The Fire Next Time opens with a short letter to Baldwin’s fourteen-year-old nephew, James, commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Baldwin tells James that when he imagines the boy’s face he also sees the face of his brother (James’s father) and the face of his own father (James’s grandfather). He points out that James’s grandfather even had a similar personality to the boy’s, a certain strong-willed and assertive manner that Baldwin believes is designed to avoid looking weak or soft. After making this comparison, Baldwin tells James that his grandfather was ultimately undone—destroyed—by believing that he actually was what white society said he was: subhuman. It is for this reason that the man became religious. But James is not religious, Baldwin points out; rather, he represents a new era and a new way of thinking, and the author encourages his nephew not to make the same mistake as his grandfather by believing what white people say about him.
Baldwin’s advice to his nephew has much to do with the past, both in terms of their family lineage and in terms of the historical injustices woven into the very fabric of America. He tells young James that the country into which they were both born is rigged against them, such that they are—from the moment of birth—set up to languish under white oppression. It’s worth noting that, until this point, Baldwin refers to white Americans simply as James’s “countrymen.” These countrymen, he argues, are supposedly innocent (by which he means, for the most part, ignorant). This innocence—or, perhaps more accurately, this deluded belief that they are innocent—renders them unable to truly acknowledge the existence of African-Americans. And even when this existence is recognized, it is only to communicate the message that black people are worthless. Baldwin recognizes that this is, of course, a difficult thing to tell his nephew so bluntly, but he maintains that James can derive power and mobility from knowing the circumstances from which he has sprung. This involves understanding that the ugly beliefs thrust upon him are not based on any true reflection of inferiority, but rather on the sad insecurity of these white countrymen. Advising James not to waste his energies in getting white people to accept him—for this is not important—Baldwin tells his nephew that, in fact, he is the one who must find a way to accept them. This is because they are ignorant and confused, “trapped in a history which they do not understand.” The only way to shift the wretched racial paradigm in America—which instantly and instinctively subordinates black people—is to get whites to understand the country’s fraught history and the atrocities they have committed to make it so. Only then, Baldwin makes clear, will these countrymen be able to understand themselves and, thus, their fellow black citizens.
At the end of this letter, Baldwin turns to the term integration, explaining that it is the kind of patient understanding explained above—the display of acceptance and love from blacks to whites—that is the only hope of convincing the white countrymen to “see themselves as they are” and start about the work of changing the structures of inequality built into the United States; in other words, to begin the process of true racial integration. About the centennial anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, Baldwin says that “the country is celebrating freedom one hundred years too soon,” and that in order for African-Americans to be free, white Americans must also be free.
In “Down At The Cross,” the essay that follows, Baldwin discusses a turbulent period of his life when he, as a fourteen-year-old, began to recognize the realities of growing up as an African-American in Harlem. During that summer, he watched many of his peers gravitate toward crime, sensing for the first time that the criminals he frequently saw on the streets—the pimps, prostitutes, and drug users—were models of what he could easily become. It occurred to him that these people, whom he had always looked upon as different than him, had all come from the same circumstances as he did. In order to avoid the evil of the streets—as well as the evil he suddenly believed he himself was capable of—he became involved in church life.
In addition to witnessing his peers flock to the dangers of the street, Baldwin began to see that the boys around him would never surpass their fathers in terms of their accomplishments or social stations. His own father started pushing for him to quit school and start working, but Baldwin refused, a gesture that was more an act of defiance than a belief in education. Once, after Baldwin introduced his father to one of his friends, his father asked if the boy was saved, and when Baldwin revealed that his friend was Jewish, his father slapped him hard across the face. In response, Baldwin told his father that his friend was ultimately a better Christian than he was. From a retrospective vantage point, Baldwin sees this interaction as a moment in which he and his father acknowledged the struggle they were in against one another—his father as the authority figure, Baldwin as the retaliator.
All African-American boys around this time in their lives, Baldwin argues, seek out a “gimmick,” or something to occupy themselves with and invest in as a way of coping with the fears instilled in them by a racist society. As a fourteen-year-old, Baldwin was coming to consciousness regarding the racial disparities thrust upon him, in addition to identifying the multiple forms of authority acting upon him (including that of his father). By joining a church that was not the one his father preached in, his “gimmick” satisfied the dual purpose of helping him deal with his fears of succumbing to a meaningless life on the streets while also challenging his father’s control over him. As an adult, he recognizes that by joining the church, he essentially traded one authority figure for another. To be sure, when his friend first brought him to church, the pastor looked at him and asked the same question that the pimps and other criminals on the street used to ask him: “Whose little boy are you?” In writing The Fire Next Time, Baldwin can finally provide the true answer to this question: “Why, yours.”
Facing the many confusions of regular adolescent life and the complicated process of finally understanding the racial problems keeping him down, Baldwin was intuitively searching for somebody to take control over him and guide him along. And though he eventually wound up finding religion full of the same false hopes as other “gimmicks,” he expresses his gratitude for the fact that he found the church during this volatile time instead of some other riskier and more ensnaring alternative. Nonetheless, Baldwin gradually became skeptical of religion, developing a mistrust that he explains by outlining the history of the Christian church. An institution built on spreading the gospel, the dissemination of Christianity depended heavily on the subjugation of others. Baldwin suggests that anybody hoping to lead a moral life will thus have to reexamine the core tenets of Christianity, since Christianity has been so fundamental to imperialism.
This look at the Christian church leads to an investigation of an opposing ideology: the Nation of Islam, a black separatist movement that uses elements of the Islamic religion to advance and prioritize black welfare and prosperity. Baldwin explains the beliefs of the Nation of Islam and its leader Elijah Muhammad, who once hosted Baldwin at his mansion in Chicago. According to members of the NOI, black people once ruled the earth entirely. It wasn’t until the devil himself created white people that this changed—and even then, Allah merely allowed for the “white devils” to rule for a limited amount of time, a period which—at the time of Baldwin’s writing—was supposedly coming to an end. In his meeting with Elijah and a slew of other NOI followers, Baldwin was unconvinced by the idea that he ought to invest himself in a prophecy that favors African-Americans over white Americans. Above all else, though, Baldwin identifies power as the NOI’s main preoccupation, as this is what the conversation at Elijah’s mansion predominantly revolved around. The idea that all white people “are cursed, and are devils, and are about to be brought down” is, Baldwin believes, a mirror image of the kind of divisive ideology set forth by Christianity, an ideology he has already shown to be deeply oppressive and flawed.
Despite his disagreement, though, Baldwin spends time making clear the fact that he understands—even, perhaps, sympathizes with—how somebody might arrive at this kind of thinking after generations of being oppressed by white people. He posits that there is no real reason black people should be expected to approach the country’s racial problem with more grace, patience, and goodwill than white people.
Instead of reacting to white oppression by advancing similar—yet opposite—segregationist solutions, Baldwin urges Americans to examine history and to attempt to accept it, no matter how difficult it is to come to terms with such a tense and troubled past. He illustrates this by relating a conversation he had with one of the members of Elijah’s set, a man who drove him to where he needed to go after his dinner at the NOI’s headquarters. During the drive, Baldwin asked the young man how the NOI was going to go about taking over the American land they felt was due to them. To prove to Baldwin their power and the realistic nature of their claims, the driver responded by stating that African-Americans are yearly responsible for twenty-billion dollars in the American economy, a figure the man insists shows the strength of the NOI’s cause. Engaging with this line of thinking, Baldwin points out that this large amount of money doesn’t exist independently, but rather as part of the American economy as a whole, meaning that black Americans would lose much of their power if separated from the rest of the country’s marketplace. In this moment, Baldwin tries to get the driver to see that, for this goal of separated independence to happen, the “entire frame of reference” upon which the original desire is founded would have to drastically change. And though he didn’t press the issue any further with the driver, Baldwin goes on in the essay to say that it is necessary to acknowledge and even accept the current situation and the history that produced it in order to change any given situation. In this case, it is best to understand the fact that one cannot simply propose a brand new racial reality, but rather one must create change organically out of present realities—difficult though it may seem.
At this point, Baldwin trains his thoughts on the idea of segregation, a hot topic in the early 1960s. He argues that the 1954 Supreme Court decision to outlaw racial segregation in public schools was less an act of progress (as white liberals were so eager to deem it) than it was a competitive and defensive move in the Cold War. With Russia threatening the spread of Communism, the United States needed the sympathy and alliance of African nations—sympathy it would be hard to win if prejudice and oppression against black people was literally written into the country’s laws. Therefore, Baldwin suggests, the end of segregation was an appeal to Africa in the greater struggle against the USSR. This further reinforces the unfortunate American reality that concessions of freedom or equality seem to be have been made only insofar as they benefit the white power structure. The sad fact of the matter is that, more than any other Western country, the United States “has been best placed to prove the uselessness and the obsolescence of the concept of color. But it has not dared to accept this opportunity, or even to conceive of it as an opportunity.” Indeed, Baldwin’s assessment of America’s false progress unearths the country’s unwillingness to truly examine itself.
The solution to this, Baldwin asserts despite a risk of sentimentality, is love. At the very least, white America must learn to love itself, which ultimately means learning to accept its diverse composition. And Baldwin urges African-Americans to keep on doing what they have done for generations: not succumbing to hate. As far as creating a healthy nation, white people need black people and black people need white people. This, he argues, is the only path to a collective resilience. In his final words, Baldwin issues a concerned warning that—borrowing metaphorically from a slave spiritual that references the Bible—if Americans fail to come together, destruction and fire will come.