“And all this is happening in the richest and freest country in the world, and in the middle of the 20th century. The subtle and deadly change of heart that might occur and you would be involved with the realization that a civilization is not destroyed by wicked people; it is not necessary that people be wicked but only that they be spineless.”
Baldwin considers this, after he and two friends in their thirties were refused service at a busy bar in O’Hare Airport ‘because they were too young.’ The Fire Next Time remains sadly pertinent, despite publication in 1962. The first section, titled ‘My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation,’ muses on society and exhorts his nephew to meet it with dignity and love. The second section, ‘Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind’ begins like a memoir, develops into political analysis and ends with a sermon. It is devastatingly brilliant, and near the end I found myself highlighting quotes nearly every page. But I’m clearly not the only one who has read his work: one of the oddest aspects for me is that I have read both writers and poets who were influenced by him, as I heard their echoes in his writing.
“How can one, however, dream of power in any other terms then in the symbols of power?” ~ Baldwin, bringing immediately to mind Audre Lorde: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
‘Down at the Cross’ begins from adolescent years, when James was fourteen and underwent “a prolonged religious crisis.” It was a fascinating recounting, giving the feel of Harlem of a particular time, and looked at how religion became the way he coped with the perils of growing up, and yet how, in many ways, it was no less controlling or harmful to the soul than “the whores or the pimps or the racketeers on the Avenue.” For a short time he was known at the boy preacher and while it gave him some freedom from his father, his faith was only an infirm illusion.
“I date it – the slow crumbling of my faith, the pulverization of my fortress- from the time, about a year after I had begun to preach, when I began to read again. I justified this desire by the fact that I was still in school, and I began, fatally, with Dostoevski.”
I loved that words and writing were his real salvation. He muses more on the role of the church and his breaking with religious faith before seguing to a meeting with Elijah Muhammad, recalling me to The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Baldwin was clearly uncomfortable, confronting his own echoes of churchgoing, but felt the limitations of the Nation of Islam were no better than those of Christianity, ie. a failure to dream of something outside the paradigm. He noted that the young follower who drove him to his next appointment in an expensive car that the Nation was still conceiving of power in the same terms that white people defined it, and in owning land of their own.
“He was held together, in short, by a dream– though it is just as well to remember that some dreams come true– and was united with his ‘brothers’ on the basis of their color. Perhaps one cannot ask for more. People always seem to band together in accordance to a principle that has nothing to do with love, a principle that releases them from personal responsibility.”
He then spirals off into the musing on human nature, the relationship between blacks and whites, and linking them both to the spiritual as well as the political. It’s an extraordinary achievement, the way one thought leads to the next, and the next, and suddenly you’ve run into a philosophical truth that touches the soul. The truth I recognized:
“It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death-ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage is nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us… It is the responsibility of free men to trust and to celebrate what is constant–birth, struggle, and death are constant, and so is love, though we may not always think so–and to apprehend the nature of change, to be able and willing to change. I speak of change not on the surface but in the depths–change in the sense of renewal. But renewal becomes impossible if one supposes things to be constant that are not–safety, for example, or money, or power. One clings then to chimeras, by which one can only be betrayal and the entire home–the entire possibility–of freedom disappears.”
Somehow, I’ve never read James Baldwin. Despite a rather liberal high school, we still read far too many of the ‘classics’ (and I, for one, will never read Dickens again). College was Women’s Studies when I ventured outside the sciences, a reading list universally written by women. My free time, fun time reading just never ran into Baldwin, perhaps because I stay away from lit-fic like the plague. Now that I am finally class-free (on more than one level, *snort), I find myself gravitating towards the occasional non-fiction. What I discovered is that Baldwin writes lyrical, exacting prose, clear, and yet somehow poetic, with a belief in love and in dreaming better. I loved immersing myself in his writing. I rather wish I was in a classroom of people with whom I could wrestle with these ideas.