The February read for the David Bowie Book Club was James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, an essay about America’s racial divide which is sadly still all too relevant today. I’d read Giovanni’s Room and Go Tell It on the Mountain, but only fragments of his great body of essays, both personal and political, which are incontrovertibly fused in his work:
One writes out of one thing only – one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from his experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give.
The Fire Next Time is a slim volume comprising an essay Down at the Cross and a letter to Baldwin’s nephew on the 100th anniversary of emancipation from slavery which is only a few pages long and acts as a sort of prelude to the other essay.
It’s an amazing and unforgettable polemical read. I was instantly captivated by the blazing passion and fury of the language and the argument. It is heart-breakingly honest and would inspire anyone with ‘fire in the belly’ at the injustice of race relations. In the letter to the nephew, things are spelled out directly and still feel applicable to so many discriminated and vulnerable people within present-day society (the often unconscious white middle class privilege we hear in the media):
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… I know your countrymen do not agree with me about this, and I hear them saying, ‘You exaggerate.’
The essay proper is a memoir of the summer when Baldwin turned fourteen and experienced a kind of religious fervour. Why religion? Baldwin is remarkably clear-eyed about using religion as a tool (or as he calls it ‘a gimmick’) to help him move beyond his background:
I was icily determined … never to make my peace with the ghetto but to die and go to Hell before I would let any white man spit on me… I did not intend to allow the white people of this country to tell me who I was and limit me that way… Every Negro boy… realizes that he … must find, with speed, a “thing”, a gimmick to lift him out, to start him on his way… And it was my career in the church that turned out, precisely, to be my gimmick.
However, it is not all plain sailing. The young boy is clearly caught up in the excitement of church, the music and drama of it, but at the same time he is puzzled at the apparent indifference of a white God to the plight of black people. He sees examples of anything but Faith, Hope and Charity, the principles he believed the Christian world was based on. He finds it absurd that people claim to love God only because they are afraid of going to Hell. He sees the paradox of church ministers becoming rich while their parishioners continue to scrub floors and put their hard-earned dimes into the collection plate. He decides there is no genuine love in the Christian church.
The boy grows up and encounters the Nation of Islam movement and Malcolm X, with their doctrine of a black God. Although he feels the anger of the black movement is justified, he finds himself equally alienated by their hatred of all things white. ‘I love a few people and they love me and some of them are white, and isn’t love more important than colour?’ This leads to a very powerful examination of what equality really means.
People are not terribly anxious to be equal… but they love the idea of being superior…. I am far from convinced that being released from the African witch doctor was worthwhile if I am now – in order to support the moral contradictions and the spiritual aridity of my life – expected to become dependent on the American psychiatrist. It is a bargain I refuse. The only thing white people have that black people need, or should want, is power – and no one holds power forever.
Baldwin sets out the arguments so eloquently that it feels wrong to try and paraphrase them. It is such a brief and powerful piece that I would urge you to read it yourselves. It was previously not that easy to find, though, except in volumes of collected essays by Baldwin, but in 2017 a beautiful new edition was launched and won an award (see cover above). I will just close with a beautiful call to something one might call reconciliation:
In short, we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation – if we are really, that is, to achieve out identity, our maturity, as men and women. To create one nation has proved to be a hideously difficult task; there is certainly no need now to create two, one black and one white.
1963 – we are now in 2018, 55 years later. Why is it still so difficult to accept that allowing someone to develop to their full capacity does not take away from any of your own potential? Why do we still have the hunter/gatherers’ mentality of scarce food resources, that if we give away some of our food we will starve? Even when what is often asked of us is not as basic as sharing food, but something like sharing the limelight? Call me naive, but I still think we should unite to save the planet and its weakest souls (animals, children, whatever) rather than fight amongst ourselves.