Sunday, November 6, 2016

Book Review: The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin (1963)

Reissue paperback cover of The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin, 1963.

Author James Baldwin, 1924-1987.
James Baldwin was a gifted writer of fiction, essays, plays, and poems. Born in 1924, Baldwin was a member of a generation of American writers that produced an astonishing number of public intellectuals-figures like Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, William F. Buckley, Jr., William Styron, and Kurt Vonnegut. By 1963 he had established a reputation as one of America’s most talented young writers, and that year he would appear on the cover of Time magazine.

James Baldwin’s 1963 book The Fire Next Time was an unvarnished look at race in America, and it’s a book that influenced Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2015 book Between the World and Me. (I reviewed Between the World and Me here.) I’ve owned a copy of The Fire Next Time for many years, but after reading Coates’ book last month, I decided it was the right time to read Baldwin’s book as well. 

The Fire Next Time is comprised of two essays. The first, titled, “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation,” is a short piece written to Baldwin’s 15 year old nephew. The bulk of the book is the second essay, “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind,” in which Baldwin addresses the pertinent racial issues of the day, including Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad, and the Nation of Islam. 

In “Down at the Cross,” Baldwin describes his upbringing in Harlem, and his brief career as a teenage preacher. Baldwin’s language is evocative and memorable throughout the book. Baldwin describes his spiritual crisis at the age of fourteen thus:

“Matters were not helped by the fact that these holy girls seemed rather to enjoy my terrified lapses, our grim, guilty, tormented experiments, which were at once as chill and joyless as the Russian steppes and hotter, by far, than all the fires of Hell.” (p.17)

One of the passages that struck me the most was Baldwin’s assessment of being black in America:

“The universe, which is not merely the stars and the moon and the planets, flowers, grass, and trees, but other people, has evolved no terms for your existence, has made no room for you, and if love will not swing wide the gates, no other power will or can.” (p.30)

Baldwin is blunt and to the point, and these sentences are unfortunately as relevant in 2016 as they were in 1963: “When a white man faces a black man, especially if the black man is helpless, terrible things are revealed. I know.” (p.53) 

Another quote that I found very perceptive about race relations was: “Most Negroes cannot risk assuming that the humanity of white people is more real to them than their color. And this leads, imperceptibly but inevitably, to a state of mind in which, having long ago learned to expect the worst, one finds it very easy to believe the worst.” (p.68)

Eventually, Baldwin lost his religious fervor and moved away from the church. In the second half of “Down at the Cross,” Baldwin describes a meeting he had in Chicago with the Honorable Elijah Muhammed, as he was always referred to, the leader of the Nation of Islam, a black separatist movement that had come to prominence in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Elijah Muhammed’s message of black pride and black nationalism was spread by his charismatic national spokesman, Malcolm X. Baldwin’s meeting with Elijah Muhammed occurred before Muhammed’s split with Malcolm X in 1964. Baldwin is intrigued by the Nation of Islam, but not willing to convert to all of their ideas. 

One of the reasons for Malcolm X’s split with Elijah Muhammed was the revelation that Muhammed had fathered several illegitimate children, and there are a couple of passages in The Fire Next Time that are somewhat humorous given what we now know about Elijah Muhammed’s behavior that James Baldwin didn’t. Baldwin describes the women in Elijah Muhammed’s house as being “…much occupied by a beautiful baby, who seemed to belong to the youngest of the women.” (p.61) One can only wonder if that was one of Elijah Muhammad’s illegitimate children. Baldwin also writes that Muhammed “teased the women, like a father, with no hint of that ugly and unctuous flirtatiousness I knew so well from other churches, and they responded like that, with great freedom and yet from a great and loving distance.” (p.63) Well, it wasn’t so great a distance as Baldwin thought.

Ultimately, Baldwin still believes in integration, and during the dinner says to himself, but not to Elijah Muhammad, “’I love a few people and they love me and some of them are white, and isn’t love more important than color?’” (p.71) At the conclusion of the book, Baldwin repudiates the Nation of Islam’s separatist philosophy, writing, “To create one nation has proved to be a hideously difficult task; there is certainly no need now to create two, one black and one white.” (p.97) 

The Fire Next Time and Between the World and Me cover some of the same ground, but I would argue that Baldwin’s message is easier to swallow than Coates’, as Baldwin was in favor of integration, and Coates never gives the reader any easy answers to the continuing issue of race in America. I prefer Baldwin’s more elegant prose to Coates’ plain and unadorned style. However, both books have many important things to say and are essential reading for anyone interested in the issues that America faces.

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