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The Fire Next Time

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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.  

"Basically the finest essay I’ve ever read. . . . Baldwin refused to hold anyone’s hand. He was both direct and beautiful all at once. He did not seem to write to convince you. He wrote beyond you.” —Ta-Nehisi Coates
 
At once a powerful evocation of James Baldwin's early life in Harlem and a disturbing examination of the consequences of racial injustice, the book is an intensely personal and provocative document from the iconic author of If Beale Street Could Talk and Go Tell It on the Mountain. It consists of two "letters," written on the occasion of the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, that exhort Americans, both black and white, to attack the terrible legacy of racism. Described by The New York Times Book Review as "sermon, ultimatum, confession, deposition, testament, and chronicle...all presented in searing, brilliant prose," The Fire Next Time stands as a classic of literature.

128 pages, Kindle Edition

First published January 31, 1963

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About the author

James Baldwin

215 books10.5k followers
Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the Goodreads database with this name. See this thread for more information.

James Arthur Baldwin was an American novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic.

James Baldwin offered a vital literary voice during the era of civil rights activism in the 1950s and '60s. He was the eldest of nine children; his stepfather was a minister. At age 14, Baldwin became a preacher at the small Fireside Pentecostal Church in Harlem. In the early 1940s, he transferred his faith from religion to literature. Critics, however, note the impassioned cadences of Black churches are still evident in his writing. Go Tell It on the Mountain, his first novel, is a partially autobiographical account of his youth. His essay collections Notes of a Native Son, Nobody Knows My Name, and The Fire Next Time were influential in informing a large white audience.

From 1948, Baldwin made his home primarily in the south of France, but often returned to the USA to lecture or teach. In 1957, he began spending half of each year in New York City. His novels include Giovanni's Room, about a white American expatriate who must come to terms with his homosexuality, and Another Country, about racial and gay sexual tensions among New York intellectuals. His inclusion of gay themes resulted in a lot of savage criticism from the Black community. Eldridge Cleaver, of the Black Panthers, stated the Baldwin's writing displayed an "agonizing, total hatred of blacks." Baldwin's play, Blues for Mister Charlie, was produced in 1964. Going to Meet the Man and Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone provided powerful descriptions of American racism. As an openly gay man, he became increasingly outspoken in condemning discrimination against lesbian and gay people.

On November 30, 1987 Baldwin died from stomach cancer in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France. He was buried at the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, near New York City.

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Profile Image for BlackOxford.
1,081 reviews67.8k followers
June 5, 2020
Black Tyranny and How to Overcome It

We are what we read as well as what we eat. Because what we read brings us experiences we have never had. As Baldwin says elsewhere, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.” Reading The Fire Next Time cannot but change one's experience of the world. Written an half century ago, it sadly remains timeless. Sadly because the position of the black man in the America of white racism has not been remedied.

White America still defines itself as 'not black'. White America has no other unifying force. Not religion, not culture, not history, not even language. Race is what determines all these things and more. The phrase "Make America Great Again" is not an abstraction. It is a call to rally against the threat of loss of racial identity, a threat which has been increased not diminished by the existence of a black man as president. Baldwin knew this:
"... the danger in the minds of most white Americans is the loss of their identity... those innocents who believe that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grip on reality... If integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our [white] brothers to see themselves as they are."



The sight of a black president showed what black people are. The task of finding what white people are has yet to be started. Donald Trump knew his main chance lay not in directly exploiting American racism, something too powerful for Americans to confront, but in capitalising on American uncertainty, the threat to Americans' own self-image. Baldwin diagnosed this precisely:
"It is the individual uncertainty on the part of white American men and women, this inability to renew themselves at the fountain of their own lives, that makes the discussion let alone elucidation , of any conundrum - that is, any reality - so supremely difficult. The person who distrusts himself has no touchstone for reality... whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves."
Trump knows that without this touchstone of the self, he can say and do anything with impunity. Reality has no meaning. Baldwin understood the consequences.


American racism is best expressed in its religion, an evangelical, social, virtually tribal Christianity which has transcended sectarian divisions and has become the Republican Party at prayer. The foundation of this religion is not doctrinal but racial. As Harold Bloom, among others, have noted, the authentic American religion is a baptised Gnosticism, the principle feature of which is the dualistic separation of the world into literally its light and dark components. The belief in the ultimate triumph of the light is not a sterile, spiritual metaphor; it is a pervasive, concrete expectation. From the point of view of black America, Christianity had nothing to do with Faith, Hope, and Charity; Baldwin's experience is that it was designed to engender "Blindness, Loneliness, and Fear."

Baldwin understood the historical import Christianity and its American variant:
"... the real architect of the Christian church was not the disreputable, sun-baked Hebrew who gave it his name but the mercilessly fanatical and self-righteous St. Paul."
For Baldwin, this is not merely an historical fact which is ignored by Christians, it is the establishment of a pattern which culminates in the sanctification of white racism,
"The struggle therefore that now begins in the world is extremely complex, involving the historical role of Christianity in the realm of power - that is, politics - and in the realm of morals."
From missionary activities in Africa, to the enforced segregation of American churches (even those like the Pentecostalists which had been founded by black people), Christianity had been a persistent tool of black suppression.


Baldwin devotes a good proportion of the book to his meeting with Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the militant Black Muslim movement. He recognises the charismatic power of the movement's message and the inherent drive for power of its leaders. So he distrusts them both. But Muhammad's pronouncements to him about the state of the world and the future of America in it is eerily prescient in light of subsequent Islamic militancy around the world. White people, he points out, are a global minority. America has no natural allies in the non-white world. Baldwin concludes that
"... the American dream has become something much more closely resembling a nightmare on the private, domestic, and international levels... We are an unmitigated disaster."


Baldwin's solution is probably as relevant and as distant as it was in the 1960's:
"The White man's unadmitted - and apparently to him, unspeakable - private fears and longings are projected onto the Negro. The only way he can be released from the Negro's tyrannical power over him is to consent, in effect, to become black himself, to become part of the suffering and dancing country that he now watches wistfully from the heights of his lonely power and, armed with spiritual traveller's cheques, visits surreptitiously after dark."

To quote Trump, "What have you got to lose?”
Profile Image for Rowena.
500 reviews2,410 followers
December 4, 2013
Baldwin doles out some tough love to the American people, 100 years after Emancipation, and also writes to his 14-year old nephew about the race issue in America. I have never read any of Baldwin’s nonfiction so I was surprised at how frank and direct he was.

The letter to the American people was more compelling to me than the one to his nephew. It discussed the racist realities in the USA, and also religion, Christianity (which James Baldwin adhered to, for a while at least) and the Nation of Islam (NOI). The meeting he recounted between himself and the NOI leader, Elijah Muhammad, was very interesting. Muhammad saw Caucasians as "white devils" while Baldwin's view was “whoever debases others is debasing himself.”


Despite the fact that I am a Christian, I agree wholeheartedly with Baldwin’s analysis of the Christian church at the time, its racism (black people are a cursed race, descendants of Ham) and its hypocrisy. It's something I've thought about a lot.

Again, I’m shocked about how little things have changed since the 1960s. Baldwin makes the point that: “…the sloppy and fatuous nature of American good will can never be relied upon to deal with hard problems.” Sadly, I think we can substitute "America" with pretty much any country on the planet.

Despite the frankness, I don’t think this is an angry book at all.This isn’t a misguided rant about race, this was written based on Baldwin's personal experiences, and is hopeful and also offers solutions. As a writer during the Harlem Renaissance and the Civil Rights Movement, I feel Baldwin felt the real need to get things off his chest. I will never be able to understand how cruelly African-Americans were treated. No wonder Baldwin feared for African-Americans’ identity crisis, no wonder he felt the need to encourage and preserve the arts in his community. James Baldwin is amazing.



Profile Image for Muhtasin.
182 reviews642 followers
November 21, 2020
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
description
A beautiful thought process that was written by a wonderful man who sought love to dispense hate. Excellent book and very compelling to read. Enjoyed James Baldwin's writing style. His reflections are very thoughtful as he went deep into topics of black self-identity, religion, American white supremacy. This book, The Fire Next Time, fuels readers to think deeply about our own present time and to confront the realities of it with raw transparency.
I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.

Essential read.
Profile Image for carol..
1,502 reviews7,551 followers
August 7, 2017
"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 and 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."

Baldwin considers this, after he and two friends in their thirties were refused service at a busy bar in O'Hare Airport 'because they were too young.' The Fire Next Time remains sadly pertinent, despite publication in 1962. The first section, titled 'My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation,' muses on society and exhorts his nephew to meet it with dignity and love. The second section, 'Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind' begins like a memoir, develops into political analysis and ends with a sermon. It is devastatingly brilliant, and near the end I found myself highlighting quotes nearly every page. But I'm clearly not the only one who has read his work: one of the oddest aspects for me is that I have read both writers and poets who were influenced by him, as I heard their echoes in his writing.

"How can one, however, dream of power in any other terms then in the symbols of power?" ~ Baldwin, bringing immediately to mind Audre Lorde: "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house."

'Down at the Cross' begins from adolescent years, when James was fourteen and underwent "a prolonged religious crisis." It was a fascinating recounting, giving the feel of Harlem of a particular time, and looked at how religion became the way he coped with the perils of growing up, and yet how, in many ways, it was no less controlling or harmful to the soul than "the whores or the pimps or the racketeers on the Avenue." For a short time he was known at the boy preacher and while it gave him some freedom from his father, his faith was only an infirm illusion.

"I date it – the slow crumbling of my faith, the pulverization of my fortress- from the time, about a year after I had begun to preach, when I began to read again. I justified this desire by the fact that I was still in school, and I began, fatally, with Dostoevski."

I loved that words and writing were his real salvation. He muses more on the role of the church and his breaking with religious faith before seguing to a meeting with Elijah Muhammad, recalling me to The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Baldwin was clearly uncomfortable, confronting his own echoes of churchgoing, but felt the limitations of the Nation of Islam were no better than those of Christianity, ie. a failure to dream of something outside the paradigm. He noted that the young follower who drove him to his next appointment in an expensive car that the Nation was still conceiving of power in the same terms that white people defined it, and in owning land of their own.

"He was held together, in short, by a dream-- though it is just as well to remember that some dreams come true-- and was united with his 'brothers' on the basis of their color. Perhaps one cannot ask for more. People always seem to band together in accordance to a principle that has nothing to do with love, a principle that releases them from personal responsibility."

He then spirals off into the musing on human nature, the relationship between blacks and whites, and linking them both to the spiritual as well as the political. It's an extraordinary achievement, the way one thought leads to the next, and the next, and suddenly you've run into a philosophical truth that touches the soul. The truth I recognized:

"It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death-ought to decide, indeed, to earn one's death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage is nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us... It is the responsibility of free men to trust and to celebrate what is constant--birth, struggle, and death are constant, and so is love, though we may not always think so--and to apprehend the nature of change, to be able and willing to change. I speak of change not on the surface but in the depths--change in the sense of renewal. But renewal becomes impossible if one supposes things to be constant that are not--safety, for example, or money, or power. One clings then to chimeras, by which one can only be betrayal and the entire home--the entire possibility--of freedom disappears."

Somehow, I've never read James Baldwin. Despite a rather liberal high school, we still read far too many of the 'classics' (and I, for one, will never read Dickens again). College was Women's Studies when I ventured outside the sciences, a reading list universally written by women. My free time, fun time reading just never ran into Baldwin, perhaps because I stay away from lit-fic like the plague. Now that I am finally class-free (on more than one level, *snort), I find myself gravitating towards the occasional non-fiction. What I discovered is that Baldwin writes lyrical, exacting prose, clear, and yet somehow poetic, with a belief in love and in dreaming better. I loved immersing myself in his writing. I rather wish I was in a classroom of people with whom I could wrestle with these ideas.
Profile Image for Bill Kerwin.
Author 1 book81.1k followers
June 2, 2020

This little book had been on my long “to-read” list for many years, but when I heard its first essay, “My Dungeon Shook,” was the inspiration for Ta-Nahisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, I moved the book right up to the top. I am glad I did.

At first, though, I was disappointed. The essay “My Dungeon Shook”—the model for Coates epistolary device, the way he addresses his young son directly, as Baldwin once addressed his nephew here—is short, relatively insignificant compared to “Down at the Cross,” the essay which fills the rest of the book.

Not that “My Dungeon Shook” is without value. It is particularly powerful when it speaks of how racial oppression has caused even more damage to white people than to black people because it has made them unable to see reality as it is:
They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.  They have had to believe for so many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men.  Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know.  To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger.  In this case, the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of identity.  Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shining and all the stars aflame...Well, the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar: and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.
It was, however, “Down at the Cross,” with its treatment of religion in the black community, that interested me more. Then, as I was absorbed in Baldwin’s account of his childhood growing up in Harlem, I encountered the following passage:
The fear that I heard in my father’s voice, for example, when he realized that I really believed I could do anything a white boy could do, and had every intention of proving it, was not at all like the fear I heard when one of us was ill or had fallen down the stairs or strayed too far from the house. It was another fear, a fear that the child, in challenging the white world’s assumptions, was putting himself in the path of destruction. A child cannot, thank Heaven, know how vast and how merciless is the nature of power, with what unbelievable cruelty people treat each other. He reacts to the fear in his parents’ voices because his parents hold up the world for him and he has no protection without them...That summer, in any case, all the fears with which I had grown up, and which were now a part of me and controlled my vision of the world, rose up like a wall between the world and me, and drove me into the church.
Here we see the essence of what Coates learned from Baldwin, to identify the fear which controlled his vision of the world. Although he never sought to evade his fears by seeking refuge in the church—as Baldwin briefly did, even becoming a “boy preacher”—his fears controlled him nevertheless, and blocked out reality, "standing between the world and me."

I’ll end with this passage where Baldwin describes his memories of the church services he led. It is, among other things, an excellent example of his style:
There is no music like that music, no drama like the drama of the saints rejoicing, the sinners moaning, the tambourines racing, and all those voices coming together and crying holy unto the Lord. There is still, for me, no pathos quite like the pathos of those multicolored, worn, somehow triumphant and transfigured faces, speaking from the depths of a visible, tangible, continuing despair of the goodness of the Lord. I have never seen anything to equal the fire and excitement that sometimes, without warning, fill a church, causing the church, as Leadbelly and so many others have testified, to rock. Nothing that has happened to me since equals the power and the glory that I sometimes felt when, in the middle of a sermon, I knew that I was somehow, by some miracle, really carrying, as they said, “the Word”—when the church and I were one. Their pain and their joy were mine, and mine were theirs—they surrendered their pain and joy to me, I surrendered mine to them-and their cries of “Amen!” and “Hallelujah!” and “Yes, Lord’ ” and “Praise His name!” and “Preach it, brother!” sustained and whipped on my solos until we all became equal, wringing wet, singing and dancing, in anguish and rejoicing, at the foot of the altar. It was, for a long time, in spite of—or, not inconceivably because of—the shabbiness of my motives, my only sustenance, my meat and drink. I rushed home from school, to the church, to the altar, to be alone there, to commune with Jesus, my dearest Friend, who would never fail me, who knew all the secrets of my heart. Perhaps He did, but I didn’t, and the bargain we struck, actually, down there at the foot of the cross, was that He would never let me find out.

He failed his bargain. He was a much better Man than I took Him for.
Profile Image for Candi.
598 reviews4,531 followers
November 28, 2020
“The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you. Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity and fear.” – letter from James Baldwin to his nephew

This slim novel speaks volumes. It shouts and exhorts. It’s filled with passion, despair, and hope. The Fire Next Time is essentially a set of two letters, or essays, written at the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation. The first is a letter written by James Baldwin to his nephew, titled “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation.” The second, “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind,” delves further into American racism, religion and spirituality, and Baldwin’s encounter with the Nation of Islam. Both are stunning and beautifully written. When reading something that stirs me this much, I often want to yell “Enough, my heart can’t take anymore!” In the case of Baldwin, it feels like a punch in the gut, but one that makes me cry “Do it again, please. I need more!”

“We are controlled here by our confusion, far more than we know, and the American dream has therefore become something much more closely resembling a nightmare, on the private, domestic, and international levels. Privately, we cannot stand our lives and dare not examine them; domestically, we take no responsibility for (and no pride in) what goes on in our country; and, internationally, for many millions of people, we are an unmitigated disaster.”

James Baldwin speaks a truth that may make one turn his or her back in denial. His words are uncomfortable in their clarity and authenticity. Others, while recognizing the veracity of his words, will want to crawl back into their cozy dens of innocence and ignore such naked truth. I often wonder why it is so difficult for others to recognize inhumanity and the pain of another. We watch movies, listen to music, read books and then cry about injustices. We go to church and lament over the treatment of our saints and saviors; we bow down and pray and claim to love everyone. But when we are faced with reality, somehow we convince ourselves that this is perhaps all just some sort of fiction that doesn’t really apply to us.

“Something very sinister happens to the people of a country when they begin to distrust their own reactions as deeply as they do here, and become as joyless as they have become. It is this individual uncertainty on the part of white American men and women, this inability to renew themselves at the fountain of their own lives, that makes the discussion, let alone elucidation, of any conundrum – that is, any reality – so supremely difficult.”

James Baldwin incites us to act. He does not breed hate or support lawlessness. He promotes awareness and self-evaluation. He urges for consciousness, brotherliness, and progress. He advocates love. His words may have been written decades ago but are timeless and vital to our healing as a nation and as human beings. One thing that struck me is that he turned down an appeal to join the Nation of Islam after a meeting with Elijah Muhammad and his followers. He recognized why and how such an organization developed and flourished, but he feared this: “… the most dangerous creation of any society is that man who has nothing to lose. You do not need ten such men – one will do.” Rather, Baldwin’s vision was for each man and woman, black and white, to recognize that we need one another to create the greatest nation and to live our best lives right here in America.

I can’t seem to get enough of this brilliant man’s writing. His intensity, his humanity and his forgiving nature are something we so desperately need to see more of in our fellow citizens. Perhaps these past several months would not have felt quite so brutal otherwise.

“If one cannot risk oneself, then one is simply incapable of giving. And, after all, one can give freedom only by setting someone free.”
Profile Image for William2.
728 reviews2,819 followers
July 12, 2022
At 106 pages, The Fire Next Time is a brief snapshot of U.S. race relations in 1963. Like a balance sheet it concisely details the nation's racial strengths and (considerable) shortcomings. It was published one year before LBJ's Great Society program passed Congress, which, for the first time in the nation's history, sought to address longstanding racial injustices. Baldwin describes the unrelenting degradation faced by black Americans, both white indifference and murderous hostility toward them, in a spare, unadorned prose whose effect is harrowing. At the time of its publication it must have scared bigoted white people shitless. Yet it was also a prescription for change, and much of the change it calls for has come to pass. That is not to say that today we are without racial problems. Black Lives Matter-- that's irrefutable--but if you want to know how truly god awful it was in the bad old lynching days, this is the book, one of the few, that you must read.

PS Lynching still occurs, though now it’s in the form of the police gunning down young, unarmed black men: see Trayvon Martin, George Floyd et al.
Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,559 reviews8,648 followers
February 23, 2016
If we -- and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others -- do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophesy, re-created from the Bible in a song by a slave, is upon us:

"God gave Noah the rainbow sign,
No more water, the fire next time!"


- James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

description

I just couldn't watch the second GOP debates tonight. I knew I couldn't face the Donald and his band of equally exquisite misfits. I'm not exactly in love with the Democrats either, but the GOP clown car is just too long, too tiring, too damn depressing. So I turned my TV off, tuned out, and read me some James Baldwin.

You could say Ta-Nehisi Coates brought me here (after reading Between the World and Me). Or perhaps, it has been these last couple years of official violence directed at the poor and the black in many of our biggest cities (St Louis, Baltimore, Las Angeles, New York). Or perhaps, I could also say that Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain also brought me here. Perhaps, it was reading the Old Testament with my own teenage children that pushed me in this direction. Or perhaps, even the promise of the New Testament. Maybe, it was my despair over the way that 14-year-old Muslim boy was treated with his homemade clock. I needed tonight a poetic healing and a spiritual justice. An Old Testament warning with a New Testament salve and a black rhythm. I needed James Baldwin's force, his poetry, his humanist hope, his infinitely quotable words. God, his prose is poetic. I literally ran out of post-it notes as I read this 106 page thesis, laid at the feet of his namesake nephew.

God this book was beginning to end sad and moving and powerful and beautiful; and so now writing this and glancing at the highlights (lowlights) of the GOP debates, I can securely say, I made the right damn choice tonight.
Profile Image for J.L.   Sutton.
651 reviews825 followers
May 25, 2022
“And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it."

Reflection 2: Dark Days by James Baldwin – LANGUAGE TEACHING for SOCIAL JUSTICE

Written during the battle for Civil Rights in the early 60s, Baldwin's impassioned call to action in The Fire Next Time is unmistakable. Racism in America has had a devastating effect on African Americans and White Americans. Baldwin challenges us to see past the signs (Colored and White) which divide us. Accepting the artificial barriers of segregation may not be wicked, but denying our fellow citizens dignity is both racist and most assuredly spineless. Baldwin claims people cling to their hatred and bigotry because hate gives them a purpose as well as an identity. It allows them to deflect the pain of their own lives. However, such thinking traps them in a history or story which doesn't make sense and further detaches them from reality. States Baldwin, "They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand, and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it." Baldwin's words are still powerful. Still relevant!
Profile Image for Paromjit.
2,501 reviews24.5k followers
October 28, 2022
A brilliant powerful reread….if you have never read it, I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Profile Image for Lisa.
971 reviews3,331 followers
December 30, 2020
I had this feeling of having lost my sting, my passion, my indignation and rage at injustice.

Too tired, too old, too burdened with the small hells that life hands out so generously in 2020, I thought I did not have it in me anymore to become passionately frustrated with racism and patriarchy and religion's glib power grab ...

And then came James Baldwin's short essay dedicated to his nephew, and IT ALL CAME BACK!

HOW DARE WE CALL OURSELVES HUMANS IF WE FORGET WHAT WE DO TO EACH OTHER?

How dare we forget the really important issues, the fights to pick, the people to protect, the dignity to stick to, no matter what?

In times like these, matters of gender, race, inequality and identity become matters of survival - or not, as the case may be!

Not having time for the question of social injustice when the pandemic is raging is like not having time to save women and children when the Titanic is sinking. If we don't do it now, it will be too late for those who sink to the bottom of the ocean this very moment ...

That's what James Baldwin made me aware of again: never to lose your spirit when hard times hit, because if you do, it is not really your "spirit" in the first place, but only a "decoration" for the pleasant times.

No more water. The Fire Next Time!
Profile Image for Alex.
1,419 reviews4,277 followers
December 16, 2016
All policeman have by now, for me, become exactly the same, and my style with them is designed simply to intimidate them before they can intimidate me. No doubt I am guilty of some injustice here, but it is irreducible, since I cannot risk assuming that the humanity of these people is more real to them than their uniforms.
- James Baldwin in 1964

Fuck the police
coming straight from the underground
A young nigga got it bad cause I'm brown
And not the other color, so police think
They have the authority to kill a minority
- Ice Cube in 1988

The police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction...Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed.
- Ta-Nehisi Coates in 2015

It feels like there's only one new thing about the Black Lives Matter movement, and that's cell phones. Now people can record policemen destroying bodies and show it to people who weren't there, who have never been there. The destruction has always happened. The evidence is what's new.

But there's a big difference between The Fire Next Time and its descendant, Coates's Between the World and Me: Baldwin in giddy 1964, before the assassinations of Malcolm X (1965) and MLK (1968), thought real change was coming. The end of white people. An African American nation. Everything seemed possible. Baldwin's title refers to a spiritual:
God gave Noah the rainbow sign
No more water, the fire next time!

This is a warning. He wants a revolution for his nephew, to whom this book is written. Coates, fifty years later, is just trying to protect his son's body.

It's not that nothing has happened. Things got better, are better. It just wasn't exactly a revolution. More of a twitching of the needle. Black people have a president, but their bodies still aren't safe.

But it's thrilling to read this dispatch from a time when people thought a revolution might be a good thing. James Baldwin is one of the great voices of the 20th century, and this book is smashing.
Profile Image for Thomas.
1,400 reviews8,121 followers
October 7, 2019
A powerful couple of essays about race relations in the 1960s, with an emphasis on America's determination to destroy black men. Despite the brevity of this book, James Baldwin covers a lot of meaningful ground, ranging from transforming his anger into a sense of purpose and leaving the church due to its oppressive nature. As others have written, it is sad how the themes of these essays remain relevant today.

I felt most inspired by Baldwin's explicit naming of whiteness and the confidence of his writing voice. To so boldly challenge white supremacy in the 1960s as a black queer man must have taken so much courage. I get the sense that deep within Baldwin lied an unshakable commitment to naming the truth, no matter how painful or dangerous. For this courageous commitment, I feel grateful.
Profile Image for Jenna ❤ ❀  ❤.
741 reviews1,102 followers
January 22, 2021
"Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity and fear."

I feel inadequate to review this book. James Baldwin was one of the most insightful and most eloquent writers I have ever read. This book should be required reading material for all Americans. His words are as relevant today as when Mr. Baldwin wrote them. It's time we listen and it's time to do the work of dismantling white supremacy.

From The Fire Next Time"If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world."
Profile Image for Maxwell.
1,089 reviews7,946 followers
February 26, 2019
4.5 stars

I'm sure I will revisit this again, possibly even quite soon. It's short but there is so much to unpack and it's so excellently written. I can see why this is a staple of Baldwin's oeuvre and one of the most influential non-fiction works of the last century.
Profile Image for Chris Blocker.
691 reviews158 followers
August 20, 2015
“...if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.”

Tamir Rice
John Crawford III
Eric Garner
Oscar Grant


“White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”

Walter Scott
Timothy Stansbury
Ronald Madison
James Brisette


“There [the police] stood, in twos and threes and fours, in their Cub Scout uniforms and with their Cub Scout faces, totally unprepared, as is the way with American he-men, for anything that could not be settled with a club or a fist or a gun. I might have pitied them if I had not found myself in their hands so often and discovered, through ugly experience, what they were like when they held the power and what they were like when you held the power.”



“You know, and I know, that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon.”

Akai Gurley
Freddie Gray
Sandra Bland
Christian Taylor

“The unprecedented price demanded—and at this embattled hour of the world's history—is the transcendence of the realities of color, of nations, and of altars.”

Amadou Diallo
Prince Jones
Aaron Campbell
Alonzo Ashley

“Color is not a human or a personal reality; it is a political reality.”
Profile Image for Cheryl.
463 reviews581 followers
November 6, 2015
A warm rush starts from the pit of my being and moves to my enflamed fingertips as I consider Baldwin's commentary. His fire ignites mine; it ignites any reader who traverses these thoughts set aflame by prosaic finesse and passionate renderings. Coincidentally, I had this opened at the same time I read Maya Angelou's The Heart of a Woman, where I came across James Baldwin, or "Jim," sharing a taxi with Maya Angelou and her former husband, during the heat of the literary movement of the late 1950s to 1960s. It's an unexplainable feeling, to come across a classic-great at the onset of his or her career, when he or she is an unknown writer and social activist; when James Baldwin is merely a quiet onlooker in a crowd of human rights protesters, an onlooker who saves his fire for next time.

Watch out for the quiet ones, for their words burn like blistered wounds:
He achieves his own authority, and that is unshakable. This is because, in order to save his life, he is forced to look beneath appearances, to take nothing for granted, to hear the meaning behind the words. If one is continually surviving the worst that life can bring, one eventually ceases to be controlled by fear of what life can bring; whatever it brings must be borne.

In one sitting, I read and became glued to this book. This is narrative that begins with a letter of admonishment: "Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation." It is memoir. It is commentary. It is literary essay. It is palpable pain, palatable reading, and preponderance of racial and social progress.

It is fire.
One did not have to be very bright to realize how little one could do to change one's situation; one did not have to be abnormally sensitive to be worn down to a cutting edge by the incessant and gratuitous humiliation and danger one encountered every working day, all day long.

Read if your heart can lift, weigh, and carry these layers.
Read if through the elucidation of social wrongs, you are educated about humanity.
Read if you can stomach fingering the beauty and mire of this befuddling American fabric.
Read so you appreciate Baldwin's perspective, and the African-American trajectory.
Read so you feel the fire this time.
Profile Image for Nicole~.
198 reviews237 followers
November 15, 2016
The Fire Next Time
from Baldwin: Collection of Essays- The Library of America

This book is Baldwin's opinion on race relations, perceived not only as African American, but as one with a deep insight into human psychology. He was one of the unprecedented writers to express what it was like to be Black in a White society; to discuss with such insight the psychological impediments most Blacks faced; and to realize the complications of Black-White relations in many variant contexts:

On Religion
He saw the germination of hatred and bitterness planted in the principles of Christianity, generating the belief of a white God; in response to which Black Muslims created the black God, producing the teachings of the nation of Islam.

On Power
Baldwin held that the importunate need for power underscored the current conflicts in human relations in American society. This was the base cause of his disagreement with America: that American Blacks had so little freedom and power to steer his own affairs solely because of his skin color. Power over an American Black's life depended on several areas: his education, employment, and income --including his place in society, his self- image, and his relations with white people. Baldwin didn't believe in hating to be an innate human tendency. However, in hating, he recognized the guilt of the white man, a flaw from which he could not free himself.

He claimed dejectedly, "The Negroes of this country may never be able to rise to power, but they are very well placed indeed to precipitate chaos and ring down the curtain on the American dream.(337)The only thing white people have that black people need or should want is power - and no one holds power forever."(341-342)

Clearly, his vision at that time to prophesy the ability of the human conscience to morally and socially evolve, was dimmed. Did his dream have limits? If he only could have known that such a dream could, and did, come to light!

On Identity
Baldwin made clear in the book that it wasn't really a black man's revolutionary movement that was causing violent rifts in America; the social conflicts reflected a sense of America losing her identity.

For Baldwin: "man, life and the world contained an image or identity with some preconceptions; and to achieve the liberation of the Negro: society, black and white, must get rid of its preconceptions.
Take no one's word for anything, including mine --but trust your experience. Know whence you came. If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go. The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you. Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity and fear. (293)
There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you... You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case, the danger in the minds of most white Americans is the loss of their identity."(294)


Baldwin in this outstanding literary work, by redefining a Black American's problem as a white one, even taken in present contexts, has effectively created a more replete, more unifying racial understanding. Not having been born or raised in America, I'm still learning the extensive history of American culture; Baldwin's penetrating body of work deeply touched, and truly enlightened me. I look forward to reading the rest of his praise-worthy collection of essays.

If we - and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others- do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us:


God gave Noah the rainbow sign,
No more water, the fire next time!


revised for political correctness Nov 14th, 2016
Profile Image for Brown Girl Reading.
342 reviews1,606 followers
August 19, 2016
Nothing less than AWESOME! James Baldwin was a brilliant man and writer. I can't wait to get through all of his work. This is definitely a must read for everyone.
Profile Image for Dave Schaafsma.
Author 6 books31.2k followers
June 23, 2020
"God gave Noah the rainbow sign,
No more water, the fire next time."

Given that this book preceded the civil rights movement of the sixties, the title feels prophetic, though if you think of the fires we have seen yet again in 2020, you have to think how many fires we'll have have. I’ve read this book a number of times over the years. It’s short and its epistolary approach is accessible and every year it remains sadly relevant on the challenges of being black in white America. I first read it as cities burned in the US in the sixties and as leaders for social change were killed: Dr Martin Luther King, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, his brother Bobby. I read it again in June 2020 as the police killings of people of color has finally gotten the public attention it has deserved for decades. There are many reviews here, many ratings, but I’ll just call attention to some quotations on key topics from a book that began as a letter to Baldwin’s nephew about being black in America.

Baldwin is honest with his nephew:

“You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity.”

Yet Baldwin wants to make clear to him:

“Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity.”

He doesn't want his nephew to feel badly about the color of his skin but recognizes that color is indeed central to American life and division:

“Colour is not a human or a personal reality; it is a political reality.”

And he tries to make the seemingly perpetual hate of blacks by whites somewhat understandable:

“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”

But is it always hate, or sometimes cowardice to do the right and loving thing?

“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.”

But he also cautions against hating the haters:

“Whoever debases others is debasing himself.”

You have to live in love if you can:

“One is responsible for life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return.”

“Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word ’love’ here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace - not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”

And everywhere within, such good and insightful writing:

“The American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed the collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world's most direct and virile, that American women are pure. Negroes know far more about white Americans than that; it can almost be said, in fact, that they know about white Americans what parents—or, anyway, mothers—know about their children, and that they very often regard white Americans that way. And perhaps this attitude, held in spite of what they know and have endured, helps to explain why Negroes, on the whole, and until lately, have allowed themselves to feel so little hatred. The tendency has really been, insofar as this was possible, to dismiss white people as the slightly mad victims of their own brainwashing.”

“It is rare indeed that people give. Most people guard and keep; they suppose that it is they themselves and what they identify with themselves that they are guarding and keeping, whereas what they are actually guarding and keeping is their system of reality and what they assume themselves to be.”

“There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know.”

Such a good book, and consider pairing it with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, a letter Coates wrote to his son.
Profile Image for PattyMacDotComma.
1,365 reviews784 followers
July 1, 2020
5★
“Other people cannot see what I see whenever I look into your father’s face, for behind your father’s face as it is today are all those other faces which were his.”


This is from “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation’

I chose this quote because it’s universal. When we look at the faces of our children, our grandchildren, our nieces and nephews, we see those in our family who came before them.

I remember being shown a beautiful black and white 8 x 10 photo of the striking profile of a woman wearing a bit of a long scarf and asked who I thought it was. I said I knew it was my friend, taken when she was a bit younger. Not only was it not my friend, it was her great-aunt! Not her mother, not her auntie or grandmother – her GREAT aunt. What a shock that was. Admittedly it was a profile shot, not a full-face photo, but still!

It’s something I feel sorry about for friends who were adopted and haven’t found (or even looked for) their biological roots. They can enjoy their rewards looking ‘down’ but not looking back ‘up’.

The letter is a warning, earnest advice, and a sharing of Uncle James’s experience growing up black in New York. This was written in 1963, just before the Civil Rights Act was passed in the US, but I have to say, Baldwin speaks about much broader issues than an Act can cover. The letter to his nephew is brief, but heartfelt.

“The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you.”

He wants young James, his namesake, to know to believe in the future, and the ability to help white people stop fearing blacks and their ‘sudden’ (to whites) rise in the world.

“For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become. 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 poets since Homer.”

The second part of the book is Down at the Cross - Letter from a Region in My Mind

Baldwin speaks of his youth, his father, his early life as a very young pastor, who learned at first-hand how religion rules the people.

“Being in the pulpit was like being in the theatre; I was behind the scenes and knew how the illusion was worked.
. . .
I knew how to work on a congregation until the last dime was surrendered – it was not very hard to do – and I knew where the money for ‘the Lord’s work’ went. I knew, though I did not wish to know it, that I had no respect for the people with whom I worked.”


He became a writer and gained some fame, which brought him to the attention of the growing Muslim movement. He speaks often of Negroes, which is the term I was taught as the polite one, and he discovered that the Muslim God is black, unlike the Christian God, who is white. He can see how this will appeal to the American Negro, who has no home, no country of his own.

He does not favour violence, but he can see the risks of business as usual in America.

“. . . people from whom everything has been taken away, including, most crucially, their sense of their own worth. People cannot live without this sense; they will do anything whatever to regain it. This is why the most dangerous creation of any society is that man who has nothing to lose. You do not need ten such men – one will do.”

This is almost 60 years ago.

“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 to hate.”

"Whose foot is on your neck. "

Make that “knee”, and you can see how little has changed. I can only hope that we learn to behave better and teach all children not to hate. I imagine he would be disappointed that we're still having to protest that Black Lives Matter.

Powerful stuff, beautifully written.
#BLM
Profile Image for Trevor.
1,279 reviews21.3k followers
January 17, 2019
I guess if anyone starts writing a letter offering advice to their nephew who just happens to have the same first name as they do, it is probably reasonable to assume they are also giving advice to the younger version of themselves. This is a stunning book, and a short and fast read. Baldwin’s writing is moving, intelligent and it just sings – but it doesn’t ‘soar’. I mean that as a real compliment. He never gets carried away with his own rhetorical flourishes – rather he presents us with all of the messiness of his thought. Here we see the pain of a man explaining to a child the horrible realities of life under racism, of the double consciousness imposed upon African Americans, of a system where a child of ten can be beaten and abused by police, by those sworn to protect them, for no other reason than to ensure the child learns his place. A world where even the most educated black man can be forced to work in the most menial of jobs so as to ensure the whole community knows ‘there is no way out’.

I’m not going to say exactly how this book ends, I think the power of the end of the book is in part due to the surprise it presents – other than to say that it reminded me of the end of Yeats’ The Second Coming: we have had our loving Jesus, the second coming will be a rough beast.

The part of this I found most interesting was Baldwin’s description of his meeting with Nation of Islam leader, Elijah Muhammad. Baldwin captures the multiple ways in which attending that meeting made him feel conflicted. How it reminded him of his relationship with his own father – and even of how he wished his relationship with his father had been. How he agreed with so many things Elijah Muhammad stood for and believed in, but ultimately was forced to disagree with him. How he felt almost unclean in his presence, given he had a packet of cigarettes in his pocket and was leaving to go to meet some white friends after his meeting. This is all beautifully captured, as is the complexity of having to say no to someone who is otherwise an excellent host.

But his criticism of the idea that is central to the Nation of Islam – that of a nation of black people that would be formed on the territory of a number of US states after they had been being over as recompense for the harm done to black people throughout US history – is devastating. I love how he brings this to the fore – not in his conversation with Elijah Muhammad, but in a conversation after the meeting with the person driving him to his next appointment. He tells this young man that not only is the idea that the US would cede even a single state beyond belief – you might remember that an ‘indivisible union’ was one of the main reasons for the Civil War – but even if this was somehow achieved, how such a nation would exist economically is anything but clear. In fact, a quick look at how the US treats other nations across the Americas that it believes are populated by lesser humans could hardly fill anyone with confidence. The US territory Puerto Rico could hardly be a more depressing example.

You should read this – it was written a life’s time ago (quite literally in my case) but unfortunately, its currency has hardly diminished at all in that time.
Profile Image for Cheri.
1,685 reviews2,240 followers
September 8, 2020
‘One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us.’ - From DOWN AT THE CROSS: Letter from a Region in My Mind

The above quote, for me, sums up the message at the heart of this book. We are all responsible to life, and not just our own. We all have some accountability for the words we say, the things we do, the people we choose to support in word and deed, or not support. And while the letter from James Baldwin’s Uncle James in My Dungeon Shook speaks to how little progress had been made on the 100 year anniversary of freedom, I don’t think much progress has been made in the additional almost sixty years since that hundred-year mark, either.

’We human beings now have the power to exterminate ourselves; this seems to be the entire sum of our achievement.’

Baldwin wrote this in the 1960’s, but these last years racism seems to be an even more important issue. Racism seems to have grown into an even bigger epidemic than before. Reading this book, with the exception of some minor exceptions, it feels horrifyingly relevant. And yet, at the same time there is often beauty in the prose.

’Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time…It is the responsibility of free men to trust and to celebrate what is constant—birth, struggle, and death are constant, and so is love, though we may not always think so—and to apprehend the nature of change, to be able and willing to change.’

Amen.


Many thanks, once again, to the Public Library system, and the many Librarians that manage, organize and keep it running, for the loan of this book.
Profile Image for Book Riot Community.
953 reviews94.9k followers
Read
June 6, 2017
After seeing the documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, I knew I had to get my hands on Baldwin’s work. I began with this short book, composed of a letter to his nephew and a longer essay, that deals head-on with the “racial nightmare” of the United States (to use Baldwin’s own words). The author describes the suffocating Harlem of his youth, his disappointment with trying to find salvation through religion and his own conflicting feelings about Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad. The book is vital, not because of its description of the Civil Rights era, but because Baldwin’s analysis of race relations can so easily be applied to the present. A sobering thought, indeed.

— Ines Bellina


from The Best Books We Read In March 2017: http://bookriot.com/2017/04/04/riot-r...
Profile Image for Aubrey.
1,269 reviews695 followers
December 17, 2015
Something very sinister happens to the people of a country when they begin to distrust their own reactions as deeply as they do here, and become as joyless as they have become. It is this individual uncertainty on the part of white American men and women, this inability to renew themselves at the fountain of their own lives, that makes the discussion, let alone elucidation, of any conundrum—that is, any reality—so supremely difficult. The person who distrusts himself has no touchstone for reality—for this touchstone can be only oneself. Such a person interposes between himself and reality nothing less than a labyrinth of attitudes. And these attitudes, furthermore, though the person is usually unaware of it (is unaware of so much!), are historical and public attitudes. They do not relate to the present anymore than they relate to the person. Therefore, whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.
There are books out there that are word for word more vast, more meaningful, more loving and more true than ten rewritings of War and Peace by ten auspicious straight white male authors could ever be. Indeed, a major reason why I read the Russian behemoth in the first place was so I felt comfortable saying such things. Such amateur readings like mine, of course, will be questioned, and while I have neither a degree in literature (or any, for that matter) nor fluency in the Russian language, these gatekeeping quibbles mean very little indeed when placed alongside the literature of black US Americans. Some of those authors didn't have a college degree, all of them wrote in English, and yet the understanding and reverence and empathetic comprehension has carried into the life of US reality with much less fervor and acceptance than the 19th century text of a Russian aristocrat. In light of that, it is not the brain that should be held accountable in such matters of textual worth, but the heart.
To accept one's past—one's history—is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it.
I started reading as a way to get out of my head, my head including the reality that impacts it and the thoughts that stem in response. Over time, I have gone from reading for entertainment, to reading for knowledge, to reading for self-knowledge, to reading for self-knowledge written by the so-called "other". At this most present point in time, I have come to the conclusion that reading will never fix my personal issues, and indeed during certain periods will exacerbate the effort of coping with myself immensely. Instead, I have found that what I deem toxic in myself is part mine, part ingrained into so many others by the special breed of genocidal hypocrisy that is the US American Dream in the hands of European descendants. Today, when I read, I look not for a cure for such toxicity, but the means in which craft an antidote on the solipsistic, private, public, and the levels of strangers I will never encounter but still affect through taxes paid and politics engaged. This work, in that respect, is invaluable.
White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.
What Baldwin does here is what has been done countless times in philosophy, in religion, in much fancier spreads of prose and much more esteemed levels of government, in cycles of feminist reclamation and revolutions of Marxist drive and every other thought experiment that aspired to a stake in human reality. Unlike the overwhelming majority, he has combined in these 141 pages pertaining to a very specific problem of a very specific region of a very specific time and place and immeasurable exactitude the guarantee of the end and the drive to carry on. Unlike most, Baldwin does not pretend that change does not have consequence, that progress will be universally achieved, that the standards of living exalted in his day and, indeed, in mine, are anything but the evolution of murderers and the aspirations of sadists. And, unlike those few who do accept this history of violence and see no other solution to it than more of the same, he insists on valuing the beauty that such a solution would ultimately break.
In any event, the sloppy and fatuous nature of American good will can never be relied upon to deal with hard problems. These have been dealt with, when they have been dealt with at all, out of necessity—and in political terms, anyway, necessity means concessions made in order to stay on top.

No doubt I am guilty of some injustice here, but it is irreducible, since I cannot risk assuming that the humanity of these people is more real to them than their uniforms. Most Negroes cannot risk assuming that the humanity of white people is more real to them than their color.
This work is a warning that neither pulls its punches nor stems its heartbreak. It is one born of love and of fear in a time that had little inkling of the hyperconnection of my own, where the names of Mike Brown and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and thousands, millions, billions of others continue to ring in my corner of the Internet and work themselves across highways and Fifth Avenues and the blood-filled veins of the military industrial complex I call home. I knew, when I read Giovanni's Room, that this man had a work with my name on it, a work that would call for a revival and a reckoning. What I didn't know was that I would have already lost all faith in the institutions of my government, in the history of my heritage, and any and all facts beyond the simple truth that white people are no different from children bred for war and the pleasures of homicide on the bodies of the other. What I didn't know was Baldwin, despite overwhelming awareness of this hell on earth and what those who share my skin have wreaked and will continue to wreak on those who share his, placed his bet on love.
I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.
Yes. That love.
It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death—ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One in responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return.
I'm gearing up for a return to academia with all its empty learning and valorization of old dead straight white men. It's taken me years filled with works such as this to get me to this point of seeing what I am being taught and how I should learn from it and, most importantly of all, the ways I will use it on the broader scheme of life. I will, in that respect, continue to take each and every work far too seriously as merited by most. However, looking back, such seriousness has served me well. It has led me to works like these that give me the will to continue, and that, at its heart, is what truly matters.
Profile Image for Leah Craig.
119 reviews61 followers
February 19, 2018
James Baldwin’s voice is concise and brilliant and I am incredibly unworthy to review it. So I’m just going to leave you with the passage that stood out the most to me.

“The treatment accorded the Negro during the Second World War marks, for me, a turning point in the Negro’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, is a candidate for death in its defense, and who is called a “nigger” by his comrades-in-arms and his officers; who is almost always given the hardest, ugliest, most menial work to do; who knows that the white G.I. has informed the Europeans that he is subhuman (so much for the American male’s sexual security); who does not dance at the U.S.O. the night white 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 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 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 necessary that people be wicked but only that they be spineless.”
Profile Image for Ken.
Author 3 books885 followers
October 5, 2021
It is equal parts amazing and sad that an essay on race is as relevant in 2021 as it was in 1963. One interesting tidbit: Baldwin mentions how Bobby Kennedy said a black man could be president in 40 years. Turns out, Kennedy was only four years off. What he could not have anticipated, however, was the backlash it caused, bringing us He Who Must Not Be Named (the Autocrat of the breakfast and every other table, who wants to dine on democracy -- permanently).
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