Why had I not heard of James Baldwin or read any of his works until 2020? In college, I studied English, and although we covered many novels and American writers, I was never required to read James Baldwin. A couple years ago, I picked up If Beale Street Could Talk and had my heart broken. Last year, I read Giovanni’s Room and finished it in awe of Baldwin’s talent. This week, I read The Fire Next Time, and now I say that James Baldwin is one of my favorite writers of all time.
After reading The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation by Anna Malaika Tubbs (read my review here), I had the inclination to read something by James Baldwin. The Fire Next Time is a collection of two essays, both which read somewhat like mementos of memoir, and so after having learned more about his mother and his life growing up in Harlem, I found these essays even more powerful.
In the first and shorter essay, Baldwin writes a letter to his nephew, also named James. In just a few pages, Baldwin expresses a deep and fatherly love towards his nephew while still conveying the grim reality of their circumstance:
This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish.James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, p. 7
He writes that James has been given this lot because he is black “and for no other reason.” In facing this fact, Baldwin emphasizes that they must love themselves all the more, must hold steadfast to one another and love themselves fiercely. He goes on to advise James that they should not endeavor to mimic the ways of white Americans in hopes of acceptance or integration. White Americans are “still trapped in a history which they do not understand” and thus need to look inside themselves for their own freedom; to attempt to be like the white man would be an act of self-sabotage. Baldwin implores his nephew to approach them with love.
The second essay is a contemplation on religion, race, and America, as Baldwin begins with recounting his adolescent preoccupation with Christianity and his time as a youth pastor. It is a much longer essay, and one that spans the majority of the book. Baldwin describes his meeting with the Honorable Elijah Muhammad after his televised conversation with Malcolm X, and he identifies various issues this nation is troubled with. With both criticism and compassion, Baldwin writes:
White people cannot, in the generality, be taken as models of how to live. Rather, the white man is himself in sore need of new standards, which will release him from his confusion and place him once again in fruitful communion with the depths of his own being…
In short, we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation–if we are really, that is, to achieve our identity, our maturity, as men and women.James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, p. 97
His observations and poignant words are truly genius and a testament to his transcendent heart. Although published in 1963, his work is still undeniably immediate, as timely now as ever. While reading this, not only was I stunned by the power of his voice, but a part of me also whispered a wish to have been his friend, to have known him in his time. There is little I can say to most acutely describe the intelligence, beauty, and grace of his work, but if I have done some justice, I hope you will read him soon, just as I hope one day soon for us to look upon one another in this country with our own self-awareness and empathetic loving-kindness.
Thanks for reading.
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