The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin, The Dial Press, 1963, 106 pp
This man was so eloquent, his mind so capacious, his ability is to present ideas imbued with emotion but with such clarity. In this slim volume he both stirred me up and calmed me down. It has two parts.
The first, My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, a mere eight pages is just that, a letter. I read somewhere, but can't find it now, that this letter inspired Ta-Nehisi Coates to write Between the World and Me. Baldwin is advising his nephew to be strong, assuring him that he is, and recommending a path for the future he will face.
"And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we with love, shall force on our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it." (He is talking about their white brothers.) "We cannot be free until they are free." That advice requires almost inhuman or above human strength and a whole lotta love.
Approximately 53 years later on, Coates was not so full of that love. Too many great leaders slain, too many more black sons slain or imprisoned. Quite a bit more anger and fear than Baldwin was showing in 1962 when he wrote his letter. 150+ years since one of our greatest Presidents issued that proclamation is a long time to wait for the change that was supposed to come. Five generations of waiting.
I found the second much longer section more interesting: Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind. It is James Baldwin losing his religion and yet not really. I knew something of Baldwin's religious life, told as fiction in Go Tell It On The Mountain. In this version he deconstructs it further. A lot happened to him in ten years.
He tells of returning to America after living abroad, of witnessing the cruelties laid on Blacks who followed Martin Luther King's non-violent methods of protest, of befriending Malcolm X, of meeting Elijah Muhammad.
Finally he pulls it all together as really only James Baldwin can do and explains what it would really take to put an end to racism in America. In those words I heard the echos of the truth at the heart of any of the world's religions: the ability to love ourselves and our fellow man is the key to a more just world. He admits to how hard that is for any human being. Then he ends with a prophecy that has come forth from any religion's story of the flood, in the words of a slave song: "God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time."
I can't say that this brought me hope. I don't think Ta-Nehisi Coates operates from a place of hope. The fire does approach more closely everyday. In some areas of the world it has arrived. Is this ancient dream of peace, justice and brotherhood only that? A dream? Is that why so many write, read, and discuss? Can it ever become reality?
What I do recognize is that James Baldwin, along with many other people of good will, found that dream in a church of some kind. The truly brave and tough people of good will walk out of church into the world to participate in realizing the dream. No matter what name those people give to this spiritual practice, they are my people.
(The Fire Next Time is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)