James Baldwin

“The Fire Next Time” by James Baldwin

“The Fire Next Time” is a short book written by James Baldwin in the early 60s. It depicts the United States’ race relations of the time. I found the book interesting because Baldwin writes about his experiences and opinions with a deep insight in human psychology. Instead of seeking vengeance, he advocates for a more compassionate solution in which black people and white people accept each other. “The Fire Next Time” is political but also beautiful because Baldwin’s writing is extremely poetic. The book was written a while ago but his analysis of race relations in America is still relevant today.

The Fire Next Time

“The Fire Next Time” is made up of two essays. The first is entitled “My Dungeon Shook” and the second, “Down At The Cross — Letter from a Region of My Mind”.

The parts and quotes that I find especially compelling are: 

  • Baldwin’s analysis of Christianity at the time. He details his own experiences with the Church. How he became Christian and then eventually saw the Church’s deep rooted hypocrisy and racism.

“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.”

  •  Baldwin’s encounter with Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the militant Black Muslim movement. He notices Muhammad’s magnetism but can also see the movement’s blind hatred of white people. Baldwin therefore decides not to join The Nation of Islam (NOI). He was convinced that black separatism wasn’t a solution.

“It was very strange to stand with Elijah for those few moments, facing those vivid, violent, so problematical streets. I felt very close to him, and really wished to be able to love and honor him as a witness, an ally, and a father. I felt that I knew something of his pain and his fury, and, yes, even his beauty. Yet precisely because of the reality and the nature of those streets—because of what he conceived as his responsibility and what I took to be mine—we would always be strangers, and possibly, one day, enemies.”

  • Baldwin’s description of white people’s narrowness of thinking. How accepting black people would lead to a loss of identity for white people.

“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.”

  • His solution, 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.”

“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.”

  • And, this is a James Baldwin quote that I like:

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.”


Photograph by Steve Schapiro, the Selma-to-Montgomery protest marches 1965

Leave a Reply