My Thoughts on “The Fire Next Time” by James Baldwin

During the 1960s, many authors wrote about ‘existentialists,’ meaning groups of individuals who wanted to be their own thing. At this time, there were two- the “psychopathic hipsters” and the “everyday Negroes” (“A Very Complex Thing: The Battleground between James Baldwin and Norman Mailer,” Matthew Clair). James Baldwin, an African American and an “everyday Negro” composed The Fire Next Time with two essays: “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation” and “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind.” Within these two essays, he writes about the upheaval he dealt with as a minority and an existentialist and his social vision for America to find justice among races.  

         Baldwin’s tone is seen as ‘detached,’ according to literary critics Norman Mailer and Harold Bloom. I disagree that Baldwin writes with a detached style, rather, I think he is transparent with his audience. For example, he mentions a couple scenes where he is declined service for drinks or food. He explains how he either concealed his fury or let it explode. When he was declined a burger at a diner at the age of fifteen, he threw his glass of water at the waitress. As he matured, he became infuriated with the decline of service but did not backlash like he used to. Mailer says that Baldwin’s audience “…itches at times to take a hammer to his [Baldwin’s] detachment.” Also, Mailer takes a stab at Baldwin by saying his writings are “…sprayed with perfume,” also known as sugar coating the harsh truth. Rather than adding “perfume” to his writings, I find that Baldwin has a composed style when revealing reality he dealt with while sharing his takes on racial slurs with white Americans. On the other hand, Bloom says Baldwin comes from a place of detachment because not only was he a racial minority, but he was also a sexual minority because he was homosexual. In Clair’s essay, he explained that whites often felt inferior to blacks because of their lack in sexual dominance. If this were true, this would mean that Mailer would not feel inferior to Baldwin (which he did) as explained in Clair’s essay. I think at the time, being an African American was a much bigger issue so if Baldwin was homosexual, that would have been kept secret by him and pushed to the side.

In Clair’s essay, he mentions that Baldwin was insecure. Because he became the first prominent African American author, it would have taken a lot of confidence to put his work out there in the real world. Clair said that Baldwin borrowed money from “anyone and everyone and spent it all on booze and parties” which was his argument to why Baldwin was insecure. While borrowing money may be true, this does not make an individual insecure, just poor. Which leads me to my next point- Baldwin wrote this book during a time of social upheaval due to racism. This book still impacts modern America today, while racism still exists. For example, Steven W. Thrasher from The Guardian shows pictures that Steve Shapiro took during the civil rights movement. One photo showed a black woman holding a sign that said “Stop Police Killing.” Today, police brutality, more specifically the campaign “Black Lives Matter” still exists. “…his nonfiction work clearly has permanent status in American literature” (Bloom). In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin says “…the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation- if we are really, that is, to achieve our identity, our maturity, as men and women” (p.97). Baldwin’s social vision is clearly expressed in this book- he does not want blacks and whites to be separated because he wants them to unite together as a true nation. He shares harsh reality when he said “To create one nation has proved to be a hideously difficult task; there is certainly no need now to create two, one black and one white.” Baldwin is emphasizing his fear that racism causes a split in America and it may actually always be that way. Baldwin also writes these two essays to show whites what he dealt with and inspire them to never cause other blacks to go through what he went through.

Baldwin suggests one way for blacks and whites is to love each other: blacks have to love the whites and vice versa if discrimination is to be terminated. In Baldwin’s article “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy,” he calls his description of Norman Mailer a “love letter.” I think he did this to emphasize that while there was a battleground between the two of them, he still loved him. “And the great gap between Norman’s state and my own had a terrible effect on our relationship.” Baldwin said their backgrounds were not that different as they both wanted fame and money with their writings but was referring to the difference of backgrounds of sexuality. Baldwin goes on to explain that sexuality is most individual’s answer but isn’t the real truth, but it “…has to do with this man’s relationship to his own life.”

Bloom considered Baldwin to be the “most considerable moral essayist.” I agree with Bloom because of how truthful Baldwin is in his work. When he separated from his church as a minister, he also thought to give up his religion of Christianity and not just turn his back on the church alone (“The White Negro” II). This is a bold move because he wanted to show his church audience that he was not giving up on them as a group, but the religion Christianity as a whole. While this is not necessarily defined as a moral action, it is well-executed by Baldwin because he was thinking of his church body when he did this. Baldwin writes in a transparent, respectable way to his white American audience rather than a much harsher blow he could have provided.




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