The Fire Next Time consists of two essays, one short and the other longer, both a mix of the personal and the more general, both about being Black in America. I’d read part of the longer piece in The New Yorker, and it made me want to read the whole thing.

The first piece (the shorter one) is in the form of a letter from Baldwin to his teen nephew, on the occasion of “the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation,” pointing out that America still has a long way to go. Of the circumstances of his nephew’s birth, Baldwin writes this: “This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish.” And this: “You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being.” He talks about white people being “trapped in a history which they do not understand”, and deluded by their history into maintaining racist beliefs (which are themselves delusional). And then, at the end of the piece, there’s this: “You know, and I know, that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon. We cannot be free until they are free.”

The idea of freedom or the lack thereof recurs in the book’s longer piece, which begins with Baldwin’s recollections of his own teen years, in which Christianity seemed to him to be a path to safety, until it no longer felt that way. Later in the piece, Baldwin talks about the Nation of Islam and recounts an evening he spent with Elijah Muhammad and some Nation of Islam members in Chicago. But neither Christianity nor the Nation of Islam, Baldwin feels, gets anyone anywhere: both, he argues, are based on fictions (the fiction of a white God, the fiction of a Black Allah) and neither operates with sufficient love, which, to Baldwin, is humanity’s only real chance at getting anything right. Baldwin writes about his own childhood experiences with racism and with the cruelty of the police; he writes about walking to the library when he was 13 and hearing a cop mutter the n-word as he walks past, and about a frightening and cruel encounter when he was 10 in which two policemen left him “flat on [his] back in one of Harlem’s empty lots.” About this, and about his friends’ reactions to similar experiences, he writes this: “One did not have to be very bright to realize how little one could do to change one’s situation; one did not have to be abnormally sensitive to be worn down to a cutting edge by the incessant and gratuitous humiliation and danger one encountered every working day, all day long.” He writes, too, of the sense of fear of growing up Black in a racist country, even before being old enough to understand or be fully aware of it: he writes that the Black child “must be “good” not only in order to please his parents and not only to avoid being punished by them; behind their authority stands another, nameless and impersonal, infinitely harder to please, and bottomlessly cruel. And this filters into the child’s consciousness through his parents’ tone of voice as he is being exhorted, punished, or loved; in the sudden, uncontrollable note of fear heard in his mother’s or his father’s voice when he has strayed beyond some particular boundary.” He writes of the despair of feeling that “The universe, which is not merely the stars and the moon and the planets, flowers, grass, and trees, but other people, has evolved no terms for your existence, has made no room for you.” And yet, through and despite all that, Baldwin writes about keeping going, about living anyway, about wanting to be “larger, freer, and more loving,” while also not having any illusions about that being easy or inevitable.

I love the rhythms of Baldwin’s prose, the pacing of his long sentences; the pieces in this book speak movingly of his experiences and Black American experiences more generally, and make me want to read more of his work.

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