We’ve considered making James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time a book of the month for a while now. Originally published in 1963, it’s since been discussed in conversations about Black Lives Matter and its recent protests. In August, Scribner published an anthology titled, The Fire This Time, edited by Jesmyn Ward, which features contemporary writers responding to many the same issues that Baldwin raised.
Despite these conversations, I’ve found it hard to describe exactly what The Fire This Time, a collection of two epistolary essays, accomplishes, perhaps because I have such a love for Baldwin’s fiction and perhaps because in this confusing era, I am seeking direction and what Baldwin gives us instead is experience.
In the second and longer letter (from a “region of my mind”) Baldwin describes his experiences as a young preacher, a meeting with Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam, and, finally, his (and America’s) position at “the center of the arc, trapped in the gaudiest, most valuable, and most improbable water wheel the world has ever seen. . .Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise.” By this third section, Baldwin describes a bereft society eerily similar to our own, but the prescription for healing remains vague.
Maybe this is the challenge of writing about Baldwin’s non-fiction. He forces you to examine what’s in your own hands, to question yourself. There are no easy answers when the question is you, your responsibilities, your experience. In Raoul Peck’s upcoming film I Am Not Your Negro, Baldwin says, “There are days when you wonder what your role is in this country and what your future is in it. . . the white population of this country’s got to ask itself is why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place because I’m not a nigger. I’m a man, but if you think I’m a nigger it means you need it, and you’ve got to find out why and the future of the country depends on that.” He offers both question and condemnation.
I rue the absence of Baldwin’s thoughtful, brave, and articulate discourse on our country. Intelligent, contemplative commentary now is a chimera. Artists and activism are further denigrated, subjugated to either/or slots. Don’t you be creative, powerful and tell me what I don’t want to hear. Still, what are we to do?
If fiction can deliver a more poignant message, a more useful compulsion than non-fiction, then we should look to Baldwin’s stories for our mandates. I can tell you easily what Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” is about: listening. It’s about the black experience. It’s about addiction. It’s about brothers. It’s about music. It’s about discovering what our closest kin really are. Late in the story, Sonny, a jazz musician struggling with heroin addiction says to his brother, the narrator,
It’s terrible sometimes, inside. . .that’s what’s the trouble. You walk these streets, black and funky and cold, and there’s not really a living ass to talk to, and there’s nothing shaking, and there’s no way of getting it out—that storm inside. You can’t talk it and you can’t make love with it, and when you finally try to get with it and play it, you realize nobody’s listening. So you’ve got to listen. You got to find a way to listen.
A clearer instruction can rarely be found. Later, Sonny’s brother watches him play piano for (seemingly) the first time and thinks,
For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.. . .I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, with what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did.
In Baldwin’s fiction, you are the character, we, they, that’s empathy, that’s experience, that of reading, that of understanding, and, in either his fiction or The Fire Next Time, Baldwin provides us the mandate we crave and, ultimately, that we get—listen carefully, everything is in our hands.
Marion Bright, Book Soup General Manager