Skip to main content

Bag O' Books: James Baldwin's "The Fire Next Time"

I came to this book after reading Ta-Nehisi Coates' "Between the World and Me", which a number of reviews suggested followed in Baldwin's footsteps. It's true there are similarities — both relatively short, yet incisive, essays on what it's like to live as a black man in America — but there are differences: Baldwin's book is written when (in 1963) it seems like white supremacy in America might be undone; perhaps as a result, it's a more hopeful book than what Coates delivered. Which is an odd thing to say about a book that remains bracing, angry, and uncompromising after all these years.

A few quotes from the book that seem relevant to our current discussions. These are all taken from the second part of the book, ""Down At The Cross — Letter from a Region of My Mind":


• On American — and Christian — morality:
From my own point of view, the fact of the Third Reich alone makes obsolete forever any question of Christian superiority, except in technological terms. White people were, and are, astounded by the holocaust in Germany. They did not know that they could act that way. But I very much doubt whether black people were astounded— at least, in the same way.
One thing about Coates' book is that he does not wish to leave his readers comfortable in the usual assumptions about America. "America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist, a lone champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, despots, barbarians, and other enemies of civilization," Coates writes, and then — seemingly, sneers: "One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error."

 Americans like to think of themselves as the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human beings the world has met. The African Americans of Baldwin's generation didn't agree — and indeed, often saw the difference between America and Nazi Germany as one of degree, not kind. That's tough to deal with.

 • About the nature of reality and perception:
Every American Negro, therefore, risks having the gates of paranoia close on him. In a society that is entirely hostile, and, by its nature, seems determined to cut you down— that has cut down so many in the past and cuts down so many every day— it begins to be almost impossible to distinguish a real from a fancied injury.
This seems relevant in light of how the Black Lives Matter movement came to life after the events in Ferguson, Mo. Conservatives and police supporters repeatedly note that state and federal investigations failed to find wrongdoing by Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown, they point out. So a movement meant to protect African Americans from police brutality and overreach, they suggest, is essentially based on a falsehood.

 But that view misses an important point: The Justice Department, examining Ferguson Police, found that the department's civil rights abuses were widespread and systematic. Police supporters would have you believe Ferguson's residents suffered a "fancied injury" — and it's easy enough to portray it as such. But the problem with Ferguson police did not begin and end with Michael Brown. It was not crazy nor illegitimate nor unreasonable for the city's residents to believe they'd been violated again, to have finally hit their breaking point. If it wasn't him, it would've been some other incident.

One other thing: Americans live in a country where within living memory the government let black men go untreated for syphilis — using those men as unwitting lab rats, so little were their lives valued. This, after 300 years of Jim Crow, slavery and the like — why wouldn't you be ready to presume the truth about the worst, craziest things said about white people and what they would do to black people? How would you distinguish a real from a fancied injury?

• On what's next:
We should certainly know by now that it is one thing to overthrow a dictator or repel an invader and quite another thing really to achieve a revolution. Time and time and time again, the people discover that they have merely betrayed themselves into the hands of yet another Pharaoh, who, since he was necessary to put the broken country together, will not let them go. Perhaps, people being the conundrums that they are, and having so little desire to shoulder the burden of their lives, this is what will always happen. But at the bottom of my heart I do not believe this. I think that people can be better than that, and I know that people can be better than they are. We are capable of bearing a great burden, once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is.
I wonder if James Baldwin, in 2016, would still believe that people are better than that.

Buy this book.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Yoga

I've been making some life changes lately — trying to use the time I have, now that I'm back in Kansas, to improve my health and lifestyle. Among the changes: More exercise. 30 minutes a day on the treadmill. Doesn't sound like a lot, but some is more than none, and I know from experience that getting overambitious early leads to failure. So. Thirty minutes a day.

One other thing: Yoga, a couple of times a week. It's nothing huge — a 15-minute flexibility routine downloaded from an iPhone app. But I've noticed that I'm increasingly limber.

Tonight, friends, I noticed a piece of trash on the floor. I bent over at the waist and picked it up, and threw it away.

Then I wept. I literally could not remember the last time I'd tried to pick something off the floor without grunting and bracing myself. I just did it.

Small victories, people. Small victories.

Liberals: We're overthinking this. Hillary didn't lose. This is what it should mean.

Interesting:
Nate Cohn of the New York Times estimates that when every vote is tallied, some 63.4 million Americans will have voted for Clinton and 61.2 million for Trump. That means Clinton will have turned out more supporters than any presidential candidate in history except for Obama in 2008 and 2012. And as David Wasserman of Cook Political Report notes, the total vote count—including third party votes—has already crossed 127 million, and will “easily beat” the 129 million total from 2012. The idea that voters stayed home in 2016 because they hated Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is a myth. We already know the Electoral College can produce undemocratic results, but what we don't know is why — aside from how it serves entrenched interests — it benefits the American people to have their preference for national executive overturned because of archaic rules designed, in part, to protect the institution of slavery. 

A form of choosing the national leader that — as has happened in …

I'm not cutting off my pro-Trump friends

Here and there on Facebook, I've seen a few of my friends declare they no longer wish the friendship of Trump supporters — and vowing to cut them out of their social media lives entirely.

I'm not going to do that.

To cut ourselves off from people who have made what we think was a grievous error in their vote is to give up on persuading them, to give up on understanding why they voted, to give up on understanding them in any but the most cartoonish stereotypes.

As a matter of idealism, cutting off your pro-Trump friends is to give up on democracy. As a matter of tactics, cutting off your pro-Trump friends is to give up on ever again winning in a democratic process.

And as a long-term issues, confining ourselves to echo chambers is part of our national problem.

Don't get me wrong: I expect a Trumpian presidency is a disaster, particularly for people of color. And in total honesty: My own relationships have been tested by this campaign season. There's probably some damage…