The Fire Next Time is a book of two essays by James Baldwin. The first essay is written in the form of a letter addressed to his nephew, James. The second essay describes Baldwin’s experiences as a black American in the 1960s, including a dinner with Malcolm X. For me, reading Baldwin is like willfully standing in a bucket of ice cold water, naked, waiting for cup after cup of cold water to be splashed in my face. You see, “I” am “them,” the “white people,” the murderous and oppressive; the privileged “other” he warns his nephew against trusting while simultaneously asking him to love and forgive white people’s transgressions. For Baldwin understands the complicated chains of America’s past can only be dissolved by a common denominator of love.
“It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your child to hate” (Baldwin 113).
“Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word ‘love’ here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace…” (Baldwin 109).
Throughout the book, I highlighted sentences and sentiments that felt plucked from conversations I’ve had with men akin to Baldwin’s nephew. All the while, I painfully noted how similar these feelings and fears still are, most notably this idea of trusting a white person. I couldn’t help but wonder if my friendships outside the white race run any deeper than this, or if these relationships are just a comfortable facade.
“But the Negro’s experience of the white world cannot possibly create in him any respect for the standards by which the white world claims to live” (Baldwin 36).
“’The white man sure is a devil. He proves that by his own actions.’ I looked around. It was a very young man who had said this, scarcely more than a boy – very dark and sober, very bitter” (Baldwin 79).
The hard truth is that more often than not I am still seen as a threat. Often I feel the hesitation, the resistance, the fear of sharing with me – a white representative – any of their personal information. It’s an undercurrent. It’s a residue. It’s a deeply rooted historical divide. I distinctly remember a conversation where I was asked, in an accusatory manner, if I suffered from “white man’s guilt.” I replied, “No, not white man’s guilt, but I do feel a responsibility as a white person to be a better ambassador of humanity.” Nevertheless, I find myself aligned with most of Baldwin’s prescriptive philosophy for a better America.
“But in order to change a situation one has first to see it for what it is: in the present case, to accept the fact…that the Negro has been formed by this nation…and does not belong to any other – not to Africa, and certainly not to Islam. The paradox – and a fearful paradox it is – is that the American Negro can have no future anywhere, on any continent, as long as he is unwilling to accept his past. To accept one’s past – one’s history – is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it” (Baldwin 95).
“Many of them [white people], 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” (Baldwin 23).
A Warrior Princess