The Fire Next Time Essay - Critical Essays

James Baldwin

Masterplots II: African American Literature The Fire Next Time Analysis

“If the word integration means anything,” Baldwin tells his nephew, “this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.” That process of changing reality is not limited to a knowledge of fact alone; fact must be seen with a simultaneous acknowledgment of alternatives and with a willingness to remake society. The journey here is to go beyond contradictions, and “Down at the Cross” explicates the contradictions in American Christianity and culture with a sharp critical eye.

Often Baldwin’s book is interpreted as a bellicose warning of impending racial holocaust; in truth, the book is anything but that. The book is a statement of pride in perseverance and a testament to the spirit of African Americans one century after emancipation. The Fire Next Time is, in fact, a call for the ending of America’s racial insanity, and a clear social analysis of America’s pluralistic possibilities.

“Down at the Cross” (and “down” carries its literal and vernacular suggestions), the book’s longest section, begins with a flat statement: It is a measure of the distance to be traveled in the coming pages, a starting point from which life and experience will distance the writer.I underwent, during the summer that I became fourteen, a prolonged religious crisis. I use the word “religious” in the common, and arbitrary, sense, meaning that I then discovered God, His saints and angels, and His blazing Hell. And since I had been born in a Christian nation, I accepted this Deity as the only one.

A discursive analysis follows: Not only is this model of deity limited, but limiting. If an assertive, loving, black Christianity can be realized in an embrace of an inclusive God and vision, it cannot be in the confines of conventional white Christianity.

Thus, the book’s exploration of theology and culture proceeds. The progress, while neither neat nor systemic, brings the failures of Western culture to task, then attempts to deconstruct them against the teachings offered in an extended interview with the Black Muslim leader Elijah Muhammad.

Baldwin’s discussion of the Nation of Islam had its origin in an August, 1961, meeting, actually an unplanned one. Baldwin had come to Chicago on business, and he was invited to the Chicago Temple after appearing on television with Malcolm X.

At the core of the exposition is Baldwin’s own twin sympathy with both integrationist and nationalist struggles. While he...

(The entire section is 1059 words.)