James Baldwin was one of the most captivating speakers, one of the most important voices of the civil rights era. He died 30 years ago, in December 1987 but he remains one of the most powerful and insightful writers in American history.
The Fire Next Time is an astounding autobiographical account written as a letter from Baldwin to his nephew, James. It goes back to Baldwin’s teenage years as Christian minister and his departure from the church and the church culture. He recounts a dinner/meeting he had with Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam, an African American political and religious movement which supported the creation of a separate state for African- Americans. He pictures America as seen through the eyes of the black people, the difficulties of black life in a white dominant country.
“What is happening in this country? That’s the most important question”, he says.
“I have always been struck in America, by an emotional poverty so bottomless, and a terror of human life, of human touch, so deep that virtually no American appears able to achieve any viable organic connection between his public stance and his private life. This failure of the private life has always the most devastating effect on American public conduct and on black –white relations. If Americans were not so terrified of their private shelf, they won’t never become so dependent on what they call “The Negro Problem”. This problem which they invented in order to safeguard their purity, has made of them criminals and monsters and it is destroying them.”
Is James Baldwin still relevant today?
During his speech in the famous 1965 Cambridge debate with William F. Buckley, Baldwin mentioned Robert Kennedy’s statement that “it is conceivable in the next forty years a Negro to achieve the same position that my brother has.”
“It sounded like a very emancipated statement”, said Baldwin, but the real question, he added, is not when there will be the first black president in America. The crucial question is what country he is going to be president of.
In 2008, Barack Obama became the first black president of the United States. How did this change things for African Americans?
In a beautiful and emotional letter to his son, 50 years after Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, Ta-Nehisi Coates, exposes America’s racial dilemma. He shows just how much the country’s racist past is still very much alive today, and how much it affects the way the black Americans think about themselves and their lives.
“The Story of the Negro in America, is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.”
Baldwin is lively and bold, passionate and deeply humane. He does not mince words. He condemns the American dream as a nightmare. He points out the contradiction of the United States as the leader of the free world while the battle for racial justice continued at home.
“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, the fulfilment of that prophecy, recreated from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”
Take yourself to see Raoul Peck’s powerful documentary I Am Not Your Negro, a portrait of James Baldwin. It is narrated by Samuel L. Jackson and the words are from Remember This House, Baldwin’s unfinished book about the three freedom-campaign activists, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers. Very highly recommended.