The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin

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Five stars, read in June 2017.

First lesson learned from listening to James Baldwin on audio: I cannot listen to James Baldwin on audio. Jesse Martin’s narration is excellent (I knew I recognized his voice but had to look him up to learn that what I know him from is Rent), but James Baldwin is too fucking magnificent for me to not have his printed words in front of me. It was almost every few sentences, in some places, that I found myself fumbling for a keyboard to write down another brilliant thought, and transcribing from an ongoing recording is much harder (i.e. involves much rewinding).

The Fire Next Time is an essay, rather than fiction, so there’s no plot or characters to soften the blows. As always, Baldwin’s evisceration of the racism in our society is characterized by his incredibly clear eyes, deep empathy, and a complete lack of bullshitting around the subject.

I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it. And I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.

The fact that they “do not want to know it” is exactly why we’re still having to deal with it. They still don’t want to know.

There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them.

I’ve spent several minutes trying to find words for my reaction to these lines, and I’m failing spectacularly. It’s partly a sort of warmth, as I imagine him actually saying those words to a young nephew, and part sadness that it’s true—because that really is an unfathomably terrible thing to have to do—to have to accept the people who have done nothing but the worst to you, and who refuse to even acknowledge what they did, and who still treat you as though you are responsible for the terrible things they did.

The Negro’s experience of the white world cannot possibly create in him any respect for the standards by which the white world claims to live. His own condition is overwhelming proof that white people do not live by these standards. Negro servants have been smuggling odds and ends out of white homes for generations, and white people have been delighted to have them do it, because it has assuaged a dim guilt and testified to the intrinsic superiority of white people. Even the most doltish and servile Negro could scarcely fail to be impressed by the disparity between his situation and that of the people for whom he worked; Negroes who were neither doltish nor servile did not feel that they were doing anything wrong when they robbed white people. In spite of the Puritan-Yankee equation of virtue with well-being, Negroes had excellent reasons for doubting that money was made or kept by any very striking adherence to the Christian virtues; it certainly did not work that way for black Christians. In any case, white people, who had robbed black people of their liberty and who profited by this theft every hour that they lived, had no moral ground on which to stand. They had the judges, the juries, the shotguns, the law—in a word, power. But it was a criminal power, to be feared but not respected, and to be outwitted in any way whatever. And those virtues preached but not practiced by the white world were merely another means of holding Negroes in subjection.

Since I was listening to the book on audio, it took me longer than it would have in print; it’s quite short, and I could probably have read the whole thing in an hour. I wish I’d been introduced to James Baldwin in school, mostly because he’s so essential I can’t believe I wasn’t. I don’t know if I’ve ever read another writer who pinpoints things so precisely, who finds the words to encompass an idea from every angle where someone else would only have seen parts. I cannot recommend him strongly enough.

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