Why James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time Still Matters

<<“Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?”

This is the question, canonized in the pages of The Fire Next Time, that James Baldwin arrived at in 1962; those involved in Black liberation today have come to a similar crossroads. In the tumultuous three years since George Zimmerman was acquitted of fatally shooting Trayvon Martin, in 2013, Black Lives Matter has grown into a dynamic political movement, galvanized by online communities and on-the-ground protests.

Patrisse Cullors, in the aforementioned documentary, expresses how

[T]he old civil rights really upheld the narrative around ‘respectability,’ around what we’re supposed to look like and be like. Folks in Ferguson said, “No, we’re not your respectable Negro, we are going to sag our pants, are going to be ratchet, and we’re okay with that.” We believe that have to show up in our full-selves, without closeting parts of ourselves, marginalizing parts of ourselves, and build together.

“Now, there is simply no possibility of a real change in the Negro’s situation without the most radical and far-reaching changes in the American political and social structure,” he writes in The Fire Next Time. American society itself—its fundamental assumptions and underlying logic—needs scrutiny. Despite these sentiments, The Fire Next Time rarely finds its way into discussions of a truly progressive stance on Black liberation. Unwilling as he was at that time to stand firmly by anything besides a vague commitment to a collection of “the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks,” who together would “change the history of the world,” early Baldwin is rarely looked to as a model of “far-reaching” political thinking.

It is in this respect, however, that Bill Lyne’s article on Baldwin’s “Black Radicalism” can help us understand how the The Fire Next Time and, respectively, the Black Lives Matter movement are misread (so to speak). Lyne’s article narrates the history of Baldwin’s writing in conjunction with the development of his politics, that is, from being “the darling of the white liberal establishment” to developing a politics that “pushed him beyond the boundaries of canonization.” Written during the middle period of his career, The Fire Next Time bridges these categories. Although it doesn’t reflect the “Black Marxism” Lyne finds in Baldwin’s later works, it isn’t interested in liberal integrationism either.

Simply integrating oneself into white society was, in his mind, neither a sufficient nor sustainable goal. He thought that what produced and enabled structures of state-sanctioned violence was a fundamental misunderstanding of where ‘value,’ in both a sublime and material sense, existed and was to be sought. The following passage, from the second of the two letters that make up the book, illustrates this view:

White Americans find it as difficult as white people elsewhere do to divest themselves of the notion that they are in possession of some intrinsic value that black people need, or want. And this assumption—which, for example, makes the solution to the Negro problem depend on the speed with which Negroes accept and adopt white standards—is revealed in all kinds of striking ways, from Bobby Kennedy’s assurance that a Negro can become President in forty years to the unfortunate tone of warm congratulation with which so many liberals address their Negro equals. It is the Negro, of course, who is presumed to have become equal—an achievement that not only proves the comforting fact that perseverance has no color but also overwhelmingly corroborates the white man’s sense of his own value. >>

Source: Why James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time Still Matters

The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin


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