The Fire Next Time
By James Baldwin
The Declaration of Independence states that “all men are created equal.” The 14th amendment prohibits the state from denying people “the equal protection of the laws.” The Civil Rights Act of 1866 guarantees that all have the “full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of persons and property as is enjoyed by white citizens.” Yet despite sweeping legislation, by the mid-20th century, it was clear that reality in no way reflected the laws on the books.
Writing a hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation, right at the heart of the civil rights movement, Baldwin recounts his experiences growing up in Harlem and his growing awareness of the flaws in American society. Though Baldwin wrote this piece six decades ago, many of its core themes remain strikingly relevant today.
And all this is happening in the richest and freest country in the world, and in the middle of the twentieth century. The subtle and deadly change of heart that might occur in you would be involved with the realization that a civilization is not destroyed by wicked people; it is not necessary that people be wicked but only that they be spineless.
The Fire Next Time is not a singular work but rather two essays. The first, “My Dungeon Shook,” is a letter to Baldwin’s nephew—also called James—that lays bare the oppressive narrative that society has written for him. Hope is not lost, however. Baldwin sees himself in his nephew, and he asserts that in a world that does not care, there is a way out. For “they do not know Harlem, and I do. So do you.”
This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish. Let me spell out precisely what I mean by that, for the heart of the matter is here, and the root of my dispute with my country. You were born where you were born and faced the' future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set for ever. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity. Wherever you have turned, James, in your short time on this earth, you have been told where you could go and what you could do (and how you could do it) and where you could live and whom you could marry. I know your countrymen do not agree with me about this, and I hear them saying, "You exaggerate.”
Baldwin argues to his nephew that in a world that actively seeks to destroy you, one must start by trusting themselves. Rather than succumb to the reality and norms that white society has set out, he notes that there is no reason for his nephew to search for acceptance among them. Rather, the burden is on his nephew to accept the defective reality that both he and white Americans have been born into. As “the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star,” Baldwin asserts that “when he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.” Baldwin therefore calls upon his audience to craft their own identity as opposed to accepting one that has been predetermined by an unjust world.
Take no one's word for anything, including mine—but trust your experience. Know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go. The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you. Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity and fear. Please try to be clear, dear James, through the storm which rages about your youthful head today, about the reality which lies behind the words acceptance and integration.
Though Baldwin calls for self-reliance, he juxtaposes these exhortations with appeals for racial harmony. Rather than chase superiority, Baldwin seeks reconciliation rather than separation. In his time, this optimistic outlook was certainly non-obvious, and Baldwin’s realization of this fact took many years. This journey is made clear in his second essay.
But these men are your brothers—your lost, younger brothers. 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. For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become.
The Color of God
Baldwin’s second essay is titled “Down at the Cross.” As the title suggests, this piece is largely about the author’s experiences with organized religion. Here, he discusses his spiritual journey beginning from the early days of his childhood. Originally published in The New Yorker, it can still be viewed in the magazine’s digital archives today.
Growing up with an abusive father and streets filled with crime, Baldwin first turned to the church for refuge. Scared that he would succumb to “terrified lapses” and “grim, guilty, tormented experiments,” Baldwin started preaching as a teenager. It was here that Baldwin would discover his oratory skills and experience a rare kind of energy.
The church was very exciting. It took a long time for me to disengage myself from this excitement, and on the blindest, most visceral level, I never really have, and never will. There is no music like that music, no drama like the drama of the saints rejoicing, the sinners moaning, the tambourines racing, and all those voices coming together and crying holy unto the Lord. There is still, for me, no pathos quite like the pathos of those multi-colored, worn, somehow triumphant and transfigured faces, speaking from the depths of a visible, tangible, continuing despair of the goodness of the Lord. I have never seen anything to equal the fire and excitement that sometimes, without warning, fill a church, causing the church, as Leadbelly and so many others have testified, to "rock".
But the church would not prove to be all that Baldwin hoped for. In time, he would come to view the Christian world as “morally bankrupt and politically unstable,” filled with hypocrisies and sexism, a “mask for hatred and self-hatred and despair.” Disillusioned with Christianity, Baldwin examines the teachings of the Nation of Islam, which inverted the prevailing doctrine into one where the black men were superior and claimed that God is black. As one might expect from his first letter, Baldwin isn’t too keen on these teachings. He recounts a dinner with Elijah Muhammed, the leader of the Nation of Islam, where he realizes that despite any good it may have done for the welfare of black society, “the glorification of one race and the consequent debasement of another has been and always will be a recipe for murder.”
When the white man came to Africa, the white man had the Bible and the African had the land, but now it is the white man who is being, reluctantly and bloodily, separated from the land, and the African who is still attempting to digest or to vomit up the Bible. The struggle, therefore, that now begins in the world is extremely complex, involving the historical role of Christianity in the realm of power-that is, politics-and in the realm of morals. In the realm of power, Christianity has operated with an unmitigated arrogance and cruelty—necessarily, since a religion ordinarily imposes on those who have discovered the true faith the spiritual duty of liberating the infidels.
God is black. All black men belong to Islam; they have been chosen. And Islam shall rule the world. The dream, the sentiment is old; only the color is new. And it is this dream, this sweet possibility, that thousands of oppressed black men and women in this country now carry away with them after the Muslim Minister has spoken, through the dark, noisome ghetto streets, into the hovels where so many have perished. The white God has not delivered them; perhaps the Black God will.
Reflecting upon his own experience, Baldwin realizes that his perspective, like that of many black people, has granted him a unique view of American history. Writing decades before schools began teaching the more shameful parts of American history, one can imagine that the rest of American society was generally oblivious to the deep faults that had been present since the founding of the country. Baldwin, who notes that German prisoners of war were given more dignity than black soldiers at home, characterizes himself as inoculated against the fictions of the American myth. Amid this turmoil, the American dream is no longer a hope but “something much more closely resembling a nightmare.”
The American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed that collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world's most direct and virile, that American women are pure. Negroes know far more about white Americans than that; it can almost be said, in fact, that they know about white Americans what parents—or, anyway, mothers—know about their children, and that they very often regard white Americans that way. And perhaps this attitude, held in spite of what they know and have endured, helps to explain why Negroes, on the whole, and until lately, have allowed themselves to feel so little hatred.
In closing his first letter, Baldwin claims that the country may be “celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon.” And based on how things are going, he might just be correct here. His writing remains unfortunately relevant today, an eloquent call for empathy and unity that lays clear many ugly truths. Baldwin believed that he was living in an “age of revolution” where America had the chance to finally make things right. While there has certainly been much progress, there also remains much work to be done. Baldwin’s long journey for truth makes for a powerful read. Despite his admittance that the peace and equality he seeks is the “perpetual achievement of the impossible,” Baldwin remains hopeful that a real revolution can be made. Though we now take social progress for granted, Baldwin’s writing is all the more extraordinary in being among the first of its kind.
By Scott Rozelle and Natalie Hell
China’s rise has lifted more people out of poverty than any other nation in history. Yet at the same time, this rapid growth has left many behind, and deepened inequalities between the urban rich and the rural poor. Here, Rozelle and Hell investigate the urban-rural divide in China and its implications for the nation’s future.