White Publishing Company

"The Fire Next Time" (8.24.20)

The autobiography of Frederick Douglass was first published in the 1840s, awakening many people to the horrors of slavery and galvanizing abolitionists. (Douglass revised and added to his narrative a few times later in life, but the 1845 account of his life in slavery and his escape was what set the world on fire.) Sixty years later, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois described a world that was both radically different and depressingly similar to what Douglass described. "Up From Slavery" (1901) and "The Souls of Black Folk" (1903) had competing visions for black Americans at the dawn of the 20th century, and the authors shared those visions hoping to guide America forward.

Jump ahead 60 more years and you have lots of visions to choose from. Based on reviews (and curiosity about the author) I went with James Baldwin, and "The Fire Next Time." It's a volume containing two essays, one short and one long. And it's one of the most exquisite expressions of anger I can remember reading.

The essays were first published in periodicals in 1962 -- one of them was essentially an entire issue of "The New Yorker" -- then packaged together for a 1963 release. The short essay is a letter from Baldwin to his nephew, inspired in part by the impending centennial of emancipation, and warning the young man of the the racial animus that awaits him as an adult.

The longer essay (Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region of My Mind) is a little tougher to describe. Baldwin starts with his thoughts on his youth in Harlem in the late 1930s, and the terror of a young man trying to avoid a life of vice or despair on "the Avenue." The community Baldwin describes is disillusioned by decades of discrimination and divorced from any promise of the American Dream.

His way out was religion, and for a few years he found refuge as youth minister -- but then he details his disillusionment with the church and organized religion. He can't reconcile the rhetoric of the church with what he sees around him. That leads to the second segment: A narrative of Baldwin's meeting (as a then-famous adult) with Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam. Baldwin seeks to understand and explain the appeal of that movement; but he also sees little future in its sometimes hateful outlook.

The final section hovers between apocalyptic and hopeful. Baldwin states that America can never be a great nation without the complete freedom (spiritual, economic, political) of black people, and he predicts catastrophic failure if it does not come about. When assessing whether white people have the capacity to go along, he sounds like a man struggling to be optimistic.

Baldwin acknowledges that his critics describe him as bitter. But as an emotional snapshot, "The Fire Next Time" is extremely powerful. Whether or not you agree with Baldwin's conclusions, he paints a very clear and distressingly logical picture of frustration and anger -- and the great struggle to keep those feelings from boiling over into hate. And hands down, the guy is an amazing writer. This is a short work and I highlighted maybe 20 different passages. This isn't a policy discussion. It's all narrative -- and while that approach can have its drawbacks in terms of persuasion, you have to check this out and appreciate the craftsmanship.

A few years after this book was published, Baldwin witnessed both progress (the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act) and horrible turmoil (the assassinations of black leaders and the unrest of the late 1960s). He lived into the mid-1980s and published constantly, but several critics consider "The Fire Next Time" to be his most influential work. We're now 60 years removed from it ... so what's next?

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