Review and Excerpts
The fire Next Time, by James Baldwin
1993, Paperback, Vintage, 106 pages
"A national bestseller when it first appeared in 1963, The Fire Next Time galvanized the nation, gave passionate voice to the emerging civil rights movement—and still lights the way to understanding race in America today."
In this classic gut-punch of prose James Baldwin opens his soul for the reader to peer in. What we find is not necessarily comfortable or unfiltered, but an unvarnished portrait of what it’s like to live in the skin of a black man—in America, in Harlem, in the early 1960’s. The picture that emerges, one brush stroke at a time, is at the same time as raw and blunt as it is courageous and beautiful. Written on the occasion of the one hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, The Fire Next Time “consists of two ‘letters’ that exhort Americans, both black and white, to attack the terrible legacy of racism.” The New York Times Book Review described it as "sermon, ultimatum, confession, deposition, testament, and chronicle.”
Here are three short excerpts:
The treatment accorded the Negros during the second World War marks for me a turning point in the Negros’s relation to America. To put it briefly, and somewhat too simply, a certain hope died, a certain respect for white Americans faded. One began to pity them. Or to hate them. You must put yourself in the skin of a man who is wearing the uniform of his country as a candidate for death in its defense and is called a “nigger” by his comrades in arms and his officers, who’s almost always given the hardest, ugliest, most menial work to do, who knows that the white GI has informed the Europeans that he is subhuman, (so much for the American male sexual security), who does not dance at the US while the white knight soldiers dance there, and does not drink in the same bars white soldiers drink in, and who watches German Prisoners of War being treated by Americans with more human dignity than he has ever received at their hands. And who, at the same time, as a human being, is far freer in a strange land than he has ever been at home. Home. The very word begins to have a despairing and diabolical ring.
You must consider what happens to this person, after all he’s endured, when he returns home. Search in his shoes for a job, for a place to live, ride in his skin, on segregated buses. See with his eyes, the sign saying, “white” and “colored,” and especially the signs that say, “white ladies” and “colored women.” Look into the eyes of his wife, look into the eyes of his son. Listen, with his ears to political speeches, North and South. Imagine yourself being told to wait. And all this is happening in the richest and freest country in the world, and in the middle of the 20th century.
The subtle and deadly change of heart that might occur in you, would be involved with the realization that a civilization is not destroyed by wicked people. It is not necessarily that people be wicked, but only that they be spineless.
If one is continually surviving the worst that life can bring, one eventually ceases to be controlled by a fear of what life can bring. Whatever it brings, must be born. And at this level of experience, one’s bitterness begins to be palatable and hatred becomes too heavy a sack to carry. The apprehension of life here so briefly and inadequately sketched has been the experience of generations of Negroes, and it helps to explain how they have endured and how they have been able to produce children of Kindergarten age who can walk through mobs to get to school.
It demands great force and great cunning continually, to assault the mighty and indifferent fortress of white supremacy as Negroes in this country have done so long. It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your child.
The Negro’s boys and girls who are facing mobs today, come out of long line of improbable aristocrats, the only genuine aristocrats this country has produced. I say “this country” because their frame of reference was totally American. They were hueing out of the mountain of white supremacy the stone of their individuality. I have great respect for that unsung army of black men and women who trudged down back lanes and entered back doors saying, “yes sir” and “no ma’am,” in order to acquire a new roof for the schoolhouse, new books, a new chemistry lab, new beds for the dormitories. They did not like saying “yes sir” and “no ma’am,” but the country was in no hurry to educate Negroes. These black men and women knew that the job had to be done and they put their pride in their pockets in order to do it.
It is hard to believe that they were in any way inferior to the white men and women who opened those back doors. It is very hard to believe that those men and women raising their children, eating their greens, crying their curses, weeping their tears, singing their songs, making their love, as the sun rose, as the sun set, are in any way inferior to the white men and women who crept over to share these splendors after the sun went down.
But we must avoid the European error. We must not suppose that because the situation, the ways, the perceptions of black people so radically differed from those of whites, they were racially superior. I am proud of these people, not because of their color, but because of their intelligence and their spiritual force and their beauty. The country should be proud of them too. But alas, not many people in this country even know of their existence. And the reason for this is that a knowledge of a role these people played, and play, in American life would reveal more about America to Americans than Americans wish to know.
A bill is coming in that I fear America is not prepared to pay. The problem of the 20th century, wrote W.E. B. Dubois around 60 years ago is the problem of the color line, a fearful and delicate problem, which compromises, when it does not corrupt, all the American efforts to build a better world here, there, or anywhere. It is for this reason that everything white Americans think they believe in must now be re-examined. What one would not like to see again is the consolidation of peoples on the basis of their color. But as long as we in the West place on color the value that we do, we make it impossible for the great unwashed to consolidate themselves according to any other principle.
Color is not a human or a personal reality. It is a political reality. But this is a distinction so extremely hard to make that the West has not been able to make it yet. And at the center of this dreadful storm, this vast confusion, stand black people of this nation who must now share the fate of a nation that has never accepted them to which they were brought in chains.
Well, if this is so, one had no choice to do all in one’s power to change that fate and at no matter what risk: eviction, imprisonment, torture, death. For the sake of one’s children in order to minimize the bill that they must pay one must be careful not to take refuge in any delusion. And the value placed on the color of the skin is always and everywhere and forever, a delusion. I know that what I am asking is impossible, but in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least that one can demand.
White people were, and are, astounded by the holocaust in Germany. They did not know that they could act that way. But I very much doubt whether black people were astounded, at least in the same way. For my part, the fate of the Jews and the world’s indifference to it frighten me very much. I could not be free in those sorrowful years that this human indifference concerning which I knew so much already would be my portion on the day that the United States decided to murder its Negroes systematically, instead of little by little and catch as catch can.
I was, of course, authoritatively assured that what had happened to the Jews in Germany could not happen to the Negroes in America. But I thought, bleakly, that the German Jews had probably believed similar counselors, and again, I could not share the white man’s vision of himself for the very good reason that white men in America do not behave toward black men the way they behave toward each other.