The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
(Vintage, 1992, 128 pages)
This book brings together two essays written by James Baldwin in the early 1960’s. The first, “My Dungeon Shook” is in the form of a letter written to his nephew in which Baldwin expresses the necessity of love to overcome the subjugation of one race by another. The second, “Down at the Cross,” is largely an autobiographical account of Baldwin’s childhood in Harlem, his conversion and subsequent disillusionment with the church, and an evening spent with the black Muslim leader Elijah Muhammad. These essays informed and fueled the civil rights movement.
Baldwin, writing in the early sixties, discusses racial oppression with an anger tempered by love. He is excruciatingly honest about the abuse and the resulting sense of inferiority experienced by black Americans. Given this experience, Baldwin can look at different experiences within the black community – seeking the shelter of the church, the militant turn of black Muslims – and fully understand the conditions that facilitate responses of escapism and violence. However, he does not settle for the exchange of one form of oppression for another. In response to white racism, Baldwin calls for transformative love: “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” (9-10).
The prophetic nature of Baldwin’s call to “end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world” (105), clearly found a partial fulfillment in the civil rights movement. As racial tension continues to divide our country, it is equally clear that Baldwin’s warnings and exhortations are needed today more than ever.