I’ve always heard the name James Baldwin: in my house, in classes, from professors and Barnes and Noble emails. In a class I took about Spike Lee, the professor, a man I admire very much, read a line from Baldwin’s most important work, The Fire Next Time. I don’t remember which quote he read, but I remember feeling utterly moved by the string of words.
Until now, I had never read anything by him myself. Last week on my break, I went and picked up the book.
Originally published in 1963, finished at 106 pages, The Fire Next Time consists of two letters: one addressed to his nephew, and another general letter, both written around the time of the 100th anniversary of Emancipation, both written to address the racial animosity that is the life force of America.
Let me just say that Baldwin had me shook.
It’s not like the messages he wrote about in these letters I had never heard of or read before. Many of our classic Black scholars, and at the moment I’m specifically think of DuBois, argued the same rhetoric: white Americans and America are both suffering from racism and the inability to see that in creating and maintaining a racial hierarchy true progress will never be achieved. I don’t write this to remove Baldwin’s originality, because he certainly wrote about the matter in an original way. It’s the mark of his talent that he is still able to move those who read his works even almost 60 years later.
It’s hard to say which of the two I enjoyed more, but I think I’m going to go with “Letter to my Nephew.” His letter was personal, but in a way that anyone who’s Black could find it personal. I felt like he could’ve been my uncle writing that letter to me, encouraging me to love all of myself, even the hardships. In this day and age, in which Black people are being harassed and killed for living their everyday lives, it was refreshing to read his words and know that we aren’t alone. Although this has been ongoing, although this was written years ago, the comfort and hope for a better day was still present and alive in his sentences.
I have to admit, I did feel some disconnect with the use of “men” in the letters. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. The great scholars and leaders of our people dedicated their lives to the true freedom of us, but more specifically with securing the rights of Black men. At first, I thought Baldwin’s use of “men” was for the general “people,” but soon realized that he really was just talking about men. I’m not a man, and while I can wholeheartedly agree that freedom for Black people is long overdue, when the scope is limited to the lives of Black men, where do Black women fit in that conversation? The most attention Black women and our issues are given is to protect her from sexual abuse by white men, but I find that idea narrow because will that be the only time Black men are worried about us, when they steal us away?
Even so, Baldwin wrote about the very things I, as a Black American, struggle with everyday in this country: trying to fit myself into a society that bends around me, a square peg into a round hole. There is no question that even nearly 60 years after the original publication this is still the story of Black people in this country. Like DuBois, he also challenged the “Negro problem” and boiled it down to the problem of power.
I’ve always thought that idea telling and true, so very true. From my own experience, having received my college education at a PWI, there weren’t a lot of white students in the Spike Lee class, the W.E.B. DuBois class. Many students there didn’t understand their racial privilege, didn’t understand in that pointing out said privilege it was not a personal attack on them but rather trying to get them to understand the status at which they were given via birth. The attempts to bridge and connect and reach some plane of mutual understanding were far and few inbetween, but the white friends that I have are able to have these conversations, to understand their place in society, and that the difference between me and them was the matter of an arbitrary value placed on skin color.
(It is arbitrary, by the way).
What’s even more telling is that white people are a minority in the world. A majority in America, yes, but racism is an attempt to hold onto fragile power. Now it’s a desperate race against the clock to hold onto it for as long as possible. We’ve been here for centuries, denied humanity because of pigment differences, and white people have been enjoying the punchline of a terrible joke for far too long. Baldwin reminded me of that, and I won’t forget it again.
Read The Fire Next Time. Read it if you want to understand. Read it to understand. Read it because it’s well-written and moving. Read it to know that everything Black people have been experiencing in this country since we were brought here has never and will never be natural.
Favorite quotes (because I couldn’t choose one, so here’s three):
“They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know.” -pg. 8-9
“And black has become a beautiful color–not because it is loved but because it is feared.” -pg. 77
“…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.” -pg. 104