The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

This book was incredible. I listened to it on audio, and there were so many points at which I exclaimed audibly about an insight Baldwin had shared.

I’m not sure why The Fire Next Time struck me more deeply than Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (which I also “read” on audiobook), but I do see a couple of big differences between the two.

One difference is the quality of the writing. Coates’s writing is fine and powerful at times, but Baldwin’s writing is something else entirely. It feels smooth and adept. Baldwin knows language, and he crafts it and wields it with a skill that I savor (and covet just a little). I haven’t read any of Baldwin’s fiction, but after my experience with The Fire Next Time, I’m inclined to move some of his other writing towards the top of my to-read list.

Another difference between The Fire Next Time and Coates’s memoir which it inspired is the focus. Like Coates, Baldwin writes about his personal experiences, but he doesn’t place them at the center of the work as they are in the chronological recounting in Coates’s book. I have a fairly high bar for memoir; I like it to do something more than just tell about one person’s life. In his book (or perhaps it’s more accurate to call it a long-form essay), Baldwin uses his personal experiences to illustrate a larger point about American culture and its racial history. This was more powerful to me than reading the story of one life.

This should in no way give the impression that it was only the quality of the writing and the structure of the book that I enjoyed. The content was extremely powerful. Baldwin comes across as conflicted, angry, vulnerable, skeptical, wary, and, in some ways, weary. I was especially struck by what seems like Baldwin’s near-despair about how to proceed as a culture, racially segregated or not, without leaving behind the good with the bad. His reflections after his visit with Elijah Muhammad—juxtaposing the supportive community, the young women and their babies, with the rhetoric of violent segregation—present his internal conflict powerfully.

One thing I’m still seeking—and which I realized at the end of the book that I was unconsciously and unfairly hoping Baldwin would provide—is a picture of how a post-racial world might look. What does an integrated society, one in which there is a universally accepted assumption of the inherent worth of all individuals, look like? What is the right path forward knowing that we can’t make right the past? Can we make a reality something we can’t envision?

This isn’t something Baldwin or anyone can answer, but I still hoped for it. 

I read this book as part of round two of my Cavalcade of Classics. You can see all of the titles on the list here.

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