Baldwin frames love as something hopeful and restorative, a means by which America might achieve something like unity. In “My Dungeon Shook,” he tells James: “We have not stopped trembling yet, but if we had not loved each other none of us would have survived.” Herein lies the notion that compassion and camaraderie present perhaps the only way to survive the long history of injustice and suffering at the hands of bigots. Baldwin takes this a step further when he encourages his nephew to project this goodwill across supposed enemy lines, emphasizing that he must even love white people; “You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope.”
Embedded in this advice lies an argument essential to understanding Baldwin’s perception of American unity: distracted by various deeply-sown racist strongholds, white people fail to see that—just as African-American history is intertwined with that of White America—they are products of a country comprised of both whites and blacks. In other words, “Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.” As such, they are incapable of fully accepting or loving themselves, which is why Baldwin instructs his nephew to extend his understanding to them. A white person’s inability to love a black person is, in effect, an inability to love him- or herself, and vice versa.
Love, for Baldwin, is an agent of change. It is something to be used to move toward freedom. There exists a deep insecurity in the white persona, which is then forced onto African-Americans with disastrous consequences to the general harmony and accord of the country. “Love,” writes Baldwin, “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.” For Baldwin, then, love is the great equalizer, and it is this “quest and daring and growth” that Americans must undertake together as blacks and whites “if we are really to become a nation.” Anything standing in the way of this—“gimmicks,” figures of authority, religious beliefs—only detracts from America’s strength.
Love Quotes in The Fire Next Time
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.
The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you. Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity and fear. Please try to be clear, dear James, through the storm which rages about your youthful head today, about the reality which lies behind the words acceptance and integration. There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love.
But these men are your brothers—your lost, younger brothers. And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.
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.
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.
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.