it was in evaluating with whom he chose to associate or his own internal battles, he knew his value. He saw value in others and understood that those who were able to do the same were the ones who would bring change, no matter their color, creed, or orientation. He also knew the freedom of love, and how powerful a force it is, so I think he’d write volumes on the purity of the miracle that is a person who can love against all odds and in spite of all the hate spewed at them. And I think he would want those of us who agree to keep writing, too.
“If we- and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others- do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world”
It seems odd that something written over 50 years ago still stands as a directive today, perhaps even more so than it was when it was written. It’s too close to the G-d’s honest truth of this epoch to be history and so relevant now as it might be written by Ta Nehesi Coates or Michael Eric Dyson. It’s an essential text that I am ashamed to say I hadn’t read before I was made to under compulsion of writing this for my graduate degree. Sure, I’d read Giovanni’s Room and Another Country, but hadn’t felt compelled to read further into Baldwin’s catalogue, and for that, I am deeply regretful. It is on us: good, strong people who can no longer rest on the assurances of equality of a nation who shows no mercy and no path forward as it stands now, to join together our voices, to continue on the successes of this past election in Virginia, Minnesota, Georgia, and New Jersey, and press on. Fight. Raise our fists and use our words.