06 December 2010

The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin

A short, fascinating book containing two essays, one a letter to his nephew, the other a kind of biographical reflection on Christianity's role in African American life that opens out onto broader thoughts on the civil rights movement. I read the entire book in less than two hours, and have been thinking about it ever since. The most powerful aspect of the book, I think, is its reflection on love. To quote:

And if the word integration means anything, this 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 it must become.

Baldwin argues that the root of racism is white delusion, an inability of white Americans to see themselves as they truly are. They project their fears and anxieties onto black people in order to avoid facing them within themselves. Thus, Baldwin argues, what is necessary is not only for blacks to realize that what they are taught about themselves is untrue - they must also make whites see the world as it really is, and they must do this with love. He doesn't really explicitly spell out how this will work (the love part), but in a way, this is what I liked about the book - that it lays the groundwork for all these really complex philosophical reflections in extremely plain, but enormously suggestive, terms. It's also quite radical in its insistence that blacks and whites must learn to live together, and stop seeing themselves as different. There's also a really fascinating moment where he discusses the wisdom that comes from suffering, and the way in which black music can be both joyful and melancholy at the same time.

Almost 50 years later, the book is still a classic, and still, I think, relevant and worth reading, with insights that remain valuable and even timely. Check it out.

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