The second installment of Duncan Jones’ #BowieBookClub is the influential The Fire Next Time, by James BaldwinFor those who haven’t been following, Jones is retracing and retweeting the top 100 favourite books of his father, David Bowie. This polemic black manifesto is just as vital now as it was when it was first published 55years ago.  It is a searing and honest portrayal of 60s Harlem where Baldwin grew up.  He chose to become a preacher at fourteen, rather than hit the ‘Avenue’ like the rest of his black peers sitting around ‘sharing a jug of wine or a bottle of whiskey […] unable to say what oppressed them [which was ultimately] “the man” – the white man’.[1]  Baldwin’s future as a writer and rhetorician was set in stone:  as the ‘grandson of a slave and the son of a preacher’, the fight for freedom was in his blood.

Baldwin published The Fire Next Time, a non-confrontational and erudite stand against racism, in 1963, 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation that formally ended slavery.  It is an epistolary novel consisting of two emotive and compelling letters, the first, “My Dungeon Shook”, is an open letter to his nephew, and the second, “Down at the Cross”, is a race relations declaration, constituting a ‘how-to guide’ for shrugging off the shackles of black subordination at the hands of the ‘white devils’ through the acts of ‘acceptance and integration’.[2]

Baldwin described a personal assault by two ‘American he-men’, aka. policemen, who ‘amused themselves with [Baldwin] by frisking [him], making comic (and terrifying) speculations concerning my ancestry and probable sexual prowess’ when he was just ten years old.[3]  Baldwin’s assault is sickeningly brutal, but eloquently expressed to illustrate the vast distance between the substance of the writer compared with the deep depravity of his abusers.  It is hard to believe that this abuse of power inflicted on Baldwin as a child, inflicted even now in present America, happened so many years after supposed black emancipation.  As Malcolm X said: ‘If you are black, you were born in jail’.  To demonstrate the lingering truth of this statement we can see the videos uploaded to the New York Times website in December of last year, showing innumerable incidents of police brutality.  There are so many senseless and unjustified beatings which have been captured on dash and body cams for minor misdemeanours, such as speed checks and jaywalking, which prove, without a doubt, the systematic and intrinsic racism that persists in the U.S. police force.  These brutal attacks on innocent people of colour across America makes The Fire Next Time essential reading for anyone seeking a history of present-day race relations.  The Confederate-founded KKK race hate, formally established in 1865 and experiencing periods of outlawry and resurgence, emerged in urban North America in the guise of the ‘American he-men’ police officers. They may use guns instead of rope to assassinate the black folk who verbally defy them or are ‘physically non-compliant’, but the racial impulse is the same.  Patrisse Cullors wrote in 2016: ‘The irony of today’s police violence would not have been lost on Baldwin: namely, that all this takes place under the watch of a Black President, whose first term began a little more than forty years later.’[4]  A prediction that Baldwin did not foresee: in fact, he considered a black President a ludicrous impossibility.  Baldwin believed ‘a kidnapped pagan […] defined by the American Constitution as “three-fifths” of a man’ would never rise to such a position of power’.[5]

In “My Dungeon Shook”, Baldwin launches his treatise on how to be a black man in a white world, as a guide to his young nephew.  Baldwin states: ‘You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger […] what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity and fear’.[6]  Baldwin does not advocate aggression or passivity, rather he proffers a path of love and assertiveness as the way to unite a nation divided by hate.

As the title of the book suggests, this is Baldwin’s freedom song.  The Fire Next Time was taken from a hymn: ‘God gave Noah the rainbow sign. / No more water, but the fire next time,’ which refers to the purgatorial fire that all people will face on Judgement Day. Baldwin suggests a way to avoid the ‘purgatorial fire’ is by improving our behaviour towards blacks, which makes this a ‘classic treatise on civil rights [that] lights the way towards equality.’[7]  The Fire Next Time is an extension of the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s, where prominent black figures, most notably Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, campaigned for racial equality, including voting rights.  They adopted the song ‘We Shall Overcome’ as their anthem, whereas The Fire Next Time comes from ‘Mary Don’t You Weep’, a slave song.  Baldwin was also a key political activist in the 60s, discussing civil rights with attorney general R.F. Kennedy.  Baldwin’s advocacy for a non-violent approach can be beautifully summarised in the advice that he gave his nephew: ‘If the word integration means anything […] it means that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves […] and begin to change it’.[8]

Out of Baldwin’s disillusionment with Christianity was born his inclusive approach to mankind: ‘The transfiguring power of the Holy Ghost ended when the service ended […] But what was the point […] of my salvation if it did not permit me to behave with love towards others, no matter how they behaved towards me?’.[9] Baldwin falls out of Christian favour, but never loses his faith.  Later in “Down at the Cross”, Elijah Muhammed, leader of the Nation of Islam tries to convert Baldwin to their religion.  Muhammed’s father was lynched before his eyes when he was six, which led him to begin an essentially segregationist sect. Nation of Islam promoted black ‘economic self-sufficiency and personal self-discipline’.  Muhammed could not see an integrated future for blacks and whites.  Although Baldwin did not entirely accept Muhammed’s doctrine, after visiting him he observed that he invested ‘both the male and the female with a pride and a serenity that [hung] about them like an unfailing light’.[10]  Muhammed gave his followers their self-respect back, but as Baldwin stated, he ‘must oppose any attempt that Negroes may make to do to others what has been done to them […] whoever debases others is debasing himself’.[11]  During their discussion, Baldwin pointedly asked Muhammed: ‘Isn’t love more important than colour?’, a point that they clearly disagreed on.[12]

The Fire Next Time is thought-provoking and heart-wrenching.  At one point, I had to put the book down because I was so overwhelmed and moved to tears by Baldwin’s plight growing up in Harlem.  Baldwin continued to gracefully communicate his message of love and integration up until the day he died.  This book is a crucial read for anyone who wants to fully grasp the grace of Baldwin and the nature of his message, because you only have to read his words to believe that he truly was the ‘beautiful one.’[13]  Baldwin’s resounding message was one of shared humanity and love: ‘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’.[14] 

 

[1] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (Penguin Modern Classics, 1963): 25

[2] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (Penguin Modern Classics, 1963): 16

[3] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (Penguin Modern Classics, 1963): 26

[4] Patrisse Cullors: “Why James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time Still Matters,” Orlando Edmonds, 2016 [https://daily.jstor.org/feature-james-baldwin-fire-next-time]

[5] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (Penguin Modern Classics, 1963): 74

[6] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (Penguin Modern Classics, 1963): 13-17

[7] Steven W. Thrasher: “How James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time Still Lights the Way Towards Equality,” 2017 [https://www.guardian.com/books/2017/apr/04/james-baldwin-the-fire-next-time-steve-shapiro]

[8] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (Penguin Modern Classics, 1963): 17

[9] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (Penguin Modern Classics, 1963): 41

[10] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (Penguin Modern Classics, 1963): 49

[11] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (Penguin Modern Classics, 1963): 73

[12] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (Penguin Modern Classics, 1963): 64

[13] Kevin Birmingham: “The Glow From The Fire Next Time,” New York Times, 2017

[https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/25/books/review/james-baldwin-fire-next-time.html]

[14] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (Penguin Modern Classics, 1963): 79

 

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