"If we – and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others – do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world." With these words, James Baldwin concluded his astonishing essay The Fire Next Time. Written in 1962 and originally published as 'Down at the Cross' in a special issue of The New Yorker, it has lost none of its urgency. The Fire Next Time combines an autobiographical account of his childhood in Harlem and his disillusionment with the church with a condemnation of the spiritual and material corruption of Cold War America. Coming shortly after the Cuban missile crisis and published during great Civil Rights agitation, the essay was a radical challenge to American society. Denouncing the American dream as "a nightmare, on the private, domestic, and international levels," Baldwin does not pull his punches. The essay eloquently exposes the contradiction between the self-styled position of the US as leader of the free world and indifference to the struggle for racial justice at home.
When I read The Fire Next Time, I was immediately captivated by the style. Baldwin's writing, despite his denunciation of organised religion, is redolent of his upbringing in the Pentecostal churches of Harlem. Sentences unfold with the splendour of an Old Testament prophet. His righteous anger, searing honesty and ability to express intensities of emotion thrilled me: here was a writer who had not only lived, but had drawn from experience a deep insight into the human condition.
Baldwin shows how the racial divisions within the US reflect a deeper spiritual, emotional and existential panic within the white American. He writes: "The white man is himself in sore need of new standards, which will... place him once again in fruitful communion with the depths of his new being," adding, "The price of the liberation of the white people is the liberation of the blacks – the total liberation, in the cities, in the towns, before the law, and in the mind."
The essay ends with an appeal to overcome racial division, holding out the possibility that recognition of a common cause between white and black would allow the US to become a true vanguard for democracy. Now, with the possibility that the country might have its first black President, Baldwin's essay remains prescient, a penetrating insight into the ways in which sex and race continue to exert such a hold over American society. Amid the morass of predictable commentary, Baldwin's insights into the American condition have been sorely missed.
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