Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin 1963

The book description below comes from

James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time (1963) sometimes referred to as his "eloquent manifesto", which he hoped would avert racial conflagration, appeared first in The New Yorker (1962), a journal which Ishmael Reed described as the "epitome of uptown pretensions and snobbery," as "Letter from a Region in my Mind." Though Baldwin received some heat for his choice of publication, his massive essay caused an immediate sensation and was quickly published in book form. Some believe Baldwin's book spurred and help to "galvanize" the civil rights movement which resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Fire Next Time opens with a six to seven page dedicatory letter to his nephew and namesake James, entitled in short "On the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation." Baldwin advises his nephew on how to deal with the racist world in which he was born. In spite the horrors of America, Baldwin believed the Negro must take the high road and show whites, in their ignorance and innocence, how to live the good life, how to love.

He concludes his letter of encouragement with these remarks.

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.. You come from a long line of great poets, some of the greatest since Homer. one of them said, The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off.

The section comprising the dedicatory letter Baldwin entitled "My Dungeon Shook," which we see from the above quote were words of some unknown bard, a former Negro slave, who spoke to the glorious spiritual phenomena of emancipation.

The section comprising the "Letter from a Region of My Mind," was entitled, "Down at the Cross," again another religious allusion. This long essay has a bipartite structure. In the first part Baldwin recounted his religious experience as a fourteen year old boy, about the age of his nephew, and his view of Christianity as an adult. He sketches out his disappointments with the Negro's religion, which he views primarily as escapist.

He then turned to his second mission, which comprised the greater part of the essay, to trash the Muslim movement among African Americans. Here he attempted to come to the grips with the phenomena of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, and Malcolm X. Elijah's brand of Islam viewed Christianity as the white man's wicked rationale for oppressing blacks and that all white people were accursed devils whose sway was destined to end. God is black and his proper address is "Allah" and he has chosen black people of America to end the devil's domination by means of the theology of Islam.

In this long letter, Baldwin also described his audience with Elijah Muhammad, who Baldwin believed was lucid, passionate, and cunning. For Baldwin the problem was that Elijah preached a dogma of racial hatred that was no better than the reverse of whites' hatred for blacks. Baldwin rejected Elijah and Malcolm.

Baldwin believed he had a greater vision than Malcolm and Elijah. He believed that the Negro's suffering was redemptive and that's the Negro's example had curative powers for the nation. Baldwin wrote as part of closing statement --

I do not mean to be sentimental about suffering--enough is certainly as good as a feast--but people who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover who they are. That man who is forced each day to snatch his manhood, his identity, out of the fire of human cruelty that rages to destroy it knows, if he survives his effort, and even if he does not survive it, something about himself and human life that no school on earth--and, indeed, no church--can teach. He achieves his own authority, and that is unshakeable.

At this stage of his development, Baldwin believed the Negro's redeeming love of whites, in their innocence and ignorance, would make the difference. American blacks' complex fate, Baldwin reiterated his well-tuned song, was the rescue, the delivery of white Americans from their imprisonment in myths of racial superiority and educate them into a new, integrated sensitivity and maturity.

Should such an effort fail, he warned, then the words of a slave song may come true: "God gave Noah the rainbow sign, / No more water, the fire next time!" Many whites believed that this was Baldwin's last really good piece of nonfiction.

Read some of this book here: Amazon Online Reader

Democracy Now! James Baldwin 20th Anniversary Commemoration: Remembering the Life and Work of the Legendary Writer and Civil Rights Activist

Read or Watch Here

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