Summary: Two essays from 1963.
Since I saw the documentary I am Not Your Negro, about James Baldwin, I have been wanting to read more of him. This is my second book this year and I am planning on reading at least one of his novels before the end of the year.
I knew that many people compare Ta-Nehasi Coates to James Baldwin. But it was not until I read We Were Eight Years in Power that I realized that Coates’ Between the World and Me was a conscious effort to write a modern version of The Fire Next Time. Coates wanted something that was short, powerful and personal. And that is what The Fire Next Time is.
There are two essays here. Between the World and Me is more consciously emulated after the first, a short letter to Baldwin’s nephew on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Declaration. (Coates writes Between the World and Me as a letter to his son.)
The much longer (roughly 80% of The Fire Next Time) section is Down at the Cross. This is an essay about Baldwin’s understanding of the implications of historic racism for him personally. Much of it is about his grappling with faith. Christianity, which is where Baldwin started as a boy preacher, gets a lot of credit for saving Baldwin so that he could become a writer. But Baldwin eventually moves on because the Christianity of his world is not Christian enough to actually address the problems of race either by focusing on the radical repentance or the radical forgiveness that would be necessary to deal with the sin and result of racism.
Baldwin also flirts with but similarly rejects the Black power understanding of Elijah Mohammad and the Nation of Islam, although he appreciates parts of it as well.
As I have thought since I originally watched I am Not Your Negro, part of what it means to be a Christian is to wrestle with the implications of a faith (which I believe in) that rightly is criticized by Baldwin and many others for not being real enough to solve a very tangible problem like racism.
It goes beyond the problem of all people being sinful. Racism is the best example I know of, of the millstone that Jesus speaks of. If we are serious about faith, books like this should drive us not only to our knees in repentance (and it should), but to do something about sins that drive people from faith.
Racism (and more particularly the type of White Supremacy that believes that Whites are literally better than non-Whites, contradicting the basic theology of all people being equally created in the Image of God) is sin. But it is also sin to not stand up against sin that harms others.
I read The Fire Next Time, I think like I was supposed to, in a single sitting. (Or more accurately I listened to this all at once on a Saturday while doing chores and going for a walk.) It is just over 2 hours. I want to read it again in print.