I spent my childhood in Nashville, Tennessee at a time when protests for civil rights roiled not so far from my front door. This volatile era spurred nightly dinner-table arguments between my raging “teen-ager with a cause’ aunt and my rigidly racist grandfather. It was my aunt who first told me about James Baldwin and other writers supporting equal rights.
In light of the current cycle of protests, this #Five Start Friday selection, The Fire Next Time, provides a powerful and lyrical perspective on racial injustice and a still relevant prescription for healing the nation.
Book Jacket Summary: “A national bestseller when it first appeared in 1963, The Fire Next Time galvanized the nation and gave passionate voice to the emerging civil rights movement. 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. 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 our literature.”
It is Baldwin’s prose that justifies reading (or re-reading) his body of work. As F.W. Dupee wrote in his 1963 New York Time review: “He is in love, for example, with syntax, with sentences that mount through clearly articulated stages to a resounding and clarifying climax and then gracefully subside.”
An example of this rising tension and release is seen in Baldwin’s essay, “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation” from The Fire Next Time:
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. You, don’t be afraid. I said that it was intended that you should perish in the ghetto, perish by never being allowed to go behind the white man’s definitions, by never being allowed to spell your proper name. You have, and many of us have, defeated this intention: and by a terrible law, a terrible paradox, those innocents who believed that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grasp of reality…. 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.
While many whites may see this in a negative light, Baldwin urges all Americans to be a catalyst for change, love, and acceptance.
This has been a multicultural land since the Europeans first arrived – even if our history is stained by the cruelty and violence toward Native Americans, Africans, and later Asians and Europeans who arrived much later to escape famine, war, religious persecution, and economic or political oppression.
Certainly our country has benefited from its diversity and the gifts brought by all races and cultures. In the end, we are stronger together and made better by striving for justice, equality, and opportunity for all.