I first heard of James Baldwin at a Civil War lecture by historian David Blight, who told the audience (only partially joking) that anyone who hasn’t read James Baldwin should have their citizenship revoked. Blight described a James Baldwin interview that encapsulated why I’m a devoted reader and why I care so deeply about studying history. Baldwin also explained why an understanding of history is crucial to the struggle for civil rights.
Baldwin, whom Blight described as a young African American writer of fiction, a great non-fiction writer, and the voice of the Civil Rights movement, was well known for not pulling punches in interviews. In this 1962 conversation with Studs Terkel, Baldwin is “firing away,” saying that Americans have no sense of history and no sense of tragedy. Terkel stopped him to ask what he meant by a sense of history.
“Well, you read something that you thought only happened to you, and you discover that it happened 100 years ago to Dostoevsky,” Baldwin said. “This is a great liberation for the suffering, struggling person who always thinks he is alone.” 
To Baldwin, having a sense of the past “means knowing you’re not alone,” Blight explained. “That whatever is happening to you has probably happened before. That can be sobering. It can be devastating.”
Terkel went on to ask what Baldwin meant when he said that Americans have no sense of tragedy. Baldwin said:
People think that a sense of tragedy is a kind of embroidery, something irrelevant that you can take or leave. But in fact, it’s a necessity. That’s what the blues and the spirituals is all about, it is the ability to look on things as they are and to survive your losses, or even not survive them. To know that your losses are coming. To know they are coming is the only possible insurance you have that you will survive them. 
Blight explained what Baldwin was getting at:
It’s knowing enough history… it’s exploring human experience enough to know that loss is always a part of that experience. Always. And the only way you can ever be prepared for them is to study it. And I think we can apply what he said there to the individual level, to the collective, the social, and the national.
To study African-American history, which is inseparable from American history, is not simply a matter of acknowledging the past. Baldwin explained that understanding this history is essential to the identity and self-respect of a significant portion of the American population. It can be validating and comforting, but at its heart it is a matter of survival.
Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time is a powerful non-fiction work—the sort that you wish were fiction, since it speaks about things that should not be true. At age 14, Baldwin had a religious crisis. He looked around himself and saw the “whores, pimps, racketeers,” he writes, “now I realized that we had been produced by the same circumstances.” He saw the deep hopelessness born of knowing that one’s best efforts would never defeat one’s skin color.
“Negroes in this country…are really taught to despise themselves from the moment their eyes open on the world,” Baldwin says, “This world is white and they are black.”
It is precisely this self-hatred that can be fought by an accurate understanding of history. This was the fight that many emerging institutions in the black museum movement undertook in the 1960s. These museums often formed in major cities characterized by postindustrial transformation, economic hardship, and racial tension. They filled the gap left by mainstream institutions, where a black visitor may not feel welcome or see themselves in the art and history displayed on the walls.
The new museums sought to communicate a message of identity and self-worth to African Americans. In the process, they brought new life to the museum field with exhibitions addressing contemporary issues and innovative community outreach programs. The black museum movement also worked to reform a public history narrative that ignored or intentionally falsified injustices to and contributions by African Americans.
The power of the white world, Baldwin writes, deliberately hides “the truth about the black man, as a historical entity and as a human being…so every attempt is made to cut that black man down—not only was made yesterday, but is made today.” Bringing that history into the light helps. “To accept one’s past…is not the same thing as drowning in it,” Baldwin says, “it is learning how to use it.”
Part of the tragedy of The Fire Next Time is its relevance today. Baldwin urges the honest acceptance of history and the need for change in American society and politics. This change is not only necessary for black Americans, but for the survival and uplift of the country.
Of the black man, Baldwin writes, “He is the key figure in his country, and the American future is precisely as bright or dark as his.
 Blight, David. “The Civil War in American Memory.” Podcast. 2015. https://mainehumanities.org/blog/podcast-david-blight-the-civil-war-in-american-memory/
 Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. Vintage International. 1992, 16.
 Baldwin, 25.
 Burns, Andrea. From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement. University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.
 Baldwin, 69.
 Baldwin, 81.
 Baldwin, 94.