San Francisco, California

The Fire Next Time

I’ve been reading James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time over the past week and it’s surprising to me that I don’t find his work as celebrated as it ought to be. I’ve watched some of his debates and read a couple of his books and each time I’m in complete awe of Baldwin’s prose and the eloquent way in which he tears apart injustice. The book though is a collection of essays on racial discrimination, slavery, white guilt, Reparations and the relationship between Islam, Christianity and the African-American community in 1960s America. But it’s difficult to pick a section of the book to talk about because every word is like a carefully sharpened blade.

Take this example which follows a description of Baldwin describing the injustices committed against African-Americans after they returned from WWII:

And all this is happening in the richest and freest country in the world, and in the middle of the twentieth century. The subtle and deadly change of heart that might occur in you would be involved with the realization that a civilization is not destroyed by wicked people; it is not necessary that people be wicked but only that they be spineless.

This is where I might make the comparison to modern times but it would hurt far too much to do so. This next section is likewise difficult to chew because of how impossibly relatable it is:

Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shining and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar: and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.

But as I read more of Baldwin’s work the more I realize why he’s not as celebrated in America as much as Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X – it’s because of his opinions on religion:

It is not too much to say that whoever wishes to become a truly moral human being (and let us not ask whether or not this is possible; I think we must believe it is possible) must first divorce himself from all the prohibitions, crimes and hypocrisies of the Christian church. If the concept of God has any validity or use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.