if we, who can scarcely be considered a white nation, persist in thinking of ourselves as one, we condemn ourselves, with the truly white nations, to sterility and decay, whereas if we could accept ourselves as we are, we might bring new life to the Western achievements and transform them…
James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time is a profound book that ponders race relations between black Americans and people of caucasian descent in America. James Baldwin also examines the role of the Negro in western society and touches on black identity and the importance of understanding and maintaining this ‘black identity’ in a transnational space that can be both confusing and potentially overwhelming.
Why I Love this Book
While very direct and fast-paced, the narration feels like a conversation. He uses the first person and leaves the narration with an overabundance of commas. These commas give the impression of hurried speech that continues without the general literary pause that manifests itself in a full stop. He candidly talks about his experience and observations on life and living it ‘black’, so to speak in a particular western society which is America. He makes references to societal structures which are designed to keep one race atop the other and also critiques religion and its role in the nigger’s depraved condition.
The Nigger’s Social Condition
Through the use of double negative structures, James Baldwin reveals the hopelessness surrounding the black man’s condition. He paints a picture of his childhood where ‘you were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity’. He makes it more than clear that the societal structure built to keep niggers at the bottom was not only oppressive but restrictive. One in which mere effort could not suffice to deliver niggers…..that ‘the social treatment accorded even the most successful negroes//something more than a bank account// to be free// (because) it was absolutely clear that the police would whip you and take you in as long as they could get away with it…’ (Happens police brutality against isn’t a reality of the 60’s only…)
Religion,…the bane maybe?
One can not miss the overt presence of Biblical allusions in the book. Words like ‘Sin’,’Pharoah’, ‘Church’, dot the book which makes it hard to not conclude that the author is likely trying to explore certain issues in that respect. James became a preacher and soon grew uncomfortable with the extortive world of Christendom. Basically how money is taken from congregations in the name of God. In addition, James notes that the reality of most churches is ‘blindness, loneliness, and terror’ instead of faith, hope, and charity’. He satirizes the church saying that ‘ there is ‘no drama like the drama of the saints rejoicing, the sinners moaning, the tambourines racing and all voices coming together and crying‘ yet in all this purging of emotion and the expression of genuine love for God, why did the white God ensure to let the blacks be ‘cast down so far?’ Needless to say, the Bible was written by white men. These contrasting ideas can help draw a subtle link with the manner in which colonialism was presented in Africa. Was it not with the Bible and was it not tagged mission work?
Finally, James mentions working as a preacher and compares being in the pulpit to being in the theatre. He was both behind and on the scene and knew ‘how the illusion worked’ including how to work on a congregation until ‘the last dime was surrendered‘ and knowledge of where the money for ‘the Lord’s work‘ went.
This book isn’t one of those books you read once. I think everyone should own a copy and refer to it as it is still very politically and socially relevant. I would say it is one of those books whose biting truth will occur and reoccur to you. Most importantly, it is okay to read a book and not fully grasp the depth of all it has to offer. Some books make sense only after years of reading them.