Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces The Fire Next Time Analysis
Baldwin sees Western Christianity as a primary barrier preventing whites from achieving the kind of love about which he is talking. He believes that Christianity is the caldron that brews racism. It also buttresses a shallow, insecure white American identity and the concomitant inability to face reality. Whites need to move away from Christianity if they are to conquer their racism, explore their true identities, and open themselves up to love.
On the other hand, blacks must base their lives on a love for one another and for whites that is more genuine and substantive than the love fostered by black American Christianity. According to Baldwin, genuine love and human feeling are not at the foundations of the black American Christian church, the pretensions of blacks notwithstanding. Baldwin says that, on the contrary, despair, hatred, and self-hatred are what he found while he was a young preacher.
Baldwin also devotes a large part of the second letter to articulating his belief that the Nation of Islam movement, headed by Elijah Muhammad, is destructive for black Americans and the country as a whole. Baldwin agrees that many of the points the black Muslims make are true, but their creed demonstrates only a racial reversal of the creed of color superiority. Any creed, black or white, based on color instead of love is destructive. True freedom is not possible as long as people live according to concepts of color and racial superiority.
In the brief first essay, Baldwin tells his nephew that white people need to be saved by his love and that black freedom is tied to white freedom. White people can never know themselves, know black people, or truly love white or black people because they insulate themselves from knowledge, reality, and ultimately love by developing identities centered in racial superiority. The nephew, also named James, must share with white people and must save them with the same love that has allowed him to survive. This love, given to him by his family, has enabled him to live in racist America, where whites classify him as a worthless human being.
Most white Americans are afraid of losing their superiority and consequently try to maintain the status quo. In the process, they are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and are using their feelings of superiority to protect themselves from facing their immorality. The younger James must help these people learn about themselves through love and to tear down the superficial barriers of racial superiority. Only then, when whites face reality and grow to know themselves, can both races be free. It is only through this reliance on love that the United States can reach its potential.
Baldwin’s first essay leaves the reader perplexed about some of the central ideas that underlie his philosophy. The main stumbling blocks are What, specifically, does Baldwin mean by love and Why cannot Christianity foster and maintain love? The much longer second essay, “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind,” provides some enlightenment.
One idea that emerges in the second essay is that Baldwin sees life as a tragedy because it is inevitably focused on death. Life is “the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return.” Because of this, Baldwin believes that human beings must live life nobly and courageously. They must be willing to explore the possibilities of life and its conundrums. This exploration is risky and terrifying, but the knowledge gained from it is the only legacy that can be left to posterity. Rigidly structuring one’s identity through concepts of racial superiority prevents this exploration, which is the only thing which can make life’s tragedy meaningful.
In this context, love is not merely the sentimentalized concern for others that is so easy for one to profess without risking anything. Love defines and proves itself by the risks people are willing to take in exploring the truth of themselves and of others. Anyone who traps himself in...
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