“God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water, the fire next time.”
(From the African Spiritual ‘Mary Don’t You Weep’, first recorded by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1915)
‘The Fire Next Time’ is a quick read, however, the depth within the context will compel you to do your own research so that you can discuss and expand on some of his experiences.
The book consists of two essays, the first essay is:
‘My Dungeon Shook: Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation’. This is written in the form of a letter to Baldwin’s 14-year-old nephew and presents itself as a guide on how his nephew can prepare himself for the experiences he will inevitably encounter as an African American male growing up in the 60’s. When I read this essay, it felt like I had been given the instruction manual that my younger self needed when I started to realise that I would be treated differently because of the color of my skin.
The second essay is:
‘Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region of My Mind’. Focuses on race, religion, class, and the undercurrent of the racist psychology that allows the majority of White America to believe that its treatment of African Americans was justifiable and necessary. This essay highlights truths that I believe many people of color know, but do not want to accept. In order to truly be free and acquire a level of respect that is seen as a basic human right, we must come to terms with that fact that money will never buy us that freedom.
In the words of Baldwin: “One would never defeat one’s circumstances by working and saving one’s pennies; one would never, by working, acquire that many pennies, and, besides, the social treatment accorded even the most successful Negroes proved that one needed, in order to be free, something more than a bank account.”
What has this book shown me? Well… it’s given me a deeper understanding of race relations and how they are presented within different societal hierarchies, but when you know what you’re looking for, you can learn (and teach others) how to deal with it.
My experiences as a man of the African diaspora in today’s world meant that I instinctively understood the importance and pragmatisms of Baldwin’s response to race and racism in America. I can see how his reflections would have helped him to understand and elevate himself above the cruelty and injustice he would have endured; unfortunately, I have also learnt how to understand the power of the hold that racism has over the mind. This made me realise that the practice of self-elevation is a constant and necessary tool if I wish to find peace within the hate and animosity that still runs free in this world.
The complexity of Baldwin quickly begins to unfold within the first few pages, he speaks about his life experiences and the unique perspectives that developed throughout his childhood into maturation. The emotion and depth of his personal truths highlight his anger and his loneliness, yet he is still able to eloquently put into words what many of us can only express as feeling that is difficult to explain without misrepresenting our truth.
Jay Z does a similar thing in his song ‘The Story of O.J’. From Jay Z’s perspective, it feels like social commentary for the purpose of wider understanding and insight into conversations that only the wealthy are privy to. Jay Z even goes as far as to say “I’m trying to give you a million dollars worth of game for $9.99”. From James Baldwin, it feels like he’s giving you a million pound guide to your internal emancipation for £8.99.
Through both men, I can clearly hear my mother’s teachings repackaged for me as a man in his 30’s who - after the racist atrocities of 2020 and 2021 - needed to hear these words more than ever, and more specifically, from other men. This knowledge seems to be intrinsic to those who have had to learn the rules of survival out of necessity. These “survivors” are offering the next generation of Black men and women a set of tools that will equip them for the racism and trauma that they are likely to encounter at some point in their lives.
The questions that I’ve been asking myself since finishing this book are, “can too much preparation soften the next generation? Do the same issues take on new forms with every generation? Will these issues continue to evolve, meaning that they will always have to be re-discovered? Or do the next generation start from a stronger position but uncover new, deeper troubles? How deep does this really go?”
I’m still reflecting and refining the questions, but I believe that I can discover answers that resonate from a place of truth if I continue to have conversations that challenge my questions, expand on the answers, and compel myself and others to act.
Another question that came to mind was, “is the trauma of uncertainty just a part of life until we get comfortable with the inevitability of uncertainty?” Or… as Baldwin puts it:
“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.”
This got me thinking; what is it like to not be controlled by fear? Is being carefree safe? Who lives a carefree life? Are any of them Black? Are any of them White?
For me, this book explores and expresses the importance of developing a deep unwavering belief in your “self” in order to navigate through a world that will judge you based on the colour of your skin before it cares to experience the content of your character. ‘The Fire Next Time’ offers both information and counsel based on Baldwin’s personal experiences, he is literally showing you how to build the resilience needed to excel beyond what the racist psychology of the west expects of you.