Ben Singleton

Ben Singleton.

“To accept one’s past — one’s history — is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it.” This quote is among the many outstanding observations in James Baldwin’s seminal text “The Fire Next Time.” And while it’s possible to drown in Baldwin’s righteous indictment of race relations in America, the goal of the text is to learn and grow from history.{/span}

The book, first published in 1963, comprises two essays – a short one and a long one. The first, short essay is “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation.” The letter is marked with warnings and trepidation for his nephew growing up as an African-American: “This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish … You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason[italics Baldwin’s.]”

But the nephew’s position in society shouldn’t be a cause of self-pity. Rather, it is the society and the mindset of too many white peoplethat should be looked down upon: “They are, in effect, still trapped in a history they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.” Rather than replicating the anger and hatred that will be directed toward him, Baldwin advises his nephew to choose a different path: “You must accept them and accept them with love.” For Baldwin, white people who hate black people are in a much more pitiable condition than the oppressed, because their very identity is based on a lie — and it is lies that are the foundation of slavery. Baldwin’s exhortation to white people can be summed up from the Gospels: the truth will set you free.

Baldwin was familiar with that Christian ethic. “Down At The Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind” is the second essay. It’s essentially an expansion of the themes he sets forth in the letter to his nephew. Baldwin writes of his own childhood growing up in Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s. The church’s failure to address systemic issues in his community and his abusive father, who is a preacher, figure heavily early on. But Baldwin himself becomes a preacher in his teens before he abandons Christianity entirely.

He encounters religion again in a very different guise in The Nation of Islam. The leader at the time, Elijah Muhammad, invites him to lunch at the organization’s headquarters in Chicago. Baldwin has mixed feelings about Elijah and his followers. While he is impressed with the commanding presence of Elijah and the devotion of his young followers, he can’t support his movement of black separatism for ideological and practical reasons : “I love a few people and they love me and some of them are white, and isn’t love more important than color?”

After these two autobiographical surveys, Baldwin develops an extended meditation on the truths and untruths of American history, the psychology of racism and how Americans can form a more perfect union.

“The Fire Next Time” will surely, and has surely, been an uncomfortable read for many. But anyway, that’s necessary. It’s a book that has influenced generations of activists and thinkers and has resonance in today’s world. Readers will also be propelled by Baldwin’s matchless prose and his cautious optimism: “If we … do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.”

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