“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. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity.”
Originally published in 1963, The Fire Next Time is comprised of two essays, the relatively short “My Dungeon Shook,” and the longer “Down at the Cross,” which makes up most of the volume. By the time it was published, Baldwin was an expatriate, living abroad in France, both a product of America, and apart from it. “My Dungeon Shook” takes the form of a letter to Baldwin’s nephew and namesake, in which he addresses what it means to be a black man in the United States. “Down at the Cross” recounts Baldwin’s ardent conversion to Christianity as a teenager, and his subsequent exit from the church, using his own journey to examine the role of faith in the black community.
“My Dungeon Shook” is a heart-rending piece that is all the more powerful for its brevity. Baldwin addresses his young nephew with such unadorned directness. It is an honesty that seems desperate to impart anything he can that will help the younger James understand and navigate his experience. What is most startling is perhaps how relevant it still feels today. Some of the specifics have changed—there are no more colored bathrooms or water fountains, no dividing line on the bus—but black families are still having these conversations with their children every day.
Baldwin has an eloquent and unique style that makes me imagine him as a powerful orator. I can certainly picture him as a young lay-preacher, given ecstatic sermons in “Down at the Cross.” He has a startling clarity about what pushed him into the church, and what held him there, even as he describes it as like “being in the theatre. I was behind the scenes and knew how the illusion was worked.” He later turns his attention on the Nation of Islam, arguing that the movement’s appeal among black people stemmed from a similar fear and lack of control. This second piece is looser than “My Dungeon Shook”, and sprawls much more broadly towards the end.
The Fire Next Time is a classic work that I picked up less to review, and more to add context to my recent reading, including Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and The Fire This Time, edited by Jesmyn Ward. I can certainly see more clearly the roots of Coates’ work, and how Baldwin’s style informed his own. They share a skepticism about religion, but interestingly I think that Coates is perhaps the more pessimistic of the two. Works that are deemed classics always seem to gather a certain aura of gravitas and inaccessibility, but Baldwin pulled me right in, and I can see why his writing possesses an enduring appeal.
You might also like The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander