James Baldwin. The Fire Next Time. Vintage International, 1962, 1993 (106 pages)
“God gave Noah the rainbow sign,
No more water, the fire next time!”
The acuity with which Baldwin surmises and writes is powerful. I appreciated most the insightfulness by which he exposes the moral duality applied to non-violence; that it is virtuous when applied to Black people, but disdained when applied to white domination. Baldwin exposes white attention to Black “problems” as an effort “to be released from the tyranny of his mirror,” an apt indictment of non-responsibility. And, Baldwin’s criticisms of religion are very much in line with the sages of the ancient and contemporary world that the truest expression of faith comes in the form of love as a “state of being, or a state of grace,” which has more to do with the person doing the loving, than the object of the love.
Finally, the title is itself the message. Fire, in several bible passages, is used as a metaphor for a complete remaking by first destroying, by first casting judgment. It is an apocalyptic vision, one that reveals the truth of the nature of things. Consider 1 Corinthians 3:
12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13 the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. 14 If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.
Specifically, the title of this book is inspired by the 2 Peter 3 passage:
5 They deliberately ignore this fact, that by the word of God heavens existed long ago and an earth was formed out of water and by means of water, 6 through which the world of that time was deluged with water and perished. 7 But by the same word the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the godless. 8 But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. 9 The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed. 11 Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, 12 waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? 13 But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.
In our struggle for racial justice, fire, then, is both a caution and a prayer for the destruction of the current state of things, if and as we continue to perpetuate racial inequality. It is the cry of the oppressed and the hope of the downtrodden. And so we do wait for a new heavens and a new earth. Like God baptizing the earth through the flood, so may God reform the earth through fire.
May we each be a spark to add to the flame.
MY DUNGEON SHOOK: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation
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 forever. 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. (7) … Know whence you came. If you 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. … The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. (8) … And if the word integration means anything, this (9) 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. (10)
DOWN AT THE CROSS: Letter from a Region in My Mind
Take up the White Man’s burden–
Ye dare not stoop to less–
Nor call too loud on Freedom
To cloak your weariness;
By all ye cry or whisper,
By all ye leave or do,
The silent, sullen peoples
Shall weigh your Gods and you.
Down at the cross where my Saviour died,
Down where for cleansing from sin I cried,
There to my heart was the blood applied,
Singing glory to His name!
White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this–which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never–the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed. (22)
Negros in this country–and Negroes do not, strictly or legally speaking, exist in any other–are taught really to despise themselves from the moment their eyes are open on the world. (25)
To defend oneself against a fear is simply to insure that one will, one day, be conquered by it; fears must be faced. …all the fears with which I had grown up, and which were now a part of me and controlled my vision of the world, rose up like a wall between the world and me, and drove me into the church. (27)
…if love will not swing wide the gates, no other power will or can. And if one despairs–as who has not?–of human love, God’s love alone is left. But God–and I felt this even then, so long ago, on that tremendous floor, unwillingly–(30) is white. And if His love was so great, and if He loved all His children, why were we, the blacks, cast down so far? (31)
I was also able to see that the principles governing the rites and customs of the churches in which I grew up did not differ from the principles governing the rites and customs of other churches, white. The principles were Blindness, Loneliness, and Terror, the first principle necessarily and actively cultivated in order to deny the two others. I would love to believe that the principles were Faith, Hope, and Charity, but this is clearly not so for most Christians, or for what we call the Christian world. (31)
Was Heaven, then, to be merely another ghetto? Perhaps I might have been able to reconcile myself even to this if I had been able to believe that there was any loving-kindness to be found in the haven I represented. … I really mean that there was no love in the church. It was a mask for hatred and self-hatred and despair. The transfiguring power of the Holy Ghost ended when the service ended, and salvation stopped at (39) the church door. When we were told to love everybody, I had thought that that meant everybody. But no. It applied only to those who believed as we did, and it did not apply to white people at all. I was told by a minister, for example, that I should never, on any public conveyance, under any circumstances, rise and give my seat to a white woman. White men never rose for Negro women. Well, that was true enough, in the main–I saw his point. But what was the point, the purpose, of my salvation if it did not permit me to behave with love toward others, no matter how they behaved toward me? What others did was their responsibility, for which they would answer when the judgment trumpet sounded. But what I did was my responsibility, and I would have to answer, too–unless, of course, there was also in Heaven a special dispensation for the benighted black, who was not to be judged in the same way as other human beings, or angels. It probably occurred to me around this time that the vision people hold of the world to come is but a reflection, with predictable wishful distortions, of the world in which they live. (40)
In all jazz, especially in the blues, there is something tart and ironic, authoritative and (41) double-edged. (42)
To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread. (43) … Therefore, whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves. (44)
It is not too much to say that whoever wishes to become a truly moral human being (and let us not ask whether or not this is possible; I think we must believe that it is possible) must first divorce himself from all the prohibitions, crimes, and hypocrisies of the Christian church. If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him. (47)
Time catches up with kingdoms and crushes them, gets its teeth into doctrines and rends them; time reveals the foundations on which any kingdom rests, and eats at those foundations, and it destroys doctrines by proving them to be untrue. (51)
…it is not necessary that people be wicked but only that they be spineless. (55)
In the United States, violence and heroism have been made synonymous except when it comes to blacks. (58) … The real reason that non-violence is considered to be a virtue in Negroes–I am not speaking now of its racial value, another matter altogether–is that white men do not want their lives, their self-image, or their property threatened. (59)
All doormen, for example, and all policemen have by now, for me, become exactly the same, and my style with them is designed simply to intimidate them before they can intimidate me. No doubt I am guilty of some injustice here, but it is irreducible, since I cannot risk assuming that the humanity of these people is more real to them than their uniforms. Most Negroes cannot risk assuming that the humanity of white people is more real to them than their color. And this leads, imperceptibly but inevitably, to a state of mind in which, having long ago learned to expect the worst, one finds it very easy to believe the worst. The brutality with which Negroes are treated in this country simply cannot be overstated, however unwilling white men may be to hear it. In the be-(68)ginning–and neither can this be overstated–a Negro just cannot believe that white people are treating him as they do; he does not know what he has done to merit it. And when he realizes that the treatment accorded him has nothing to do with anything he has done, that the attempt of white people to destroy him–for that is what it is–is utterly gratuitous, it is not hard for him to think of white people as devils. For the horrors of the American Negro’s life there has been almost no language. (69)
For it would seem that a certain category of exceptions never failed to make the world worse–that category, precisely, for whom power is more real than love. And yet power is real, and many things, including, very often, love, cannot be (72) achieved without it. (73)
…the most dangerous creation of any society is that man who has nothing to lose. You do not need ten such men–one will do. (76) … As they watch black men elsewhere rise, the promise held out, at last, that they may walk the earth with the authority with which white men walk, protected by the power that white men shall have no longer, is enough, and more than enough, to empty prisons and pull God down from Heaven. It has happened before, many times, before color was invented, and the hope of Heaven has always been a metaphor for the achievement of this particular state of grace. (77)
People always seem to band together in accordance to a principle that has nothing to do with love, a principle that releases them from personal responsibility. (81)
The glorification of one race and the consequent debasement of another–or others–always has been and always will be a recipe for murder. There is no way around this. If one is permitted to treat any group (82) of people with special disfavor because of their race or the color of their skin, there is no limit to what one will force them to endure, and, since the entire race has been mysteriously indicted, no reason not to attempt to destroy it root and branch. … I am very much concerned that American Negroes achieve their freedom here in the United States. But I am also concerned for their dignity, for the health of their souls, and must oppose any attempt that Negroes may make to do to others what has been done to them. I think I know–we see it around us every day–the spiritual wasteland to which that road leads. It is so simple a fact and one that is so hard, apparently, to grasp: Whoever debases others is debasing himself. …and I would not like to see Negroes ever arrive at so wretched a condition. (83)
…the sloppy and fatuous nature of American good will can never be relied upon to deal with hard problems. (87)
The Negroes of this country may never be able to rise to power, but they are very well placed indeed to precipitate chaos and ring down the curtain on the American dream. (88)
We are capable of bearing a great burden, once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is. (91)
It is the responsibility of free men to trust and to celebrate what is constant–birth, struggle, and death are constant, and so is love, though we may not always think so–and to apprehend the nature of change, to be able and willing to change. I speak of change not on the surface but in the depths–change in the sense of renewal. But renewal becomes impossible if one supposes things to be constant that are not–safety, for example, or money, or power. One clings then to chimeras, by which one can only be betrayed, and the entire hope–the entire possibility–of freedom disappears. (92) … America, of all the Western nations, has been best placed to prove the uselessness and the obsolescence of the concept of color. … What it comes to is that if we, who can scarcely be considered a white nation, persist in thinking of ourselves as one, we condemn ourselves, with the truly white nations, to sterility and decay, (93) whereas if we could accept ourselves as we are, we might bring new life to the Western achievements, and transform them. The price of this transformation is the unconditional freedom of the Negro; it is not too much to say that he, who has been so long rejected, must now be embraced, and at no matter what psychic or social risk. He is the key figure in his country, and the American future is precisely as bright or as dark as his. And the Negro recognizes this, in a negative way. Hence the question: Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house? (94)
Therefore, a vast amount of the energy that goes into what we call the Negro problem is produced by the white man’s profound desire not to be judged by those who are not white, not to be seen as he is, and at the same time a vast amount of the white anguish is rooted in the white man’s equally profound need to be seen as he is, to be released from the tyranny of his mirror. … 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–not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but int he tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth. (95)
I cannot accept the proposition that the four-hundred-year travail of the American Negro should result merely in his attainment of the present level of the American civilization. I am far from convinced that being released from the African witch doctor was worthwhile if I am now–in order to support the moral contradictions and the spiritual aridity of my life–expected to become dependent on the American psychiatrist. It is a bargain I refuse. The only thing white people have that black people need, or should want, is power–and no one holds power forever. (96) … And I repeat: the price of the liberation of the white people is the liberation of the blacks–the total liberation, in the cities, in the towns, before the law, and in the mind. Why, for example–especially knowing the family as I do–I should want to marry your sister is a great mystery to me. But your sister and I have every right to marry if we wish to, and no one has the right to stop us. (97)
In short, we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation–if we are really, that is, to achieve our identity, our maturity, as men and women. To create one nation has proved to be a hideously difficult task; there is certainly no need now to create two, one black and one white. (97)
…people who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover who they are. That man who (98) is forced each day to snatch his manhood, his identity, out of the fire of human cruelty that rages to destroy it knows, if he survives his effort, and even if he does not survive it, something about himself and human life that no school on earth–and, indeed, no church–can teach. He achieves his own authority, and that is unshakable. … If one is continually surviving the worst that life can bring, one eventually ceases to be controlled by a fear of what life can bring; whatever it brings must be borne. And at this level of experience one’s bitterness begins to be palatable, and hatred becomes to heavy a sack to carry. (99)
How can the American Negro past be used? It is entirely possible that this dishonored past will rise up soon to smite all of us. (103) … Color is not a human or a personal reality; it is a political reality. But this is a distinction so extremely hard to make that the West has not been able to make it yet. And at the center of this dreadful storm, this vast confusion, stand the black people of this nation, who must now share the fate of a nation that has never accepted them, to which they were brought in chains. Well, if this is so, one has no choice but to do all in one’s power to change that fate, and at no matter what risk–eviction, imprisonment, torture, death. For the sake of one’s children, in order to minimize the bill that they must pay, one must be careful not to take refuge in any delusion–and the value placed on the color of the skin is always and everywhere and forever a delusion. (104)
Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If we–and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others–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. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that proph-(105)cy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time! (106)