On first read, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time is already compelling. It’s a harsh, brutally honest look at race relations in 1950s and 1960s America, and highlights many issues that persist to this day. The class discussion, however, added another layer of depth to the book. The work’s historical context, and some fresh perspectives on the book, gave me a whole new appreciation for The Fire Next Time. The fact that the book was originally written in two parts for The New Yorker puts it in a new light, which I will explain later on.
The book starts in Baldwin’s youth, with him finding religion in his teenage years. Desperate to escape from the poverty around him, and hoping to rise in the world without resorting to crime, Baldwin became a young preacher. In describing the moment he joined the church, Baldwin compared his meeting with the pastor to his encounters with pimps on the street, trying to lure him into prostitution. Unlike in his encounters with the pimps, Baldwin was converted, and threw himself headlong into the church. For three years, Baldwin served as a young preacher, giving fiery sermons and trying to spread the faith.
In high school, however, Baldwin began to lose his faith. His deconversion began when he tried to convert his classmates in a mostly-Jewish high school. Baldwin’s classmates were less open to his Bible tracts than the people in his majority-Christian neighborhood. Some of them knew more of the Bible’s history than Baldwin himself did, pointing out that the Gospels were written years after the time of Christ. They laughed off his tracts, pointing out flaws and oddities in what he was telling them. For the first time, Baldwin was forced to read his own tracts with a critical eye, and he began to doubt.
This story is echoed years later, although by this time Baldwin is playing the other part. At this point, Baldwin is a respected author, and an outspoken advocate of the Civil Rights Movement. Baldwin had heard of the Nation of Islam, had heard their preachers speak, and was curious about their movement. He got his chance to learn more when the Nation of Islam’s leader and self-proclaimed prophet, Elijah Muhammad, invited him over for dinner. At first Baldwin was drawn to the man, but over the course of the dinner he became disillusioned with the Nation of Islam’s cultish attitude and unrealistic plans.
When several men from the Nation of Islam gave him a ride at the end of the night, Baldwin took on the role that his classmates had taken for him in his youth. He spoke to a young man during the ride, asking him how Elijah Muhammad planned to accomplish his goals. Baldwin gently questioned the Nation of Islam’s grand plan of taking several states and seceding from the union as a Black nation, asking how it would be done and leaving the young man to realize on his own that it was impossible.
In class, one of my classmates spoke of how The Fire Next Time challenges assumptions that white Americans have, and that made me realize what the book was doing. Once again, Baldwin was acting as he had in that car, interrogating that young man about the Nation of Islam. Except this time, he is acting more like his high school classmates, harshly confronting the privileged white worldview. This work was first published in a magazine with well-educated, majority-white readership. It challenges the reader, tears down their assumptions about race in America, in the hopes that they, like Baldwin, will throw away their comforting illusions and work to fix the troubling reality.
 James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York, The Dial Press, 1962) 28-29.
 Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, 32.
 Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, 34-35.
 Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, 74-75.
 Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, 79-80.
Featured image from Wikimedia Commons.