The Fire Next Time

James Baldwin

Still powerfully resonant today, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time was one of the most influential books about race in America in the 1960s. It is tough to read this now and note how little has changed and easy to understand why this book inspired Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me and The Fire This Time, a recent book of essays edited by Jesmyn Ward. The book is comprised of two essays: first, “My Dungeon Shook,” the well-known letter to Baldwin’s nephew on the 100th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation; and second, “Down at the Cross,” another longer letter addressed generally that focuses largely on race and religion, including Baldwin’s experience as a Christian preacher and later experiences interacting with the Nation of Islam.

There are moments where some evolution is clear. In “Down at the Cross” Baldwin references his 1963 meeting with Robert Kennedy in which Kennedy said “a Negro could be president in 40 years” — a prediction that turned out to be true, though that would be unlikely to provide anymore reassurance to Baldwin being that he questioned whether “the solution to the Negro problem depend[s] on the speed with which Negroes accept and adopt white standards.” That was the only way Baldwin could imagine white people accepting others as equals — “an achievement that not only proves the comforting fact that perseverance has no color but also overwhelmingly corroborates the white man’s sense of his own value.”

Earlier in the same essay Baldwin speaks of the loss of hope for African Americans during WWII when soldiers put their lives on the line for their country yet saw German POWs “being treated by Americans with more human dignity than [they have] ever received,” and they felt more freedom among Europeans than at home.

Home! The very word begins to have a despairing and diabolical ring. You must consider what happens to this citizen, after all he has 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 signs 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 twentieth 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 necessary that people be wicked but only that they be spineless.

While perhaps details of how social injustice exists today have changed, it’s these recurring moments that highlight the psychology behind people’s inaction in the face of it that will continue to resound. As in that part above and this part in “My Dungeon Shook,” where Baldwin states how hard it is for people to act on what they know: “To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger.”