The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
Historian Eric Foner writes that the years 1962/63 witnessed the appearance of several pathbreaking books that challenged one or another aspect of the 1950s consensus on ecology, Silent Spring, Rachel Carson; the economy, The Other America: Poverty in the United States, Michael Harrington; on gender, The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan and on racism, The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin. I’ve decided to read each of these in coming months. Just finished the two Baldwin essays that comprise TFNT and can only say what has taken me so long! The title reference, unknown to me till now, is worth the price of admission: “God gave Noah the Rainbow sign, No more Water, it’s the Fire next time!” Baldwin’s first essay in the volume “My Dungeon Shook” takes the form of a letter to his 14 year old nephew. He advises his namesake that neither he, “nor time, nor history will ever forgive them that have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it, and do not want to know it.” It is this “innocence that constitutes the crime.” Later he informs young James to be aware that “details and symbols of your life…make you believe what white people say about you.” Half century separates Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (2015), a solid nod, no an inheritance, more than just by epistolary form to Baldwin. Just as Baldwin’s half century distant reach to WEB Dubois’s The Souls of Black Folk (1903) gives us a transom, a historical/literary/psychological/theological bridge through the century of the “color line.” Attention to Coates book and his prodigious critical commentary along this line, these lines, can’t yet conclude, even as book sellers/blurbers anoint, his place in this sequence of american politics and letters… but even so, as Baldwin brought the attention of 1962 readers to DuBois, Coates does now for Baldwin.