The Fire Next Time

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is a direct descendant of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, departing from it starkly in tone. Almost as if, feeling like a betrayed child (as Baldwin felt against his actual father), Coates rebelled against Baldwin’s uncompromising promise of love as the best weapon against his oppressors and his oppressive reality, for only it could serve him in any hopes of liberation. Coates chooses and commits to a more rational response: anger and confusion and an unfiltered testament to his lived experience. Baldwin takes the same path, but he arrives at the glory and salvation of love (not a religious form, but a secular, existential, grounded form). Coates, however, owes the world and, in particular, white people nothing with regard to providing such hope or offering solutions to the problems he highlights. He expresses the brutal truth of what he’s experienced and witnessed and leaves his readers to stew in that very real pestilence. What? Did you come for catharsis? Go tell it on the mountain with Baldwin. I have no such grace for you, my brother. For you have never dared to offer me any. Why must I turn the other cheek?

Somehow, Baldwin finds a way to turn the other cheek. It’s remarkably Christ-like for a man who understandably turned his back on his Christian upbringing in favor of authentic ethical commitment to his fellow brothers and sisters in this world. He describes the same bleak reality as Coates, decades earlier, so why do they differ in their conclusions?

They’re different people, maybe? Duh?

Oh, sorry, I thought I was alone here in my ruminations.

I’m just making sure you keep it 100.

That’s not our concept to use, man.

What? It’s not in our culture to speak straight?

No…I mean…yes…but…okay, I’ll do better.


What I mean to say is that I was struck and moved by Baldwin’s resilience, to say nothing of his pulsating prose. I started the book as I was ready to go to sleep, and I didn’t put it down until I finished it.

White guilt?

Possibly. Or un-racial awe. Whatever it was, I felt his words. He makes empathy possible for his reader by exercising it so uncompromisingly in his language. There’s a real human being, a broken but undefeatable body in his words, not the floating intellect I’m used to from so many white authors who don’t have to worry about investing their body into their art (nor into their life; their body is always protected).

So he was incorporated into his work?

In a spiritual act of transubstantiation or something, sure. Not in any negative commercial sense.

So what have you come here to say? Are you just trying to prove how “woke” you are? To get a free pass out of real civic responsibility to Baldwin’s ancestors, your friends and neighbors? Good for you. You read a book and were moved by it. You’re not as actively racist as other people. But how does your life, your creative activity, show your devotion to the cause? How is your skin in the game?

It isn’t. I’m not denying that.

Do more than confess. Act on your regrets, if you even have them.

Regret is wasted energy.

What of inaction?

That too.


Who? Where? When? How?

At least you don’t need a why. That’s a start.

This book gives me further context for understanding the historical depth of current struggles.

That’s the thing with white people, they need too much damn proof to believe someone else is oppressed. Like a single person’s experience is invalid or insufficient. Because you can say, “yeah, but…” and then give yourself some way out of helping your threatened fellow citizen. Why is it so hard for you to believe and accept and then work to change the lived realities of people different than you?

I don’t deny other people’s plight.

But you choose to intellectualize it as some distant, dismissible event when it’s a present condition.

What would you have me do?

I don’t know. Finish your silly sermon on this book you’re so proud you read.

Instead of speaking on behalf of Baldwin any further, I’ll just drop some of his thoughts here. Hopefully they inspire you (and me) to do something. If reading isn’t a catalyst for meaningful action in our lives, what is its purpose?

  • …that [white people] have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it…But remember: most of mankind is not all of mankind. (5)
  • You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. (7)
  • 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. For 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. (8)
  • 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. (9)
  • Negroes in this country – and Negroes do not, strictly or legally speaking, exist in any other – are taught really to despise themselves from the moment their eyes open on the world. (25)
  • Long before the Negro child perceives this difference, and even longer before he understands it, he has begun to react to it, he has begun to be controlled by it. (26)
  • …all the fears with which I had grown up, and which were now a part of me and controlled my vision of the world, rose up like a wall between the world and me…” (27)
  • The principles [of the church] were Blindness, Loneliness, and Terror, the first principle necessarily and actively cultivated in order to deny the two others. (31)
  • The person who distrusts himself has no touchstone for reality – for this touchstone can be only oneself. Such a person interposes between himself and reality nothing less than a labyrinth of attitudes…historical and public attitudes. (43)
  • 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 got rid of Him. (47)
  • …a civilization is not destroyed by wicked people; it is not necessary that people be wicked but only that they be spineless. (55)
  • The real reason that non-violence is considered to be a virtue in Negroes…is that white men do not want their lives, their self-image, or their property threatened. (59)
  • …the power of the white world is threatened whenever a black man refuses to accept the white world’s definitions. (69)
  • …the most dangerous creation of any society is that man who has nothing to lose. (76)
  • 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. (81)
  • To accept one’s past – one’s history – is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it. (81)
  • Now, there is simply no possibility of a real change in the Negro’s situation without the most radical and far-reaching changes in the American political and social structure. And it is clear that white Americans are not simply unwilling to effect these changes; they are, in the main, so slothful have they become, unable even to envision them. (85)
  • It is rare indeed that people give. 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…if one cannot risk oneself, then one is simply incapable of giving. (86)
  • …the sloppy and fatuous nature of American good will can never be relied upon to deal with hard problems…and in political terms…necessity means concessions made in order to stay on top. (87)
  • We [Americans] are controlled by our confusion, far more than we know…Privately, we cannot stand our lives and dare not examine them; domestically, we take no responsibility for (and no pride in) what goes on in our country; and, internationally, for many millions of people, we are an unmitigated disaster. (89)
  • We are capable of bearing a great burden, once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is…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. (91)
  • …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. (92)
  • Love 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. (95)
  • Rather, the white man is himself in sore need of new standards, which will release him from his confusion and place him once again in fruitful communion with the depths of his own being. (97)
  • The American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed that collection of myths to which white Americans cling. (101)

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