Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

If there are two things people love to talk about they are race and religion.  The best thing is when both of those topics are discussed together.  People are always so reasonable and polite in those conversations that it really is inspiring.
In any case, The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin is a landmark on race relations and how religion and politics are intertwined in the dual histories of America and race.  The book is in two sections; the first is a short (barely seven pages) letter that Baldwin wrote to his teenage nephew 50 years ago.  In the letter Baldwin advises his namesake about his history and his father’s history and, most importantly, his present reality.  He tells him about his place in American society in the 1960s, his perceived limits, and how the only way he can destroy himself is to accept those limits.  Baldwin does not equivocate but also does not sprint to the extremes.  He lays out the challenges of his nephew’s life but also his responsibilities.
“It will be hard, James, but you come from sturdy, peasant stock, men who picked cotton and dammed rivers and built railroads, and, in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity.”
The second section is longer, though still under 100 pages, and deals with the impact of religion in thinking about race.  Baldwin describes what it was like growing up in the Christian church and meeting with members of the Nation of Islam as an adult.  He comes away from both with no answers.  He moves in the direction of recognizing his own flaws and his own virtues and how they connect him to other people and how working with those people is the only way to change history.
Forgoing the trope, “and the lessons are just as true today…” I will say only that James Baldwin wrote more honestly and openly on this topic than almost anyone else at the time or since.  He was especially gifted in writing without ego or melodrama about something that could easily turn into a diatribe.
If you would like to read some of James Baldwin’s fiction you can check out Go Tell It on the Mountain or if you are interested in more about civil rights you could read the classic The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois.

1 comment:

Katie L said...

This book was adapted into a movie in the 90s and was filmed in my small hometown of Sewickley Pennsylvania. I hadn't thought about that for years... fun memories.