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.”
Fear Quotes in The Fire Next Time
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.