The Fire Next Time #BookReview

James Baldwin | published Feb 1963 | 128 pp

I think I read this the first time in the late 80’s/early ‘90’s. I would have been 16-20 years old, graduating high school, early years of college, simultaneously participating in some of the most epic partying I’d experienced up to that point, and working to maintain my 1bedroom apartment, while educating myself on all things revolutionary. Reading: The Autobiography Malcolm X, Assata, The Evidence of Things Unseen, A Taste of Power. All these and more absorbed and dissected during my earliest days of working among a white majority in a corporate environment. Ah, taste the angst, budding feminism, and unfocused anger and righteousness! 🙄😂🤣

The book is essentially two essays, one written in the form of a letter to Baldwins 14 year old nephew, the other discussing religion and its impact on the black community. Thinking back on my first reading of the book, I would say the first letter to his nephew stood out to me more than the other. As a daughter born into a large family comprised of mostly women – the lack of a female voice was interesting and provocative to me. No mention of a mother, sister, daughter, wife or choosing a mate? I’m sure I didn’t understand Baldwins sexuality at the time, though today, if I had, I’m not sure it would have mattered. Then and today, it sounds as if Baldwin was warning the young man to keep his options open and not be bound by societal norms and perhaps more directly, familial norms handed to him from his ancestors. A warning against generational curses before that was even a thing, I suppose.

Fast forward to today, the second, longer letter stands out to me more. The conversation with Elijah Muhammad, juxtapositioned next to dinner across town in a posh restaurant with equally as posh peers. The dogged ideas of Christianity’s role in our continued oppression. But was Islam different? Ultimately, Baldwin’s response is no. His idea is that black Muslims had taken the same or similar logic from Christianity and just applied it to a different ‘black god’ they could better relate seemed to make sense to me.

As my grandmother would say, all you have to do is keep living, long enough to know that packaging changes but there is very little new under the sun. Read today, I still say the perspective is overwhelmingly masculine and that’s ok, even important. The views on race relations and how a white society and religion interacts with black bodies are still relevant and surprisingly similar to our issues today. I would encourage anyone to read the essay’s and attempt to NOT draw similarities between then and now. Good luck. #GoodBook 7/2021

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