The Fire Next Time: James Baldwin, The White Problem in America
History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.
James Baldwin, The White Problem in America (1966)
James Baldwin’s quote extends into many different aspects of our lives, beyond the literary works Salvage the Bones and Baldwin’s own The Fire Next time. It describes the powerful and at times uncontrollable nature of history. We cannot always be in control of what the world throws at us. Like a torrent of water, we are often swept away by the current.
Within the book Salvage the Bones we see many characters each one filled with reference an allegory. Yet I feel that the Water is one of the most important characters. As within James Baldwin’s quote the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, water has always been linked to the history of African Americans. Since their first ancestors were sailed across the ocean to the new world. Rivers like the Mississippi River within literature always shown as one of the greatest barriers to those trying to escape slavery and flee north. Water has been a enemy to African Americans as well as a symbol for the word sweeping them along its current.The water is the embodiment of chaos, and its effects can be seen throughout the novel and touching all of the characters within it. Water is a powerful and all encompassing force. All things can be worn down or swept away by its presence.
In the beginning we learn that Junior fears water, going so far as to avoid taking a bath. Water is seen as a strange and dangerous substance by the children. The looming threat of Katrina brings the threat of more water soon to come. Later on within the novel we see Esch attempt to engage in sex with Manny while they were swimming in the red lake behind their house. Manny rejects her and explains that their relationship is only sexual. It is this moment that Esch comes to the full realization that Manny holds no romantic feelings for her. Randall warns Skeetah about the water moccasins that lurked beneath the waters surface. The waters red coloration obscuring the dangers beneath the waters surface, its crimson color like blood. Esch also sees the water in her pregnant belly liken to the waters sailed by Jason and Medea, who met tragic fates. When the hurricane finally hits, it is not the wind that presents the greatest danger, but the water. Throughout the novel, the father ‘Daddy’ is obsessed with boarding up the home. Protecting his family from wind and flying debris. This is a allegory for preparing for the chaos of the world yet in the end we can do nothing to stop it.
I find that this importance of water is mirrored within the history of the United States and African Americans. The implication is that water has swept African Americans along throughout history. The Africans that were placed upon boats and sailed away to the new world were helpless to stop it. The great ocean separating them from their mother continent impossible to cross. Their suffering could not be controlled no matter what means they tried to employ to mitigate the chaos that swirled around them. The water claims the life of China and the puppies. Even faced with the rising waters Daddy when he learns of his pregnant 15 year old daughter cannot help but try to push her off into the water itself. This act while physically violent also symbolizes him pushing her from the safety of their family into the swirling currents of life. It is also this threat of chaos that brings the entire family together. After escaping the flood, all are brought closer together because they had survived the ordeal. I find many parallels to modern and past African American history. Despite the ever present danger of being swept away, the African American family is all encompassingly important to survive. As was seen in the Antebellum south, extended family units allowed slaves to cope with a ever changing and uncontrollable landscape.
Within James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time we see a similar theme as in Salvage the Bones. James Baldwin attacks the American Dream, referring to it as the American Nightmare. The American dream is a harmful construct, designed to placate the masses. The promise that anyone can rise up despite their circumstances. The American Dream is considered an integral part of the culture of the United States. The Declaration that all men are created equal with the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Baldwin contends that the American dream is only that, a dream. A dream that can be just as harmful as the water within Salvage the Bones, sweeping away reason and leaving one a slave to an impossible ideal. All Americans, regardless of race are living unhappy lives, deluded by the belief of American superiority. He believes that African Americans have a distinct advantage to whites as they understand the true nature of America, having experienced its darkest side. Baldwin is optimistic that despite the difficulties, it is possible for America to uphold the principles set down within the Declaration of Independence. In order to do this both blacks and whites need to acknowledge and love each other to move forwards.
Within these two literary works we see a force that is set to sweep away the characters within it. In Salvage the Bones, it is the water, in The Fire Next time, Baldwin characterizes the American Dream. Histories weight upon our shoulders is marked by moments that we cannot control. Yet both Baldwin and Ward have a central theme of community and working together to survive the struggles of history. It is community and coming together in the face of adversity that is the most important thing. Baldwin states these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. It is working together against the torrential flow of history that will allow freedom and justice to reign within America.
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