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The Fire Next Time

October 29, 2020 · 9 min read

Introduction

James Baldwin was a writer and playwright born 1924, in Harlem. One of the 20th century's greatest voices, he broke new literary ground with the exploration of racial and social issues. Especially known for his essays on the Black experience in America.

Originally published in The New Yorker, The Fire Next Time is a collection of two essays focused on the racial tension that shaped America from colonization through the mid-twentieth century - and just how much work it would take to affect change.

My Dungeon Shook
A short letter to his nephew, in which he describes the kind of world he will have to face as a young black man in America.

Down At The Cross
A longer essay discussing Baldwin's evolving thoughts on religion, violence, race, and the possibility for change in America.

Discussion

Baldwin & MLK

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Free at last, free at last, Thank God Almighty, I'm free at last. The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off.

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Moderate vs. Innocent

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"But it is not permissable that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence that constitutes the crime." (p.5)

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"The really terrible thing...is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love. For those 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 can not be released from it." (p.8)

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"But these men are your brothers-your lost, younger brothers. 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." (p.10)

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Questions

  • King said the white moderate was one of the biggest threats to the movement, is Baldwin letting this group off easy as "innocent"?

  • Where do we think American society currently sits? Have the "innocent" had their realities changed? If not, what will drive that change, is change possible?

Acceptance & Rejection of Religious Institutions

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"Neither civilized reason nor Christian love would cause any of those people to treat you as they presumably wanted to be treated; only the fear of your power to retaliate would cause them to do that, or to seem to do it, which was (and is) good enough." (p.20)

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"But what was the point, the purpose, of my salvation if it did not permit me to behave with love toward others, no matter how they behaved toward me?" (p.40)

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"The concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him." (p.47)

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Questions

  • MLK argued for laws and government that adhered to a moral code or eternal arc to yield justice, yet Baldwin questions whether such morals would make any difference on an individual level. What impact do you think such religious or eternal perspectives has/could have on social justice?

  • To what extent is religion (or at least the institutions of) in America still wielded out of convenience and used as a means to political end?

Baldwin & Coates

Literary Inspiration/Style

  • "I've been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died" - Toni Morrison

  • When Morrison brought Coates into Baldwin’s orbit, she wasn’t suggesting that they write sentences alike; they don’t.

  • Rather, both works have been described as "forensic, analytical, cold-eyed stare downs of white moral innocence."

The Reality of Supremacy

  • Baldwin: "Know whence you came. If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go." (p.8)

  • Coates: "The earthquake cannot be subpoenaed. The typhoon will not bend under indictment."

Questions

  • Many critics say the reason Coates is so closely compared to Baldiwn, despite their literary and functional differences, is because he is one of the only recent black male writers to achieve similar status.

  • Never to compare, but to what extent has the role of activist changed from Baldwin, MLK, Malcolm X to Ava DuVernay, Kendrick Lamar, Colin Kaepernick? As culture changes how has activism changed?

The Optimism of 1963... The Pessimism of 2015

Questions

  • Baldwin described himself as "paradoxically optimistic" in 1963, Coates would probably have placed himself pretty far on the other end of that spectrum just 5 years ago. With the actions and activism that has transpired in 2020 how do you think their positions might have changed?

  • "You know, and I know, that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon. We cannot be free until they are free."(p.10) Can a united America celebrate "freedom"? Do you think Baldwin would say America may be "throwing the baby out with the bathwater" over the past few months?

Experience, Reality, Truth

As we discussed in Part I, Baldwin's waning optimism in movement and America's reception of it is evident in his writing - from the the publishing of this essay in 1962 to the end of his life in 1987. This essay could serve as a microcosm for this growing cynicism as Baldwin analyzes the experience, reality and truth of his community as well as the self evident truths of the Black liberation movement.

Baldwin's life encompassed many monumental shifts in history - not limited to the arena of civil rights. Born in the middle of the Great Depression(24'), came of age during the rise of Hitler's Third Reich(33'-45'), he witnessed the positive ruling (or as he may call it "concession") of Brown vs. Board of Ed.(54'), the assassination of MLK(68'), and lived to see - as some would argue - cracks in his movement begin to form with the declaration of the "War on Drugs"(71') and the passing of the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984.

Through it all Baldwin respects individual experiences, acknowledges present realities, seeks truth, and questions what is really self evident in people, politics and policy.

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"One cannot argue with anyone’s experience or decision or belief. All my evidence would be thrown out of court as irrelevant to the main body of the case, for I could cite only exceptions."

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"Everything else, stretching back throughout recorded time, was merely a history of those exceptions who had tried to change the world and had failed.
Was this true? Had they failed? How much depended on the point of view!"

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"But very little time was spent on theology, for one did not need to prove to a Harlem audience that all white men were devils. They were merely glad to have, at last, divine corroboration of their experience, to hear—and it was a tremendous thing to hear—that they had been lied to for all these years and generations, and that their captivity was ending, for God was black.

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"Time catches up with kingdoms and crushes them, gets its teeth into doctrines and rends them; time reveals the foundations on which any kingdom rests, and eats at those foundations, and it destroys doctrines by proving them to be untrue."

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Questions

  • In an age where it is difficult to resolve truth from politicians, pundits or Twitter what do you more readily rely on - experience or reality? Is this at the expense of truth?

  • When it comes to success & failure, how much does depend on the point of view?

    • Brown vs. Board of Education

    • The War on Drugs

    • Expanded Crime Bills of '84 & '92

  • To what extent is time the final historian of truth? Has time resolved any additional truths today that were not evident to Baldwin in '87?


Equality & Unity

In Baldwin's writings on equality he often comes to the conclusion that...

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"People are not, for example, terribly anxious to be equal (equal, after all, to what and to whom?) but they love the idea of being superior."

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For this reason he leans into the case for unity, among all people, but especially in this context for the unity of black and white Americans.

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"In short, we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation—if we are really, that is, to achieve our identity, our maturity, as men and women."

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He goes on to rebuke the Elijah Muhammad mission to create a new nation citing that it has yet to be done by those with the highest of powers and human nature directly opposes such forces.

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"To create one nation has proved to be a hideously difficult task; there is certainly no need now to create two, one black and one white. But white men with far more political power than that possessed by the Nation of Islam movement have been advocating exactly this, in effect, for generations."

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He further stands against such divisions citing his familiarity with the rise of Hitler in WWII.

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"The glorification of one race and the consequent debasement of another—or others—always has been and always will be a recipe for murder."

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"There is no way around this. If one is permitted to treat any group of people with special disfavor because of their race or the color of their skin, there is no limit to what one will force them to endure, and, since the entire race has been mysteriously indicted, no reason not to attempt to destroy it root and branch. This is precisely what the Nazis attempted. Their only originality lay in the means they used. I am very much concerned that American Negroes achieve their freedom here in the United States. But I am also concerned for their dignity, for the health of their souls, and must oppose any attempt that Negroes may make to do to others what has been done to them."

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Questions

  • Is unity a product or producer of equality? What need come first?

  • To what extent do you believe Baldwin's bend toward unity was informed by his familiarity (he was 21 at the end of WWII)

    • Does the divisive discourse of today suffer from a lack of historical context and closeness to conflict?

Singularity of Community

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"The American Negro is a unique creation; he has no counterpart anywhere, and no predecessors. I am, then, both visibly and legally the descendant of slaves in a white, Protestant country, and this is what it means to be an American Negro, this is who he is—a kidnapped pagan, who was sold like an animal and treated like one, who was once defined by the American Constitution as “three-fifths” of a man, and who, according to the Dred Scott decision, had no rights that a white man was bound to respect."

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"The paradox—and a fearful paradox it is—is that the American Negro can have no future anywhere, on any continent, as long as he is unwilling to accept his past. To accept one’s past—one’s history—is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it. An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought."

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"The Negro can precipitate this abdication because white Americans have never, in all their long history, been able to look on him as a man like themselves."

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Questions

  • As Americans how do we accept our past without drowning in it and learn from it?

  • As a nation how can we work towards unity, fully recognizing the stark divides in American experience?

  • Self-awareness plays a big part in why Baldwin's narrative is so compelling. What can we do on a day-to-day and also in the long term to practice some version of that self-awareness?

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