Review: The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin

Well, not review exactly. There’s not much more to review in James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, given how personal it is, and how tremendously of its time. But it was the first book I read in 2017 (by design), and there are elements of it that I’d like to talk about as we all stagger back to work and try and get moving again after the holidays.

The Fire Next Time

One thing that strikes me about James Baldwin is how little ideological slack he’s willing to cut anyone. (That is a compliment.) He’s clearly worked hard to fight free of easy answers, and it seems clear that he wants the same independence of thought for everyone, and believes that not only can we all be independent and critical thinkers, we absolutely must, or we’re wasting our time.

People always seem to band together in accordance to a principle that has nothing to do with love, a principle that releases them from personal responsibility.

Or to put it another way, he strikes me as someone who cannot help seeing (also: looking for) the messy, complicated truth, even when he knows it would be easier, and the path of his life would be smoother, if he could unsee it. It seems to apply to everything he looks at: He sees his young nephew, his namesake, and wishes an easier life for him, but he can’t look away from the hardships he knows his nephew will face as a black kid, and then man, in America. On the other side, he shares dinner with a prominent leader in the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammed, and he can’t quite sink into that vision of the world either.

At times The Fire Next Time is very grim. At other times it’s astonishingly hopeful. But it reminded me — and I hope I can take this with me into 2017 — that while uncertainty makes us all look around for leaders who will tell us what to do, the most important thing is to trust my own mind and remember my own accountability. Baldwin says:

One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us.

I have my own little nephew now coming after me, which made reading Baldwin’s letter to his nephew a particular and strange experience. My nephew will have different fights than Baldwin’s did, and right now, after this election, it’s hard for me to imagine what those fights will be. I hope he will be safe; I hope he will be brave. I hope we can both live lives that will make the world better for the ones who come after us.