The Fire Next Time (1963)
from Baldwin: Collection of Essays - The Library of America
This book is Baldwin's opinion on race relations, perceived not only as a Negro, but as one with a deep insight into human psychology. He was one of the unprecedented writers to express what it was like to be Negro in a white society; to discuss with such insight the psychological impediments most Negroes faced; and to realize the complications of Negro-white relations in many variant contexts:
He saw the germination of hatred and bitterness planted in the principles of Christianity, generating the belief of a white God; in response to which Black Muslims created the black God, producing the teachings of the nation of Islam.
Baldwin held that the importunate need for power underscored the current conflicts in human relations in American society. This was the base cause of his disagreement with America: that the Negro had so little freedom and power to steer his own affairs solely because of his skin color. Power over the Negro's life depended on several areas: his education, employment, and income --including his place in society, his self- image, and his relations with white people. Baldwin didn't believe in hating to be an innate human tendency. However, in hating, he recognized the guilt of the white man,a flaw from which he could not free himself.
He claimed dejectedly, "The Negroes of this country may never be able to rise to power, but they are very well placed indeed to precipitate chaos and ring down the curtain on the American dream.(337)The only thing white people have that black people need or should want is power - and no one holds power forever." (341-342)
Clearly, his vision at that time to prophesy the ability of the human conscience to morally and socially evolve, was dimmed. Did his dream have limits? If he only could have known that such a dream could, and did, come to light!
Baldwin made clear in the book that it wasn't really a Negro revolutionary movement that was causing violent rifts in America; the social conflicts reflected a sense of America losing her identity.
For Baldwin: man, life and the world contained an image or identity with some preconceptions; and to achieve the liberation of the Negro: society, black and white, must get rid of its preconceptions.
Take no one's word for anything, including mine --but trust your experience. Know whence you came. If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go. The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you. Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity and fear. (293)
There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you... You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case, the danger in the minds of most white Americans is the loss of their identity. (294)
Baldwin in this outstanding literary work, by redefining America's Negro problem as a white one, even taken in present contexts, has effectively created a more replete, more unifying racial understanding. Not having been born or raised in America, I'm still learning the extensive history of American culture; Baldwin's penetrating body of work deeply touched, and truly enlightened me. I look forward to reading the rest of his praise-worthy collection of essays.
If we - and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others- do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us:
God gave Noah the rainbow sign,
No more water, the fire next time!