By Rachel Amaru, Co-founder of Good Trouble For Kids
I have been wrestling for weeks with writing about James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. I have written in my journal, copied quotes, and struggled to find my entry into what I think should be considered a foundational American text. Any upper level high school/ college curriculum that does not include this is, I think, doing a disservice to its students. So in my stuckness, I will begin with Baldwin’s extraordinary ending:
“If we — and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others — do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything (italics mine), the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time.”
I am not alone in thinking that Baldwin was an American prophet, a poetic witness to our times, who while rejecting traditional Christianity, maintained a steadfast hope that love could somehow save this country, redeem it from its grave sins. The fact that Baldwin wrote those words in 1963, and that they could easily have been written just today, speaks profoundly to his lasting power as a writer, and despairingly to how much his words are so sorely needed in the 21st century, in this year of the plague; in this time after the storming of the Capital on January 6, 2021; in a country that just endured four years under the supposed leadership of a racist, a misogynist, and a man so greedy for power that he was willing to sacrifice the democratic principles on which our country was built — at least in terms of ideals, if not in actions. Baldwin, of course, recognized the great divide between idealism and reality, but he kept on holding out hope. Perhaps this is where the line can be drawn between him and Obama.
Look at the deliberateness of Baldwin’s use of the words “like lovers” in the quote above. He is insisting on a communion between conscious Blacks and whites, a conquering of the divide, in order to create change. If that love does not come to pass — and it is a love that of course surpasses the personal, and enters into the realm of agape, so often conjured up by Martin Luther King, Jr. — then America is in very grave danger. I do think this is the moment we find ourselves in now, and that the very great truth is that Americans — and especially white Americans — must now dare absolutely everything and that all the talk of antiracism must yield a vital reckoning with the soul of America, with what we want to be the legacy of our children. There is a loftiness in thinking about Eliot’s oft-quoted line “do I dare to eat a peach?” in this context. Baldwin’s “do I dare” question is so much more significant: it is “Do I dare to take the risk of being fully human?” “Do I dare to go to whatever length it takes to make my life meaningful?” “Do I dare to love?” And he poses this question to a country that has treated its citizens of color with extraordinary inhumanity and depravity. Baldwin, in his examination of what it means to be a Christian (and his use of this term can extend to encompass what it means to be religious, to be spiritual, to be moral), goes so far as to say:
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.
Only a prophet can speak like this.
For every line I write here, there is another quote of Baldwin’s that I want to include. For instance:
One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in the terrifying darkness from which we came and to which we shall return. One must negotiate the passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us.
Only a poet can speak like this.
How extraordinary this line is — with its resonances of Nabokov’s opening line of his memoir, Speak Memory: “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness,” — and its echoes of Genesis: “Now the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” And, as a Jew, I cannot help but think of Nachman of Bratslav: “All the world is a narrow bridge, and the main thing is to not be afraid at all.” And of course we are frightened — terrified even — as Baldwin also must have been. But, like Viktor Frankl, what I think the “main thing” for Baldwin was to go on living in spite of the fear, to make meaning from it, to salvage the love from it. And it is no easy thing. Baldwin honored the gift of his life by being witness to the life he saw around him, no matter how much tragedy he encountered doing so.
The Fire Next Time, both in the intimate letter to his nephew in the first part, “My Dungeon Shook, “ and in its second part, “Down at the Cross: Letter From a Region in My Mind” — a phenomenal amalgam of the personal and the political — is a plea, truly a voice from the depths, to reconsider what it is to be human, to cross paths with the stranger, to see one another in all our glorified difference. It is also a very serious warning to white Americans that if they do not do this, America as they know it will implode. There is only so much Black Americans can take, and as Baldwin succinctly explains: “the only thing white people have that black people need, or should want, is power, and no one holds power forever.”
I read Eddie S. Glaude’s recent book Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, listened to Glaude speak in a couple Zoom sessions, and definitely plan to re-read it alongside Baldwin’s Collected Essays. (You can get a taste of Glaude by reading his essay “The History That James Baldwin Wanted America To See,” published on June 19, 2020 in The New Yorker). Throughout Begin Again, Glaude calls James Baldwin “Jimmy,” and although he never met him, one falls into the felt sense of intimacy Glaude feels for Baldwin, for how Baldwin has helped him navigate his way. Why is it that Baldwin asserts this power over so many of his readers? I have been trying to sort through this, and what I keep coming back to is that there is something so innately wise in the way Baldwin writes. Perhaps it is his background as a preacher. But I think it is something more. I felt it also while watching Raoul Peck’s powerful documentary, I Am Not Your Negro (available on Netflix).There is a realness to him, for all that extraordinarily distinctive speaking voice, a feeling that this man could not lie to us, that he somehow found himself morally obliged to speak his truth as a witness to what in Holocaust-speak might be called man’s inhumanity to man. In fact, Baldwin turns to the Holocaust as the symbol of the grossest inhumanity, which, like slavery, he lays at the door of the white Westerner:
For the crime of their ancestry, millions of people in the middle of the twentieth century, and in the heart of Europe — God’s citadel — were sent to a death so calculated, so hideous, and so prolonged that no age before this enlightened one had been able to imagine it, much less achieve and record it.
Similarly, in the United States, “white men in America do not behave toward black men the way they behave toward each other.” And, the Blacks who went to fight in Europe during World War II, were witness to the extraordinary theater of watching “German prisoners of war being treated by Americans with more human dignity than he has ever received at their hands. And who, at the same time, as a human being, is far freer in a strange land than he has ever been at home.” Again, reading this as a Jew who has studied the history of the Holocaust, who is familiar with the scene of Black troops having liberated concentration camps, I still have to suck in my breath at the irony. Think about it: A Black man sent to fight for his country — America — and discovering that the enemy, Germany, that had committed unimaginable atrocities — genocide — still somehow treated him better than his own country did. And, lest we forget, Hitler drew from America’s pseudo-science on race theory. One example cited by this 2018 New Yorker article is the fact that “California’s sterilization program directly inspired the Nazi sterilization law of 1934.” It is sometimes hard to take all this in, and Baldwin certainly knew that. And yet, as he so lyrically put it: “we are capable of bearing a great burden, once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is.” The work, as Baldwin well knew, is accepting the brutality of the reality of American history in all its complexity, and still managing to be capable of loving.
Because Good Trouble For Kids is an arts initiative, I want to end this essay by recognizing Baldwin as poet as much as prophet. Once again, though, he is a poet with a biblical legacy. How else could he have written something like this?
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.
Echoes, of course, of Ecclesiastes 1:5 (King James version): “The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.” Along with the soul of America, the poet Baldwin examines the human soul — Black and white — in the search to make meaning of what it means to be alive, of what it means to be mortal. Baldwin despairs of the fact that “privately, we cannot stand our lives and dare not examine them.” He calls us to bear witness to who we are, the space we occupy, the history we carry within us, and to do that which we are most afraid to do: remove the mask and confront the other. It is the only way we will survive.
“Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.”
Back in April 2020, when we were just at the start of this year of the plague, I posted a poem by Baldwin in my Story Remedy Facebook Group. It is one that touches me more deeply every time I read it, and it is the kind of prayer I most understand.
when you send the rain,
think about it, please,
not get carried away
by the sound of falling water,
the marvelous light
on the falling water.
am beneath that water.
It falls with great force
and the light
me to the light.