The Fire Next Time


James Baldwin

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The Fire Next Time Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of James Baldwin

James Baldwin was born in Harlem in 1924, the grandson of a slave and the eldest of nine children. Though his biological father was absent, a Baptist minister named David Baldwin soon became the young author’s stepfather. Over the years, Baldwin’s relationship with David would prove tenuous yet formative, since his eventual experience as a Youth Minister in an opposing church was both a result and defiance of his stepfather’s example as a Baptist preacher. In retrospect, Baldwin identified his time in the church—preparing and delivering several sermons per week—as an important step in his development as a writer, since in this role he was forced to closely consider a wide range of human emotions. He calls upon this experience in his most celebrated novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, as well as in the play The Amen Corner. Upon graduating high school, Baldwin spent the majority of his time in Greenwich Village—at that time a hotbed of creativity and progressive thinking—working as a book reviewer. Around this time, the famous novelist Richard Wright identified Baldwin’s talent and helped him earn a grant in order to work on a novel and sustain himself while doing so. Baldwin moved to Paris in 1948 with the hopes of both physically and psychologically distancing himself from America so that he could write about his country more clearly. The result came in 1953, when he published Go Tell It on the Mountain. Baldwin returned to America in 1957, at which point he became involved with the Civil Rights Movement. This was the beginning of his celebrated career as an outspoken activist and socially-conscious public thinker, advocating for peaceful resolutions of America’s racial tensions. Baldwin worked for the last ten years of his life in France, penning a number of essential works about American identity in the wake of the assassinations of Medgar Evers—a civil rights activist—and Martin Luther King, Jr. He died of stomach cancer in 1987 in Saint Paul de Vence, France.
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Historical Context of The Fire Next Time

Upon the publication of The Fire Next Time in 1963, America was celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, an anniversary that occasioned Baldwin’s letter to his nephew. The country was also just one year away from establishing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, or nationality. Despite this—and despite the fact that the racial segregation of public schools had been declared unconstitutional by the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown V. Board of Education—race relations remained incredibly tense. Notably, George Wallace, governor of Alabama, delivered a bitter polemic in vehement support of segregation upon his inauguration in 1963. In this speech, he called for “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” a stubborn sentiment that, in comparison to Baldwin’s magnanimous suggestion that true integration would mean showing even white oppressors love, revealed the governor’s hateful message as destructive to the nation’s necessary growth. An integrationist and proponent of love above all else, Baldwin’s ideas in The Fire Next Time seemed to prophecy the legal end of segregation in 1964, while simultaneously understanding that, unfortunately, meaningful and lasting change was yet to come. “You know, and I know,” he writes in his letter to his nephew, “that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon.”

Other Books Related to The Fire Next Time

The Fire Next Time borrows its title from the spiritual slave song, “Mary Don’t You Weep,” which in turn references the Bible. The specific lyric, “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, / No more water, the fire next time!” deals with both Genesis and a moment in The New Testament. The mention of God giving Noah “the rainbow sign” references the moment in Genesis when God and Noah strike a covenant that God will never flood the earth again with water as a means of punishment, hence the line, “No more water…” The latter half of the lyric, “the fire next time!” pertains to the Second Epistle of Peter in The New Testament, when Peter points out that, though God promised to never use water again to wreck havoc on the earth, He never promised anything about refraining from using fire for such destruction. Peter prophecies that “the heavens will fall apart in fire and the heavenly bodies [will] melt in the flames” on the Day of Judgment. Baldwin draws on these lyrics and biblical prophecies to metaphorically warn Americans that, amidst the intense racial turmoil of the early 1960s, it is of the utmost importance that whites and blacks come together as one nation to end “the racial nightmare” and “change the history of the world.” To preface “Down At The Cross,” Baldwin draws on another famous literary work: “The White Man’s Burden,” an 1899 poem by British writer Rudyard Kipling. In it, Kipling encourages the United States to take up “the white man’s burden,” which he interprets as the responsibility of supposedly civilized whites to go forth and colonize nonwhite nations, the inhabitants of which he describes as “sullen peoples, / half devil and half child.” Written at the beginning of the Philippine-American War, the poem was widely received as something of a call to arms, framing imperialism—or the spread of a country’s power by means of military force—as a civic responsibility rather than as an act of greed. In evoking this poem, Baldwin illustrates the point he eventually makes in “Down At The Cross” that America—and especially the American church—was built on merciless conquest and the sly technique of introducing its own culture to others as a way of eventually oppressing them.
Key Facts about The Fire Next Time
  • Full Title: The Fire Next Time
  • When Written: The early 1960s
  • Where Written: While traveling through the American South.
  • When Published: “Down At The Cross” was first published as “Letter From A Region In My Mind” in the November 17, 1962 issue of The New Yorker. Similarly, “My Dungeon Shook” was first published as “A Letter to My Nephew” in the January 1, 1962 issue of The Progressive. The two pieces were then compiled for publication of The Fire Next Time, which appeared in 1963.
  • Literary Period: Twentieth-century African-American Nonfiction
  • Genre: Epistolary & Autobiographical Criticism
  • Setting: The United States, especially Harlem
  • Climax: Because The Fire Next Time is comprised of a letter and a critical essay, there is no discernible plot and, therefore, no specific climax. Rhetorically speaking, though, the theoretical stance Baldwin advances in both pieces ultimately reaches its zenith at the end of “Down At The Cross,” when he suggests that if blacks and whites fail to come together in the face of their shared and troubled history, the already poor state of America’s race relations will become even more catastrophic and destructive to the nation’s well-being.
  • Antagonist: The chief antagonistic force that Baldwin presents is an unwillingness to accept others, as this outlook ultimately oppresses African-Americans and divides the country between blacks and whites.
  • Point of View: “My Dungeon Shook” is narrated by Baldwin in the first-person, addressing his nephew in the second-person. “Down At The Cross” is told in a more straightforward first-person narration from Baldwin’s perspective.

Extra Credit for The Fire Next Time

Between The World And Me. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book Between The World And Me, which won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2015, borrows its title from Richard Wright’s poem by the same name, but the phrase also appears in The Fire Next Time, which was another great influence on Coates. The line in The Fire Next Time reads: “That summer, in any case, all the fears with which I had grown up, and which were now a part of me and controlled my vision of the world, rose up like a wall between the world and me, and drove me into the church.” Like “My Dungeon Shook,” Between The World And Me is written as an epistolary to a fourteen-year-old black boy—in Coates’s case, to his son.

The New Yorker. In 1962, Baldwin was assigned by The New Yorker to write an account of Africa and its then current struggles. Instead, he wrote “Down At The Cross”—at that point entitled “Letter From A Region Of My Mind”—an essay that turned its attention not on Africa, but on America’s own troubles. Despite this inconsistency, the magazine ran the piece.