The book arrived late. I am not sure why, I didn’t care of the reason. I just knew that it had arrived. Late. I waited an extra day for it to be delivered with a fervent energy I wasn’t fully expecting. I tore the package to reveal the cover had a slight bend.
Not just the cover, but subsequently 23 pages revealed this absurd crease! Again, I wasn’t happy, but the book had arrived. Hearing so many good things about “The Fire Next Time” by James Baldwin I can’t say that my expectations were high. One’s opinion doesn’t have to be my own. It also carries no leverage in conjunction with my own viewpoint. I indulged into these pages with an open mind and well an open heart.
The same fury I felt when I realized the book would be delivered late was the same energy I kept throughout reading. Was I angry with James? Absolutely not! This book can be categorized as nothing less than genius.
First copy written in 1962 it is comprised of two letters published as essays. The first “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to my nephew on the one hundredth anniversary of emancipation” and “Down at the Cross: Letter from a region of my mind.” Mr. Baldwin speaks of a time before I was a thought and my own parents were children. So, why was I able to relate on such a personal level?
It was as if I were somewhere standing next to him, the lit cigarette and type writer. Even more preposterous, he was sitting next to me in 2019. I loaned him my desk, chair and laptop. We spoke and laughed and finally I hushed long enough for him to create. The commonalities of his language and the events of his day are parallel to the pivotal moments of today are striking. It could leave one infuriated as well as baffled. One of course, meaning me.
It is a simple concept that holds truth and has been stated in multiple ways before. We look to the past to see the future. He writes of his personal experiences with Malcom X and The Honorable Elijah Muhammad candidly in real time. In this instance of course, I cannot relate. I did not have the privilege of meeting those gentleman, but I am grateful of the snippets of dialogue documented. It was endearing.
However, the ideologies, theories, subjects and community has not much changed. This is where the commonalty is formed. This is where the frustration lies. Why? He brings up “progress” as a question less because of a victorious conquest. He questions and compares Harlem street life with the church. Controversial in its own right, but not too far removed when reading and comprehending his perspective.
He paints his canvas with an honest illustration of juxtaposition. James Baldwin is neither one, street or Christian at the time of these writings, yet he is the product of both. The vast differences turn out not to be at all. Leaving more similarities than one would care to admit and, in some cases, acknowledge.
Race and religion are the loudest and common themes throughout the book. Somehow, he was able to interject his personal experiences, coupled with facts and then balanced with the theories of others on the same subject. This is nothing short of brilliance. Most people do not take the time to understand the entirety of the picture, let alone state it side by side with the opposing view.
What if someone thought James was wrong? Which is the beauty of being secure in yourself to be vulnerable enough to accept the pending criticism. Or even worse, dare to have specific dialogue about such topics. The desire and necessity to be right is removed. I would like to believe that many of us have this trait, but that would be false and merely unicorn thinking. I am too much of a realest for that type of behavior, but it is nice to dream.
“People always seem to band together in accordance to principle that has nothing to do with love, a principle that releases personal responsibility”
James Baldwin, “The Fire Next Time”
“The fire next time” is a short book. There are only 106 pages. It took me three days to read it. Mostly read on the train from my goings and comings and goings again. However, he took the time to make every line in these short pages matter. Sometimes less is more.
It was as if he knew even then, we would collectively have short attention spans and live in a right now, give me more but quickly society. Every thought provoking anecdote is brilliantly conveyed. It is personal, it is honest, it is I would like to assume, who James was as a person and is as a legacy.