How James Baldwin Speaks to Our Moment

Over 150 years after the emancipation of slaves following the conclusion of the American Civil War, racial tension has changed and evolved. Movements such as #blacklivesmatter that have sought to broaden consciousness of society’s racial issues have made the observations of James Baldwin, a writer during the Civil Rights Movement gain new relevance 50 years later.

James Baldwin was an African American novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic who became a prominent voice in the Civil Rights Movement. His book The Fire Next Time was first published in 1963 and consisted of two essays, “My Dungeon Shook – Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation” and “Down at the Cross – Letter from a Region of My Mind.”

The title “The Fire Next Time” comes from a black slave’s song lyric: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time.” In the biblical story of Noah and the Arc, the world was destroyed by water during God’s judgment of the wicked world, except for Noah and his family. The world would again be destroyed again by fire on the final day of judgment. Baldwin used this as a metaphor for the contemporary state of race relations, warning that Americans had to come to terms with their race problem or it would only get worse.

Baldwin wrote about the complexities of race in America with great eloquence. He saw racism not only as negative for black people, but for society as a whole. He sought a deeper national healing and consciousness for society, rather than simply the of enforcing civil liberties. This has yet to be fully realized even in 2016, half a century after he published his major works. Baldwin wrote “The Fire Next Time” when the retrenchment of de facto segregation left many white people unwilling to face their place in history, one that had oppressed black people for several centuries and created a staunch racial hierarchy in American society.

Baldwin described the limitations holding society back from the American Dream. As he saw it, many white people possessed a “white” lens on history, meaning they held to the grandeur idea that their personal history and that of the nation was shrouded in the achievements of white people. Baldwin addresses his essay to his nephew, and explains, “These innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.” He did not believe this historical misunderstanding was strictly attributable to the white race though, as he believed both white and black people were blinded to the collective and individual truths of history. In order to overcome this, he called for everyone to transcend what they knew, believed, understood, and feared in order to expand perception and experience and to gain a universal consciousness of society. He believed this was quintessential to achieving the American Dream.

The racial climate of today’s society is not the same as it was in the 1960’s when The Fire Next Time was published, but Baldwin’s vision of a truly conscious American society is far from realized. The racial injustice seen, for example, in disparity of mass incarceration or the killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray are all signs that this Dream is far from achieved. What I can attest and relate to is that a persisting innocence, if not ignorance, to history continues and is hindering society from achieving the greatness of which Baldwin spoke.

I am a white male who grew up in rural Wisconsin. I went to an overwhelmingly white high school. Whiteness was normal because it was all around. This meant I lacked exposure to the experience of other races, both historical and current. I was also lucky enough to grow up in a household with a loving family who continue to support me in anyway they can. While I am definitely not the most privileged person I know from back home, I’ve come to understand that the skin tone I possess is exactly that – a privilege.

The white lens on history that Baldwin spoke about was near exact to the history I learned prior to college. I learned of the Europeans who first colonized in America, the colonists who fought against Britain in the Revolution, and our founding fathers who signed the Declaration of Independence. What I did not learn enough about were the generations of people descended from Africa whom those founding fathers held as slaves. Many of my former classmates still hold this history as ultimate truth, a great sign of innocence, to use Baldwin’s terminology, and are seemingly blind to both the historic and current realities of American society. The ignorance I personally felt when I began to understand the intricacies of history was a reason I chose to major in history and particularly to focus on the African Diaspora and African-American history.

While I continue to do broaden my perception and expand my own consciousness, I am merely one person. For an entire society to change, it must be widespread. I don’t believe this country can ever be blind to race, but I also will never know what it is like to have black skin and live in America. “You must put yourself in the skin of a black man,” wrote Baldwin. It is in the attempt to understand this difference that can ultimately broaden our consciousness. Baldwin asserts, “We must not ask whether it is possible for a human being to become truly moral, I think we must believe it is possible.” If the attempt can be collective and widespread, we, as a society, can further approach the pinnacle of Baldwin’s vision of the American Dream.

“If we – and I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of others – do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.” If not, maybe we are living in the fire next time.

Tyler Schoenke

Tyler is a senior majoring in History with certificate in entrepreneurship. His historical research has ranged from the African Diaspora, race relations, World War II, and sporting history. After graduation he hopes to pursue a career in business.