The Fire Next Time

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Fear Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Authority and Oppression Theme Icon
History and Religion Theme Icon
Love Theme Icon
Fear Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Fire Next Time, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Fear Theme Icon

Fear is laced throughout The Fire Next Time. In fact, it lurks behind important elements of the three previous themes: authority, religion, and love. Baldwin concerns himself in particular with how fear can act as a divisive catalyst, something that drives white and black people apart and supports racist patterns.

When Baldwin sought out the Christian church as a teenager, he did so for fear of the “whores and pimps and racketeers on the Avenue,” who had suddenly become “a personal menace” now that he realized he could grow up to become one of them. In this way, religion was a safe house of sorts, easing his fears (if only temporarily) by giving him a community that wasn’t outwardly sinister, and by giving him the Christian idea of salvation, which was something the young author could invest in and work toward, thus calming his fear that he might be destined for a meaningless, marginalized life on the Harlem streets.

Fear also pertains to Baldwin’s examination of religion overall. Inherent to both white Christian racism and its separationist counterpart found in the Nation of Islam is the fear of The Other—a person or group of people that supposedly poses a threat to one’s way of life and his or her system of beliefs. This is apparent in the history of white Christians using religious oppression to keep African Americans under their control, and with the Nation of Islam’s wholehearted mistrust of “white devils.”

Fear is yet again identifiable immediately in Baldwin’s discussion of authority. In writing about the “filters” of authority that children detect in their parents’ behavior, he highlights the child’s sensitivity to any indication of the “uncontrollable note of fear heard in [the child’s] mother’s or his father’s voice when he has strayed beyond some particular boundary.” This “boundary,” of course, is a racial one, something the child can only intuit but not yet fully grasp. “He reacts to the fear in his parents’ voices because his parents hold up the world for him and he has no protection without them.” From an early age, then, African-American children instinctively learn to fear—and therefore, unfortunately, respect—the authoritative structures that shape their lives. And if somebody fears and inadvertently respects the powers controlling her life, it is that much more difficult to do anything to change the circumstances of her existence.

Finally, Baldwin’s concept of love is in conversation with this notion of fear, since he presents love as one of the only ways of escaping the inhibitions that arise from being afraid. Baldwin’s is a mobilized form of love, active in its mission to change human relationships for the better. Because fear is unfortunately involved in not only America’s warring religious institutions, but also in the identity construction of the country’s young people, it becomes of the utmost importance that all sides come together and, “like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of others.” Love, it seems, is the only way forward in the face of fear, and if we “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.”

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Fear ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Fear appears in each Essay of The Fire Next Time. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Fear Quotes in The Fire Next Time

Below you will find the important quotes in The Fire Next Time related to the theme of Fear.
My Dungeon Shook Quotes

Well, you were born, here you came, something like fifteen years ago; and though your father and mother and grandmother, looking about the streets through which they were carrying you, staring at the walls into which they brought you, had every reason to be heavyhearted, yet they were not. For here you were, Big James, named for me—you were a big baby, I was not—here you were, to be loved. To be loved, baby, hard, at once, and forever, to strengthen you against the loveless world. Remember that: I know how black it looks today, for you. It looked bad that day, too, yes, we were trembling. We have not stopped trembling yet, but if we had not loved each other none of us would have survived. And now you must survive because we love you, and for the sake of your children and your children’s children.

Related Characters: James Baldwin (speaker), James
Page Number: 7
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Baldwin attempts to give James some optimism to hold onto in trying times. By telling his nephew that he arrived in this world “to be loved,” he frames James’s very existence—and, arguably, the existence of any human—as if the very purpose of living is to love and be loved. This is in keeping with Baldwin’s notion that love, unlike power or authority (which are always shifting), is a constant and reliable force capable of sustaining people through difficult times. There is no shortage of difficult times; even when James was born, the boy’s parents and Baldwin were suffering. However, they “survived,” though they wouldn’t have if they hadn’t relied on their love for one another. Indeed, they were “trembling,” afraid of both the racism they had already experienced and the racism yet to come.

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They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case, the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity.

Related Characters: James Baldwin (speaker), James
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

Baldwin writes this to James regarding the skewed and largely ahistorical image of reality that white Americans manage to create for themselves. Racist white people have been taught for “many years” that black people are “inferior,” a belief that makes it easier to oppress the African-American population. To “act” on a belief, Baldwin maintains, requires full involvement with the issue at stake. After all, there is no way to act on something without engaging with it on all levels. This is what Baldwin means when he says that “to act is to be committed.” At the heart of the matter, Baldwin is saying that even white people who know blacks are not inferior are unwilling to fully commit themselves to this belief because their own identities—regardless of what they truly believe—are based on the notion that they are superior.

Down At The Cross Quotes

Neither civilized reason nor Christian love would cause any of those people to treat you as they presumably wanted to be treated; only the fear of your power to retaliate would cause them to do that, or to seem to do it, which was (and is) good enough. There appears to be a vast amount of confusion on this point, but I do not know many Negroes who are eager to be “accepted” by white people, still less to be loved by them; they, the blacks, simply don’t wish to be beaten over the head by the whites every instant of our brief passage on this planet.

Related Characters: James Baldwin (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Church
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Baldwin rather uncharacteristically seems to encourage African-Americans to act in such a way that will cause fear in their white countrymen. He presents this as perhaps the only way to lead a life of relative safety as a black person, since “civilized reason” and “Christian love” have proven themselves unable to deflect racist attention and oppression. By arguing this, Baldwin demonstrates just how limited the options are when it comes to a black person’s ability to protect his or her safety and dignity. When even the core tenets of the Christian church fail to protect black people from harm in a country founded and run by white Christians, what else is left? Unfortunately, this is a cyclical problem, because the more white people fear black people, the harder they work to keep them in a place of subjugation—a point Baldwin addresses elsewhere but leaves unvoiced here.

Every Negro boy—in my situation during those years, at least—who reaches this point realizes, at once, profoundly, because he wants to live, that he stands in great peril and must find, with speed, a “thing,” a gimmick, to lift him out, to start him on his way. And it does not matter what the gimmick is. It was this last realization that terrified me and—since it revealed that the door opened on so many dangers—helped to hurl me into the church. And, by an unforeseeable paradox, it was my career in the church that turned out, precisely, to be my gimmick.

Related Characters: James Baldwin (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Church
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

As Baldwin remembers his tumultuous experience as a black teenager coming to understand the racial power structures at play in his life, he highlights the importance of finding a way to survive by way of a “gimmick” (a community, activity, or belief that can keep a person from hopelessness). It is notable that the language he uses in this passage is urgent and somewhat desperate; when a black boy reaches a certain age, Baldwin says, he must find his gimmick “at once” and “with speed”—“because he wants to live.” This pressing language evokes the dire immediacy that black teenagers experience at this moment in their lives, when the world is furiously turning against them. To be sure, Baldwin says that he was “hurl[ed]” into the church, a phrase whose very hastiness illustrates the previous assertion that “it does not matter what the gimmick is.”

But the policemen were doing nothing now. Obviously, this was not because they had become more human but because they were under orders and because they were afraid. And indeed they were, and I was delighted to see it. There they stood, in twos and threes and fours, in their Cub Scout uniforms and with their Cub Scout faces, totally unprepared, as is the way American he-men, for anything that could not be settled with a club or a fist or a gun. I might have pitied them if I had not found myself in their hands so often and discovered, through ugly experience, what they were like when they held the power and what they were like when you held the power.

Related Characters: James Baldwin (speaker)
Page Number: 48
Explanation and Analysis:

Baldwin provides this description of white policemen watching over speeches by members of the Nation of Islam in Harlem. He is surprised to see that, instead of jumping up and dragging away the speakers, the officers stood idly by, visibly afraid of the crowd’s power. This fear immobilizes the policemen’s authority, tipping the scales in a reversal so unexpected that Baldwin, as a compassionate person, almost feels pity for them, an impulse that once more illustrates his ability to make imaginative leaps of empathy even when it means inhabiting the viewpoint of his oppressors. Nonetheless, Baldwin relishes this reversal of what he explains is the typical dynamic, in which he is afraid of the policemen and has no recourse against their violence, cruelty, and condescension.

It was very strange to stand with Elijah for those few moments, facing those vivid, violent, so problematical streets. I felt very close to him, and really wished to be able to love and honor him as a witness, an ally, and a father. I felt that I knew something of his pain and his fury, and, yes, even his beauty. Yet precisely because of the reality and the nature of those streets—because of what he conceived as his responsibility and what I took to be mine—we would always be strangers, and possibly, one day, enemies.

Related Characters: James Baldwin (speaker), Elijah Muhammad
Page Number: 78
Explanation and Analysis:

Having deflected—however politely—Elijah’s attempts to convince him of the Nation of Islam’s core tenets, Baldwin finds himself for several strange moments surveying the troubled streets of South Chicago with Elijah before leaving the mansion. The fact that he feels close to this man and that he wants to “honor him as a witness, an ally, and a father” speaks to the extent to which Baldwin registers authority and its influence on him—to be sure, he is incredibly attuned to power dynamics.

Baldwin’s desire to be close to Elijah also illustrates the fact that the two men share many of the same worries—their differences lie in how they go about addressing those worries. As they look out, the streets begin to take on significance, for they represent the most notable difference between the two men; on the one hand, Elijah wants to rescue the inhabitants of these streets by mobilizing them against white America. Baldwin, on the other hand, wants to unify the people of those streets with white America. And because these two visions clash, it is possible that Baldwin and Elijah might someday become enemies.

It is for this reason that love is so desperately sought and so cunningly avoided. Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth. And I submit, then, that the racial tensions that menace Americans today have little to do with real antipathy—on the contrary, indeed—and are involved only symbolically with color.

Related Characters: James Baldwin (speaker)
Page Number: 95
Explanation and Analysis:

The “reason” Baldwin refers to at the beginning of this passage is the confounding fact that white Americans do not want to be seen or judged by black people, and yet they simultaneously yearn for black people to look at them and show them recognition. In keeping with his argument throughout The Fire Next Time, Baldwin suggests that love is the only thing capable of remedying this peculiar affliction, since it “takes off the masks” that people think they can’t “live without” and know they can’t “live within.” By arguing that America’s race problem is “involved only symbolically with color,” Baldwin essentially proposes that the prevailing racial paradigms are mutable, for symbolism can be interpreted and reinterpreted through language, a process that would itself bring whites and blacks together.