Understanding Ferguson: James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time

Book Group BuzzReading James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1962) has been revelatory. Baldwin never minced words and his appraisal of the racism of his time is directly linked to ours and the protests in Ferguson. It’s a short book that I highly recommend.

James Baldwin was the American author of such classic works as Go Tell It On the Mountain (1953), Giovanni’s Room (1956), and If Beale Street Could Talk (1974). Born in 1924, Baldwin grew up in Harlem, where he saw and experienced first-hand the second-class citizenship afforded African Americans. At the age of 10, he was beaten by a group of police officers for the simple crime of being black. At 24, realizing he was gay and having been refused service at a restaurant, he left America to become an expatriate writer in Paris, France. With distance from the country he loved but was not fully accepted in, Baldwin was able to examine its deep contradictions.

The Fire Next Time by James BaldwinThe Fire Next Time begins with a letter to his nephew and namesake, James, a fifteen-year-old boy poised to become a man. Baldwin notes that racism is still very much alive in America and suggests the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation has been celebrated 100 years too soon. He goes on to give James words or caution and hope, and context for his predicament:

This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish. Let me spell out precisely what I mean by that, for the heart of the matter is here, and the root of my dispute with my country. 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. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity.

In the next, longer essay comprising most of the book, Baldwin examines his relationship with religion, sexuality and with his country’s racial politics. He also spends a good portion of the essay describing a meeting with Elijah Muhammad and his Black Muslim followers and their appeal to join their cause, a cause he rejects because he sees it as more racial segregation than integration, which is Baldwin’s true hope. Amazing thoughts and beautifully crafted sentences abound in this essay, but here is one on violence and America’s sense of itself that seems particularly salient now:

In the United States, violence and heroism have been made synonymous except when it comes to blacks . . . The real reason that non-violence is considered to be a virtue in Negroes—I am not speaking now of its racial value, another matter altogether—is that white men do not want their lives, their self-image, or their property threatened. One wishes they would say so more often.

The Fire Next Time serves as an important, resonant indictment of American racism, written with the brutal clarity of Baldwin’s fine, incisive mind. In light of Ferguson and the still entrenched disparities in this country, The Fire Next Time should be considered required reading for book groups looking for a rousing discussion on America’s past, present and future in regards to race and social justice.

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About the Author:

Misha Stone is a readers' advisory librarian with The Seattle Public Library. Follow her on Twitter at @ahsimlibrarian.

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