The Tragic Live In The Fire Next Time
James Baldwin, in his book The Fire Next Time, writes: Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have.
This question portrays the futility of the efforts humans waste in their quest to become immortal: Firstly, by barricading and alienating themselves away from physical harm, leaving no stone unturned towards safe-guarding their interests. This can be observed in the way people belonging to a particular religious group are led into believing that they are safe living in areas predominantly inhabited by other people belonging to the same religious community. Secondly, waging wars to obliterate all opposition so that they provide the other with no opportunity to cause them harm. During the Holocaust and the Partition of India, mass genocide was triggered by the fear which led many to believe that if they do not strike the other first, the other will obliterate them. And lastly, when all else fails, they create their own mausoleums, monuments, mosques and steeples so that they be remembered even after death as, Hitler tried to create his own version of Nazi Germany devoid of ‘impurities,’ or as the Egyptian Pharoahs, who sacrificed many slaves to build Pyramids, or Henry VIII who built numerous castles and forts so that he be remembered by the posterity as a great visionary.
The following line: “How many years must some people exist/Before they’re allowed to be free?” is the most glaring criticism of the discrimination and injustices African-American people faced before the American Civil Rights Movement. The history of enslaving Africans reared its ugly head during the Elizabethan times, when slaves were bought by the British from the head of the African tribes in exchange for saltpeter and guns. These salves were then hired as unpaid labour to row the galley ships (Patricia Finney). There are innumerable examples of oppressed people in history: Bible makes a reference to the story of Exodus, or known as the Passover in the Hebrew Bible, when Moses led the Jews oppressed by Pharoah Ramses to freedom. Apart from this interpretation, the line also mirrors the predicament of the Jews imprisoned in concentration camps during the Holocaust, denied the status of being human.
These questions give way to the next major issue that shelters and bolsters the oppressors: “And how many times can a man turn his head/And pretend that he just doesn’t see?” The line demands an explanation of the pretense/farce maintained by people where injustices, trials and tribulations exist but in fairy tales. The line is a searing criticism of the unctuous and sycophantic nature of people towards authority, where they turn a blind eye to the underhanded dealings of the authority, or worse, they try to validate these wrong-doings out of fear or sheer malice. They are either too afraid to help, or they just feel that nothing is wrong. This line was highly charged with intense emotions for people in early 1960s, for whom the Holocaust was still a living memory and the American Civil Rights Movement was a living reality. In contemporary times, this line challenges the rape culture, derisively reprimanding people’s indifferent attitude towards sexism which runs rampant in the society. As a historical comment, the line questions how long must history keep repeating itself before humans will learn the lessons from the mistakes committed by others in the past take necessary actions to avoid repeating them. The mistakes of a common man are never recorded in the annals of history but only those of they who towered over the most, because being “rather cleverer than most men, (their) mistakes tend to be correspondingly huger” (Rowling). Thus, the line serves as a forewarning to people who hold powerful positions in a country’s policy-making that to err on their part would not be considered human, and may lead to a clash of civilizations (Huntington). Dylan had once remarked that if he being 21 years old could recognise the wrong-doings of the world, then those older and wiser than him could do better than to ignore the reality.
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