Sunday, July 13, 2014

"The Fire Next Time" review

At the height of the Civil Rights Era in 1963, James Baldwin's passionate examination of racism, The Fire Next Time appeared on the literary scene. This book was born out of pain and urgency. Baldwin was writing from a deep place. Written with Biblical language and incendiary prose, Baldwin makes the reader feel the torment and anguish of living black in an American society - founded on - and dominated by white supremacy.

This deceptively slim book is divided into two essays -  "My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation" and "Down at the Cross: Letter From a Region in My Mind." They were published in The Progressive and the New Yorker, respectively.

"You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many was as possible, that you were a worthless human being," he writes in a letter to his 14-year-old nephew, also named James.

In the second essay, Baldwin describes how as a teenager, he escaped the streets of Harlem by taking refuge in the church and becoming a popular boy preacher. He later became disenchanted with the church's hypocrisy. Years later, as a journalist, he met the charismatic Elijah Muhammad and observed the separatist movement of black Muslims. He resisted the group's attempts to convert him and while he empathized with is men and women, he found their dream of establishing their own separate nation to be impractical and unrealistic.

The only answer he finds is for blacks and whites to come together. But to do that, whites need to take a hard, uncomfortable look at themselves and their culture. We need to make a self-examination and have an honest conversation about race. More than 50 years after this book was written, we have failed to do that.

I can tell you most of my fellow white people take the evasive view that talking about problems makes them worse. We like to pretend racism is a problem of the past that was resolved decades ago during the Civil Rights Movement. When minorities speak out against the systemic and personal racism that still exists in our society, too many whites cast it off as "minorities bitching again."

James Baldwin

Baldwin brings out the truth - that our nation, society, religion and culture are predicated on the mythology that the black man is inferior and the white man is superior and God-ordained. The Western world was founded on the idea that the black man is a descendant of Ham and thereby, cursed and predestined to be a slave.

Right-wing zealots take umbrage over any measure of criticism leveled at America. They will respond aggressively to Baldwin's harsh critiques of our country' and the mythology, the great lie that our nation is exceptional and blessed by God above all others - a belief used for centuries to justify imperialism, conquest, barbarism, genocide and the destruction of non-white skinned people.

In some of his most powerful prose, Baldwin calls out the Christian church for its complicity in perpetuating the violent mythology of America and the Western world. He writes:

"The Christian church itself - again, as distinguished from some of its ministers - sanctioned and rejoiced in the conquests of the flag, and encouraged, if it did not formulate, the belief that conquest, with the resulting relative well-being of the Western populations, was proof of the favor of God."

Yet while Baldwin walked away from the church and all religion as a young man, he was never able to shake its power and influence over his life and creative spirit. He learned to write, preaching from the pulpit. His writing is suffused with the fervor, cadence and literary style of the Bible. There is an urgent, apocalyptic bent to his words, reminiscent of the Old Testament prophets.

The book's apocalyptic title is taken from an old slave song: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water, the fire next time. Baldwin was saying that the destinies of white and black were interwoven and their failure to come together as one nation would mean mutual destruction for both. The riots and assassinations that were to come in the '60s renders Baldwin's words to be prophecy.

Unquestionably, The Fire Next Time was an epochal book - indispensable '60s literature. Yet the racism Baldwin spoke of, the toxicity and hatred, are holding us down today. Still. You can find it all over Facebook and Fox "News." We need to rediscover Baldwin's voice. We need a voice like that.


Gateway literature:

Strength to Love by Martin Luther King, Jr., also written in 1963. This series of sermons by the late Civil Rights icon equate human rights with Christian love. In essays, such as "A Knock at Midnight," King, like Baldwin, speaks of the interwoven destinies of blacks and whites.

In some of his speeches, King mentioned Baldwin's name alongside such gigantic black literary names as W.E.B. DuBois, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison. All are worth reading.

Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. 1963 was a year of brilliant, forceful literature. This Cold War era satire about a nuclear holocaust contains vast truths about humanity.

Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin. In his breakthrough 1953 autobiographical novel, Baldwin writes about a teenager's religious awakening and subsequent moral, spiritual and sexual struggle. In this book, Baldwin gave a novelistic treatment to topics that he would write about as true life events 10 years later in The Fire Next Time.