As a voracious reader, there are few books that I have read and at the end felt as though I was a completely different person. Even fewer have moved me to the point of tears. James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time is a book that did both. Before reading thisImage...
As a voracious reader, there are few books that I have read and at the end felt as though I was a completely different person. Even fewer have moved me to the point of tears. James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time is a book that did both.
Before reading thisImage result for the fire next time book, I had only heard of Baldwin in passing and had never read any of his books. My friend and mentor Brad Kramer (who is an anthropologist and professor at Utah Valley University) recommended the book to me so I bought it out of a sense of duty to heed a mentors recommendation. However, I put the book off for a time and did not view it as urgent to read it. Then, while we were having lunch with Brad, he told me that he got similar feelings when reading Baldwin’s book that he did in past times when he was reading the scriptures (he and I are practicing Mormons). This increased my intrigued and I put the book on my list to read in the new year. I am not engaging in hyperbole when I state this book is one of the best that I have ever read.
The book takes the form of a long essay divided into two parts. The first portion is Baldwin writing a letter to his fourteen year old nephew. The second (and most important part) is Baldwin’s account of his life as a black man in Harlem and how we as American’s must overcome our racial issues if we are truly to become a great nation. Baldwin, who lived during the Civil Rights Movement, is a much different person than the two men who have come to be the faces of that era: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Dr. King was a Christian minister who saw the movement in terms of the Christian message. Malcolm was a minister in the Nation of Islam (until 1964) and thought that the blacks and whites should be separated and that blacks were superior to whites.
Baldwin was somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. He recounts in the essay that he was attracted to Christianity as a youth because of its power to move people and eventually became a Christian minister himself. But, after seeing how the Christian Church was not making progress on the race issue and seeing how it could be used to justify racism, he left Christianity. However, Christianity never left him. In the essay Baldwin comes across with the air of prophet, warning that if change isn’t made the consequences will be dire. Unlike Malcolm, Baldwin did not believe that one place was superior to the other (he says just because something is different does not make it superior or inferior). His message, while spoken in religious terms, does not require adherence to any theology.
I will address two key moments in the book, and leave it to the reader to read the book and fill in the rest. While Baldwin was in Chicago, he had the opportunity to meet and have dinner with Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam. While he ate with Elijah, he was impressed with the power of the man over his followers, but noted that he was disgusted with the Nation’s teachings. While he respected the Nation for making blacks more self-reliant, he could not endorse their racist ideology, which he saw as the same story as what white Americans were doing but in reverse. This spoke to me personally because I also have had the opportunity to be around members of the Nation of Islam, and like Baldwin was more than uncomfortable. The message is counterproductive and nonsensical.
The most important part of the good is after Baldwin describes his meeting with the Elijah Muhammad. He states:
Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves to totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeple, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have.
Baldwin concludes that America needs to become post-racial, meaning that while we can acknowledge that we have differences in skin color, there is no reason to attribute certain characteristics to people due to there skin color. Further, while Baldwin was friends with the aforementioned Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, he also points out that we all need each other; racism has an equally bad effect upon whites as it does upon blacks.
In an era where racism still raises its ugly head, The Fire Next Time is a book that all Americans, regardless of color, need to have in their personal library. I plan to read it once a year going forward. A truly wonderful, remarkable book.