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Fire Next Time

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James Baldwin's well-received 1963 volume The Fire Next Time consists of two essays. The first, “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation”, was written on the occasion of the fourteenth birthday of Baldwin's nephew James, who was named after him. The second essay, “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind”, recounts Baldwin's experiences growing up in New York, including his unpleasant encounters with the police, his attraction to and rejection of Christianity, his awareness of sexual pitfalls in Harlem, and his later encounter with the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. Filling in the backdrop for these specific comments is Baldwin's ever-spirited indictment of an America in which inequities between the races continue to define people's futures. Recognizing that politics are endemic to life, Baldwin uses the volume for his own political commentary, and that commentary serves to underscore the thoroughly engaging personal and social incidents he relates.

The two essays naturally set up a contrast between past and present, between the sometimes sordid adventures of the older James and the possible revisionist future for the younger James. As powerful expressions from Baldwin at his height as an essayist, the book was a best-seller as well as a popular teaching tool in the 1960s. The much shorter “My Dungeon Shook” takes the form of a letter Baldwin addresses to James. In it, he provides family history and indictments of America for the racism that has pervaded that family history. He indicates that James must remain free of racial prejudice himself, however, in order to be clear-sighted in the fight against racists, for they are themselves frequently “innocent” and “well-meaning.” He enlists his nephew's aid in making America “what America must become,” that is, receptive to all of its native sons and daughters, allowing the black ones the same opportunities as the white ones.

Baldwin's eloquence continues in the second, much longer essay. “Down at the Cross” is a recounting, first of all, of the perils that Baldwin himself has survived. As survivor, he can serve as example to the young James. Beginning when he himself was fourteen, Baldwin recounts his attraction to the church as a source of possible safety from the evils and fear of the society, as well as his competition with his father, incidents that would form the basis for his first, autobiographical novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953). After a short term as a young minister, and extensive commentary on the failures of Christianity, Baldwin leaves the church. He then recounts meeting Elijah Muhammad twenty years later and being saddened that he could not be convinced that Muhammad's way was significantly different from Christianity in its possibilities for failure. He then discusses the position of black people in America and asserts that the country can never be a nation until it solves its color problem. If it does not, he predicts destructive consequences in the image of “the fire next time.”

Therman B. O'Daniel, James Baldwin: A Critical Evaluation, 1977.


Subjects: Literature

Reference entries

James Baldwin (1924—1987) American novelist and black civil rights activist