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The Fire Next Time Paperback – December 1, 1992
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It's shocking how little has changed between the races in this country since 1963, when James Baldwin published this coolly impassioned plea to "end the racial nightmare." The Fire Next Time--even the title is beautiful, resonant, and incendiary. "Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?" Baldwin demands, flicking aside the central race issue of his day and calling instead for full and shared acceptance of the fact that America is and always has been a multiracial society. Without this acceptance, he argues, the nation dooms itself to "sterility and decay" and to eventual destruction at the hands of the oppressed: "The Negroes of this country may never be able to rise to power, but they are very well placed indeed to precipitate chaos and ring down the curtain on the American dream."
Baldwin's seething insights and directives, so disturbing to the white liberals and black moderates of his day, have become the starting point for discussions of American race relations: that debasement and oppression of one people by another is "a recipe for murder"; that "color is not a human or a personal reality; it is a political reality"; that whites can only truly liberate themselves when they liberate blacks, indeed when they "become black" symbolically and spiritually; that blacks and whites "deeply need each other here" in order for America to realize its identity as a nation.
Yet despite its edgy tone and the strong undercurrent of violence, The Fire Next Time is ultimately a hopeful and healing essay. Baldwin ranges far in these hundred pages--from a memoir of his abortive teenage religious awakening in Harlem (an interesting commentary on his first novel Go Tell It on the Mountain) to a disturbing encounter with Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad. But what binds it all together is the eloquence, intimacy, and controlled urgency of the voice. Baldwin clearly paid in sweat and shame for every word in this text. What's incredible is that he managed to keep his cool. --David Laskin
"Basically the finest essay I’ve ever read. . . . Baldwin refused to hold anyone’s hand. He was both direct and beautiful all at once. He did not seem to write to convince you. He wrote beyond you." --Ta-Nehisi Coates
"So eloquent in its passion and so scorching in its candor that it is bound to unsettle any reader." --The Atlantic
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This book, brilliantly written, greatly rocked my way of thinking. James Baldwin's grasp of humanity is one of the most realistic I've ever seen. He sees it and tells it just as it is.
The book consists of two letters, a short one written to a nephew and a longer one written to discuss his thoughts and feelings about race, religion, and life. This is the most beautiful description in the entire book. I cannot possibly think of a more exquisite way to word how James sees his brother and how we often see those we have watched grow up.
"Other people cannot see what I see whenever I look into your father’s face for behind your father’s face as it is today are all those other faces which were his. Let him laugh and I see a cellar your father does not remember and a house he does not remember and I hear in his present laughter his laughter as a child."
Baldwin starts his letter by informing his nephew on how black people can be destroyed if they believe what some white people think about them. He discusses a hidden message telling black people to settle for mediocrity rather than striving for excellence. Baldwin believes that black people need to know their history and where they came from so that there will be “no limit to where you can go.”
"…We, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it."
Baldwin was that rare person who has a deep understanding of the frailty, nobility and beauty of the human soul. His compassion and humanity shines forth through every brilliant word in this powerful book. He wrote from a place few have been able to attain, sharing home truths without harsh cruelty, but with great clarity and authority. Sadly, what he wrote in 1963 in this book applies to this day: We have not yet learned what he was trying so hard to teach us and we have much left to do. Read this book, let its profound lessons guide you deep into self inquiry, so that you too might understand the nature of your soul, and perhaps become a better human being in the process.
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His writings applied now as much as they did then.