The Fire Next Time was published in 1963, 100 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. The early sixties were a time of heated debate regarding racial segregation, and much of that debate was inflected by religion. Many Christian groups—such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, to name just one—were foundational to the Civil Rights Movement, basing their calls for equality within the framework of Christianity’s celebration of love and kindness. On the other hand, though, with its long history of conquest and enslavement, Christian ideology was also used by white people to reinforce racist agendas. Although much of Baldwin’s thinking is influenced by the Christian virtues he grew up with, The Fire Next Time largely focuses on the religion’s divisive qualities. His critique of the church is rooted in his disapproval of the black-and-white, us-versus-them mentality that it so often (though not always) advances, a disapproval that he does not singularly reserve for Christianity. Another group he critically examines is the Nation of Islam, a religious and cultural organization that used Islamic beliefs to argue that the time for white rule was soon coming to an end and that, according to Allah, black people would imminently rise to power. Addressing both the racist history of the Christian church and what he views as the equally unproductive aspirations of the Nation of Islam, Baldwin dissects the way religion has for centuries been wielded as an instrument of inequality and oppression.
In “Down At The Cross,” Baldwin discusses the rise of the white Christian to power. He points out that “Christianity has operated with an unmitigated arrogance and cruelty—necessarily, since a religion ordinarily imposes on those who have discovered the true faith the spiritual duty of liberating the infidels.” This is a reference to early Christian missionaries, whose job was to spread the religion in foreign lands, an endeavor that Baldwin points out conveniently became a “justification for the planting of the flag.” In other words, as whites took it upon themselves to supposedly theologically liberate black countries, Christianity became an excuse for domination, control, and conquest. Given this fraught history, Baldwin is skeptical of Christianity’s ability to unite blacks and whites, identifying it as a poor model for equality. He posits that, in order to lead a sound moral life, one must “first divorce himself from all the prohibitions, crimes and hypocrisies of the Christian church. If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we god rid of Him.”
Baldwin also turns a critical eye on the Nation of Islam, which he considers to be nearly a mirror image of the white Christian subordination of African-Americans. Whereas many white Christians believe that blacks are descended from Ham (a cursed biblical character whose ancestors are destined to be slaves), the Nation of Islam believes that the devil invented white people, whom Allah allowed to rule the earth for only for “a certain number of years.” About this theory, Baldwin points out that “the dream, the sentiment is old; only the color is new.” He remains as unconvinced by the Nation of Islam as he was by Christianity, though he patiently concedes that there is no reason to expect African-Americans to rise above this sort of black-and-white thinking any more than Caucasians.
Nonetheless, Baldwin makes it clear that, in order to escape the simplistic thinking that religion encourages, one must understand and accept the complex history of black oppression. African-Americans have been shaped by the oppressive ideologies and actions of white Christians, and though the Nation of Islam strives to step outside of this framework by living separately from white people, Baldwin argues that African-Americans cannot resort to escapism; instead, they must contend with the fact that they have been shaped by the society in which they live and strive to improve that reality, rather than flee it. Only then, he argues, will black people be capable of changing the racial situation in “concrete terms,” though Baldwin does not offer specific examples of what these concrete terms might be. Instead, Baldwin is chiefly interested in discussing the intellectual circumstances that might bring about change—circumstances that require this acceptance of history; “To accept one’s past—one’s history—is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it.” Thus, Baldwin asks black Americans to immerse themselves in their painful past in order to deploy it in the present.
The Fire Next Time takes cues from a slave spiritual called “Mary Don’t You Weep,” borrowing its epigraph and title from the song’s lyrics, “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, / No more water, the fire next time!” This line references two biblical stories, one in which God promises Noah that He will never again punish the earth by unleashing floods, and another in which Peter points out that, though God has promised not to destroy the world using water, there has been no such promise regarding fire. Thus, Baldwin turns to both history and theology to make his point that, if blacks and whites fail to acknowledge their history and band together to “end the racial nightmare,” this Biblical prophecy might be fulfilled. Although this may sound like a warning or even a threat, it is more accurately a sincere expression of Baldwin’s deep concern about the turmoil America faced in 1963; a turmoil we are most unfortunately still struggling with today. And though Baldwin’s very hope for America—a hope that exalts love, kindness, and unity—is itself shaped by a deeply Christian impulse, he makes it clear that the institution itself has gone off the rails with its “sanctification of power” and that, as such, Christianity has lost sight of its own defining virtues.
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History and Religion Quotes in The Fire Next Time
Well, he is dead, he never saw you, and he had a terrible life; he was defeated long before he died because, at the bottom of his heart, he really believed what white people said about him. This is one of the reasons that he became so holy…You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger.
I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it. And I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. One can be, indeed one must strive to become, tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death, for this is what most of mankind has been best at since we have heard of man. (But remember: most of mankind is not all of mankind.) But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.
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.
I rushed home from school, to the church, to the altar, to be alone there, to commune with Jesus, my dearest Friend, who would never fail me, who knew all the secrets of my heart. Perhaps He did, but I didn’t, and the bargain we struck, actually, down there at the foot of the cross, was that He would never let me find out.
Perhaps we were, all of us—pimps, whores, racketeers, church members, and children—bound together by the nature of our oppression, the specific and peculiar complex of risks we had to run; if so, within these limits we sometimes achieved with each other a freedom that was close to love.
The person who distrusts himself has no touchstone for reality—this touchstone can be only oneself. Such a person interposes between himself and reality nothing less than a labyrinth of attitudes. And these attitudes, furthermore, though the person is usually unaware of it (is unaware of so much!), are historical and public attitudes. They do not relate to the present any more than they relate to the person. Therefore, whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.
In the realm of power, Christianity has operated with an unmitigated arrogance and cruelty—necessarily, since a religion ordinarily imposes on those who have discovered the true faith the spiritual duty of liberating the infidels. This particular true faith, moreover, is more deeply concerned about the soul than it is about the body, to which fact the flesh (and the corpses) of countless infidels bears witness. It goes without saying, then, that whoever questions the authority of the true faith also contests the right of the nations that hold this faith to rule over him—contests, in short, their title to his land. The spreading of the Gospel, regardless of the motives or the integrity or the heroism of some of the missionaries, was an absolutely indispensable justification for the planting of the flag.
For the horrors of the American Negro’s life there has been almost no language. The privacy of his experience, which is only beginning to be recognized in language, and which is denied or ignored in official and popular speech—hence the Negro idiom—lends credibility to any system that pretends to clarify it. And, in fact, the truth about the black man, as a historical entity and as a human being, has been hidden from him, deliberately and cruelly; the power of the white world is threatened whenever a black man refuses to accept the white world’s definitions. So every attempt is made to cut that black man down […]. Who, then, is to say with authority where the root of so much anguish and evil lies?
It is only “the so-called American Negro” who remains trapped, disinherited, and despised, in a nation that has kept him in bondage for nearly four hundred years and is still unable to recognize him as a human being. And the Black Muslims, along with many people who are not Muslims, no longer wish for a recognition so grudging and (should it ever be achieved) so tardy. Again, it cannot be denied that this point of view is abundantly justified by American Negro history. It is galling indeed to have stood so long, hat in hand, waiting for Americans to grow up enough to realize that you do not threaten them.
How can one, however, dream of power in any other terms than in the symbols of power? The boy could see that freedom depended on the possession of land; he was persuaded that, in one way or another, Negroes must achieve this possession. In the meantime, he could walk the streets and fear nothing, because there were millions like him, coming soon, now, to power. He was held together, in short, by a dream—though it is just as well to remember that some dreams come true—and was united with his “brothers” on the basis of their color. Perhaps one cannot ask for more. People always seem to band together in accordance to a principle that has nothing to do with love, a principle that releases them from personal responsibility.
But in order to change a situation one has first to see it for what it is: in the present case, to accept the fact, whatever one does with it thereafter, that the Negro has been formed by this nation, for better or for worse, and does not belong to any other—not to Africa, and certainly not to Islam. The paradox—and a fearful paradox it is—is that the American Negro can have no future anywhere, on any continent, as long as he is unwilling to accept his past. To accept one’s past—one’s history—is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it.
Most people guard and keep; they suppose that it is they themselves and what they identify with themselves that they are guarding and keeping, whereas what they are actually guarding and keeping is their system of reality and what they assume themselves to be. One can give nothing whatever without giving oneself—that is to say, risking oneself. If one cannot risk oneself, then one is simply incapable of giving.
In any event, the sloppy and fatuous nature of American good will can never be relied upon to deal with hard problems. These have been dealt with, when they have been dealt with at all, out of necessity, and in political terms, anyway, necessity means concessions made in order to stay on top.
Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death—ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us.
[…] this past, this endless struggle to achieve and reveal and confirm a human identity, human authority, yet contains, for all its horror, something very beautiful. I do not mean to be sentimental about suffering—enough is certainly as good as a feast—but people who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover who they are.