The Fire Next Time: An Evaluation

“None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

The history of the United States from the eyes of the “American Negro,” to use the now-dated literary term, is both bleak and cruel. A country of racial intolerance and hostility is, according to the literary notions of James Baldwin, unhealthy for both the oppressor and the oppressed. In his nonfiction argument The Fire Next Time, among other works, Baldwin, enraged at the ongoing racial stalemate in the mid-twentieth century United States, explores the psychological impact of institutionalized racism and segregation in relation to American identity.

The African-American “problem” was as much of an identity crisis for America as it was a wholly American issue, forcing the nation to reflect not only on its history as a slave-driven economy, but also on its founding principles of equality and freedom. In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin argues that the prevalent American standard, which dictated the country for hundreds of years, needed a desperate reformation of character, morals, and justice if order and national stability were to be preserved throughout racial integration: “I am far from convinced that being released from the African witch doctor was worthwhile if I am now… expected to become dependent on the American psychiatrist… White people cannot… be taken as models of how to live. Rather, the white man is himself in sore need of new standards, which will release him from his confusion and place him… in fruitful communion with the depths of his own being” (section 95-96). The predominant American standard of the time was threatened by a people who, for several hundred years, were disenfranchised and enslaved for no reason other than the color of their skin. America faced an identity crisis, as Baldwin alludes, as the American standard itself was being attacked by black power and blacks’ desire for freedom, forcing white Americans to scrutinize not only themselves and their own conditions, but also those which they inflicted on black Americans and the universal human suffering that each race endured.

Furthermore, Baldwin attributes America’s identity crisis to its reluctance to consider itself a “mixed” and incredibly diverse nation. “…White Americans have supposed “Europe” and “civilization” to be synonyms — which they are not — and have been distrustful of other standards and other sources of vitality, especially those produced in America itself, and have attempted to behave in all matters as though what was east for Europe was also east for them” (section 92-93). America, Baldwin claims, aspired to Eurocentric standards; failing to both realize and embrace its own cultural and racial diversity. As the various Civil Rights and Black Power movements grew stronger, however, Baldwin recognized the United States’ rapidly transforming identity as blacks moved more and more into the central American cultural, political, and economical sphere, which strayed further and further from Western Europe’s largely homogenous racial plateau, stating that “What it comes to is that if we, who can scarcely be considered a white nation, persist in thinking of ourselves as one, we condemn ourselves, with the truly white nations, to sterility and decay” (section 93). Overall, as black Americans grew more politically active and demanded freedom from institutionalized oppression, such as segregation, Baldwin argued that a massive shift in the nation’s character was imminent as blacks, chanting both “freedom” and “black power,” disrupted and threatened the status quo of white superiority, forcing the nation to reflect on the injustice and cruelness its citizens of color faced.

James Baldwin, in his tract The Fire Next Time, analyzes the impact that institutional oppression has on both the nation and its people through the lens of national identity. He describes, rather brilliantly, the social handicaps that segregation and racism have on black Americans, encouraging his readers to take action and rely not on the church or on the false promises of government to heal the violent racial climate in the twentieth century United States. Baldwin’s genius comes not from his love of one side or the other in the racial conflict, but of neither. Focusing on the individual, rather than the color of his skin, Baldwin is a supporter of human advancement and opportunity. He recognizes, above all else, that the Negro’s condition is simply a mirror into the white American’s fears; his literary work pounded readers with the truth of their own condition – the price of freedom and equality for Americans as a whole was the liberation, advancement, and peaceful integration of black Americans.

Integration as Acceptance: Martin Luther King and Malcolm X in the Context of ‘The Fire Next Time’

America claims to be a ‘melting pot,’ a land in which people of all cultures, backgrounds, and ethnicities come together to live in peace and prosperity. This assertion of acceptance and shared culture is merely a goal to strive towards and, unfortunately, is not nearly a reality. In actuality, different races, religions, and practices are often oppressed by American society, in particular, the black population. The constant oppression of the African American races dates back to Pre-Civil War America; black social progressives have been long at work fighting for true acceptance and integration of America. One progressive in particular, James Baldwin, fought for black liberation during a tumultuous time in American history. Through his 1963 novel, The Fire Next Time, Baldwin contemplates the controversial topic of integration, asserting that integration is based off of the acceptance of America’s past, one’s fellow citizens, and one’s self. Baldwin relates to other social progressives of the time, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X by building off of their opposing ideas to form his own vision of integration in America.

Baldwin, the son of a preacher, develops a complication relationship to religion and it’s role in integration. While he sees a potential benefit for reform in its doctrine, he observes much hypocrisy within the actual application of Christianity in history. Throughout his lifetime, Baldwin observes white people distorting bible verses in an attempt to defend slavery, pastors using Church money to buy themselves new cars, people becoming divided as one religion is seen as ‘superior’ to others. Because of the apparent hypocrisy of the Christian church, Baldwin loses faith in the religion as a positive influence in the black struggle for integration. Martin Luther King Jr., on the other hand, fails to recognize this major fault in Christianity and believes it to be a powerful force that provokes radical social change. King alleges that Christianity causes blacks to rediscover their worth as it reveals to them “God loves all his children” (King, p. 119). He argues that, without Christianity, African Americans never would have fought for social justice, as they did not believe that they were worth equality. Unlike Baldwin, King thought religion to be the key to social equality and integration in America. Malcolm X, a follower of Islam, believes that religion is too polarizing, asserting that blacks would be far more successful if they were to keep their religion “in the closet,” or separate from their political, economic, and social philosophy (Malcolm X, p. 1). While this contrasts completely with King’s point of view, Baldwin comes to the same conclusion as Malcolm X but through different reasoning. Baldwin feels that religion has the potential to become a powerful tool to achieve integration but concedes that, if not used in a positive way, it must be disregarded, stating, “If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.”

Baldwin shares similar ideas as King in how integration could be accomplished in America; both believe that social reform is only achieved through acts of nonviolence. Instead of gory revolutions one should practice love and understanding. African Americans needed to understand that whites had yet to adjust to a new social system and were involved in a power struggle; by understanding the white perspective, blacks could accept and love their neighbors, thus leading to integration. Baldwin instructs African Americans to help whites overcome their twisted view of reality, stating that “we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it” (Baldwin, p.10). Malcolm X adapts an entirely opposing view to Baldwin and King’s perspective of nonviolence and love, claiming that every successful revolution has been bloody and argues, “you don’t have a revolution in which you love your enemy” (Malcolm X, p. 2). No other group in history has had to fight a slow, nonviolent battle; because of this Malcolm X believes that African Americans have a right to bloodshed. King, however, judges that African American have the responsibility to stop the vehemence; stating, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate” (King, p. 121). Baldwin sympathizes with Malcolm X’s point of view but ultimately discovers that love, or the acceptance of other people, is a more realistic approach to integration. He declares, “The universe . . . has made no room for you, and if love will not swing wide the gates, no other power will or can” (Baldwin, p.8). Despite an internal struggle with his resonation with Malcolm X’s teachings, Baldwin concludes that integration is only a realistic concept when accomplished through love and acceptance.

Malcolm X, a follower of the Islam community, fought for black separatism, thinking whites to be evil. The movement of Islam in America appealed to blacks as it created a sense of racial pride in which African Americans had never experienced. Black Muslim speakers held speeches and, for the first time in history, police were scared to disrupt them. In Malcolm X’s point of view, integrated America would have no integration at all; according to him, “the black man should control the politics and the politicians in his own community” (Malcolm X, p.2). Blacks would be in power of their own nation and whites would have no place. To Malcolm X, separation is freedom. While the movement intrigues Baldwin, he finds the outcome undesirable and unrealistic; he states, “What happens when the Negro is no longer a part of [the American] economy? . . . the American Negro’s spending power will obviously no longer be the same. On what, then, will the economy of this separate nation be based?” (Baldwin, p.80). Baldwin recognizes that without inclusion in white society, blacks have no power. Instead of domination, Baldwin preaches acceptance; asserting that integration occurs when the races accept each other, “there is no bias whatever for their [whites] impertinent assumption that they must accept you…[and] you must accept them” (Baldwin, p.8). Through acceptance America can prosper as one united, integrated nation.

In his novelThe Fire Next Time,James Baldwin defines the relationship between integration, love, and acceptance. He alleges that integration is accomplished through love, not in the romantic sense but in acceptance. Through understanding one can accept and love his neighbor and true integration is achieved. Baldwin shares similar ideas to two other great progressives of the time, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. While Baldwin shares Martin Luther King’s optimism, he adapts a sense of Malcolm X’s realism as well. Baldwin’s views more closely align to that of Martin Luther King Jr. but they conflict in their perspectives on the role of religion in the movement towards integration. Despite this conflict, Baldwin and King agree on the role of love and acceptance in integration. Baldwin may not agree with Malcolm X’s conclusion of black separatism but he understands the reasoning behind the movement and is able to sympathize with the Black Muslim community. Baldwin is able to build off of both the perspectives of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, despite their radically different views. Through love and understanding America can accomplish true integration and become the melting pot it claims to be.