The Fire Next Time
Baldwin frames the substance of his sermon inside a dedicatory letter to his nephew, “On the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emanciption.” He advises the nephew to accept white Americans--and do so lovingly--even though they have established a society that considers most black men worthless. Why? Because, says Baldwin, son of a minister and himself a former boy evangelist, all men are brothers and America is the black as well as white man’s house.
He then testifies to this text with an account of his youth and young manhood, covering events he previously narrated in essays collected as Notes of a Native Son (1955) and Nobody Knows My Name (1962), and in his autobiographical first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953). As a teenage preacher he finds himself active in the “church racket,” which is only marginally superior to gambling, pimping, or trafficking in drugs. He soon becomes disillusioned with what he discovers to be a white man’s God, in whose name white “Christians” behave arrogantly, cruelly, and self-righteously.
The next and more powerful temptation is represented by the Nation of Islam movement, headed by Elijah Muhammad and dedicated to the premises that, while Christianity is the white man’s wicked rationale for oppressing blacks, the true religion is that of Allah; all white people are cursed devils whose sway will end forever in ten to fifteen years, with God now black and all black people chosen by Him for domination under the theology of Islam.
Baldwin describes an audience with Elijah: Muhammad is lucid, passionate, cunning--but he preaches a dogma of racial hatred that is no better than the reverse of whites’ hatred for blacks.
Baldwin rejects it, saying to himself: “isn’t love more important than color?” He recognizes that the American blacks’ complex fate is to deliver white Americans from their imprisonment in myths of racial superiority and educate them into a new, integrated sensitivity and maturity. Should such an effort fail, then the words of a slave song may come true: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”
Baraka, Amiri. “Jimmy! (Eulogy for James Baldwin, 1987).” The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader. Edited by William J. Harris. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1991. Delivered on December 8, 1987, Baraka’s eulogy praises Baldwin’s contributions to the Civil Rights movement and to African American aesthetics.
Bloom, Harold, ed. James Baldwin. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Bloom’s introduction pays tribute to the prophetic intensity of The Fire Next Time, exactly the quality that F. W. Dupee attacks in his analysis, which is included here. Dupee argues that by substituting rhetoric for criticism, Baldwin weakens his cultural analysis. Overall, the criticism here is anxious to dismiss The Fire Next Time as a minor work by a major writer.
Campbell, James. Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin. New York: Viking Press, 1991. Campbell considers the essay “Down at the Cross” as Baldwin’s masterwork, most successfully merging the creative work with advocacy of the black struggle. Too, in the context of literary biography, he records the range of reactions to the book. Contains thorough notes and a chronological bibliography.
Eckman, Fern Marja. The Furious Passage of James Baldwin. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1966. An early analysis of the biographical aspects of the work appears in a sensationalized portrait. Eckman’s skill as a feature writer emphasizes human interest and psychological dynamics at the expense of serious content considerations.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “The Fire Last Time.” The New Republic 206 (June, 1992): 37-43. An insightful reflection on the career and reputation of James Baldwin, the important role he played during the 1950’s and 1960’s as spokesperson of the Civil Rights movement, and the critical disfavor he experienced during...
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