The Fire Next Time
The Fire Next Time
THE LITERARY WORK
An essay set in the United States in the 1960s; published in 1963.
James Baldwin was born in 1924 in Harlem, New York. As a youth he dodged the perils of his rough neighborhood by preaching in a local church. When he heard his father proclaim that his Jewish friends were damned, however, James grew wary of Christian dogma. Abandoning the church, he moved to Greenwich Village to pursue a career as a writer. His first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, recounts his disillusionment with religion. After its publication, Baldwin went to France hoping to escape the racism that he felt poisoned the United States. A decade later he returned home to join the budding civil rights movement. In The Fire Next Time Baldwin expressed both his frustration with the reluctance of the federal government to deal effectively with segregation in the South and his fear that militant separatists such as Elijah Muhammad might persuade black Americans that integration was a farce.
The civil rights movement
During the Second World War, the United States had fought alongside Great Britain to defend the self-determination of European countries against Nazi Germany. As the war ended, British officials were forced to concede that the British colonial administrations in countries like India and Nigeria infringed on the native peoples’ right to govern themselves. Reluctantly the British responded to protests within these countries by dismantling the colonial governments. As many of the peoples of Africa and Asia wrested their independence from Britain, blacks in the United States, inspired by changes abroad and dissatisfied with the sluggish rate of progress at home, struggled to change the restrictive laws and customs that divided black Americans and white Americans.
Although the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 had put an end to chattel slavery, state laws mandating segregation reduced the citizenship of blacks to little more than a sham. In 1896 Homer Plessy had challenged these laws by defying a Louisiana state statute requiring railroad companies to provide separate cars for whites and blacks and making it a crime for any passenger to take a seat in a car reserved for the other race. Plessy had argued that the law violated his constitutional rights. He appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to enjoin the judge in his case, John Ferguson, from continuing proceedings against him. The Supreme Court rejected Plessy’s appeal and dismissed his argument on the grounds that separate, but supposedly equal, facilities were constitutionally legal. This landmark decision temporarily gave federal sanction to state laws requiring or allowing segregation.
In 1952, Linda Carol Brown, a black girl living in Topeka, Kansas, challenged the precedent set by Plessy v. Ferguson. Denied admission to an all-white school, Brown appealed to the federal courts, contending that the denial violated her constitutional rights. Because of the significance of the case, the Supreme Court took jurisdiction. In 1954 the court overturned Plessy v. Ferguson in Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, agreeing with the student that separate facilities were inherently unequal. This monumental ruling heralded a decade of unprecedented changes in the legal rights of minorities in the United States.
Martin Luther King Jr. and passive resistance
Atlanta, Georgia, native Martin Luther King Jr. would become the most celebrated leader of the U.S. civil rights movement in the twentieth century. Ordained as a minister in 1947, King attended Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, and then Boston University, where he earned a doctorate in philosophy. King married and, in 1952, returned with his wife to the South. In 1954 King accepted the pastorate of a church in Montgomery, Alabama.
Soon after King’s arrival in Montgomery, racial tensions erupted. On Montgomery’s city buses, the seats in the front rows were reserved for whites and the back rows, located over the engines, for blacks. In a bus crowded with blacks, the black passengers who could not sit in the back had to stand—even if all the seats in the front rows were empty. It was furthermore not allowed for blacks and whites to sit in the same row. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a black seamstress, took a seat in the first row of the black section. Several whites then boarded the bus, and one was left standing. When the driver noticed this, he instructed the four blacks in Parks’s row to stand up and let the white man take a seat. Parks alone kept refusing to stand up, whereupon she was arrested and jailed.
Responding to Parks’s arrest, a coalition of black ministers created the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), with King as the organization’s president. King delivered fiery orations, framed in the cadences of a preacher, that roused the black community of Montgomery. Recalling a lecture he had attended at the Crozer Seminary on Mohandas Gandhi, an Indian leader who led a peaceful revolt against British rule in India, King organized a nonviolent boycott of the Montgomery buses. Tensions escalated.
The boycott started on December 5, 1955. When the boycotters organized a voluntary car-pool to provide transportation, Montgomery police began to stop and arrest black automobile drivers. On January 26, 1956, police arrested King himself, and four days later hooligans bombed his house. Standing outside his ruined house, King entreated his angry supporters to remain calm. “If you have weapons,” he pleaded, “take them home; if you do not have them, please do not seek to get them” (King in Fairclough, pp. 24-5). This show of fortitude reassured the boy-cotters. The MIA made its boldest demand, insisting that buses be completely desegregated.
On November 13, 1956, nearly a year after the boycott began, the Supreme Court ruled that Alabama’s bus segregation law discriminated against blacks and was therefore unconstitutional. This landmark decision suggested that the federal courts might eventually invalidate all state laws that allowed discrimination. For King this was the first of a number of triumphs.
The success of the boycott propelled King to the forefront of national politics. He became the unofficial spokesman for the movement for integration. Inspired by King’s example, blacks throughout the South staged sit-ins to protest segregation. King’s eloquent orations, sprinkled with quotes from famous documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation, continued to turn the nation’s attention to the plight of blacks.
Yet it was not until 1963, after a pivotal clash between civil rights protesters and local authorities in Birmingham, Alabama, that King finally received the committed support of the federal government. Hoping to provoke Sheriff Theophilus “Bull” Conner, an infamous official who never hesitated to use force, King organized an enormous demonstration composed of black schoolchildren. Conner directed the police to use attack dogs and fire hoses to disperse the crowds. Telecasts of German shepherds snapping at children’s faces outraged the nation, and President John F. Kennedy intervened. Persuaded by federal officials, the white businessmen of Birmingham agreed to integrate their stores. King’s success in Birmingham seemed to prove his contention that “non-violent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom and human dignity” (King in Clark, p. 23).
Later in 1963, King led the March on Washington, an assembly of over 250,000 people, in support of a civil rights bill before Congress. The bill, passed in 1964, banned segregation in all public accommodations, including hotels, restaurants, shops, and theaters. Another piece of legislation, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, outlawed the discriminatory measures used in the South to prevent blacks from voting.
The Nation of Islam: Militant resistance
While blacks in the South applauded King’s triumphs, blacks in the slums of the North rallied around a different set of leaders. Prior to World War II, the Nation of Islam, a black nationalist movement, had captured the attention of thousands of blacks in Northern cities. Whereas King encouraged peaceful demonstrations to further integration, leaders for the Nation of Islam advocated separatism and militancy.
The Nation of Islam’s roots stretched back to the early 1930s, when a mysterious peddler named W. D. Fard wandered the streets of the black community in Detroit. He sold raincoats and umbrellas, but also silks and artifacts that, he explained to his clients, were the same kind used by the peoples of Africa and the Middle East. Along with his exotic wares he carried a copy of the Bible, which he used to expound on the history of mankind.
Fard did not, however, preach traditional Christianity. He used the Bible because it was the only religious text with which his audience was familiar. Carefully interpreted, he explained to his listeners, it could serve until they were acquainted with the Holy Koran, the genuine text of the black man’s religion.
Fard enchanted his followers with tales about Asia and Africa and his version of the first people, black people, to roam the earth. As his prestige grew, Fard delivered vitriolic condemnations of both Christianity and white people. He declared that he had come to arouse the black people of the United States and vanquish the whites who oppressed them.
Fard called his movement the Lost-Found Nation of Islam. He contended that Islam was the true religion of the black race, and that Christianity had merely been foisted upon blacks to subdue them. Christian whites promised a blissful hereafter, he elaborated, to ensure that blacks remained docile and submissive in the present. Furthermore, Fard argued, blacks were not Americans and owed no loyalty to a government that offered them no protection from “the depravities of the white devils [who] by their tricKnology ... keep our peoples illiterate to use as tools and slaves” (Fard in Lincoln, p. 16).
In 1934, after having won over eight thousand adherents, Fard disappeared. His followers insisted he had died in prison as the result of police brutality, whereas some policemen insinuated he had been ousted by competing factions within the Nation of Islam. Fard was succeeded by Elijah Muhammad, one of his most zealous adherents.
Muhammad’s unrestrained condemnations of the white race and his assurances that the superior black race would soon rise to take its rightful place as the ruler of the earth captivated his audiences. Muhammad advocated the formation of a separate black nation. “To integrate with Evil,” he warned his followers, “is to be destroyed with evil .... We want, and must insist upon an area in this land that we can call our own” (Muhammad in Lincoln, p. 95). He demanded that the U.S. government cede territory to his followers in recompense for the historical crime of slavery. “[Black people] worked 300 years without a pay day,” he pointed out. “We feel that we’ve got something due us, and I don’t mean this phony integration stuff (Muhammad in Lincoln, p. 96).
The Nation of Islam grew to number over a hundred thousand members. Inspired by spokesmen for the Nation who visited prisons and reformatories, rehabilitated criminals swelled the ranks of Muhammad’s following. Heroin addicts, obeying Muhammad’s injunction against drugs, kicked their habits and began lives of moderation and restraint. Once they came under Muhammad’s influence, few were ever arrested again.
Nevertheless the Nation of Islam had many detractors. Skeptics insisted that Muhammad exploited the frustration of blacks in the United States to finance his pursuit of fame. Baldwin himself believed that Muhammad merely gave his followers a “false morale by giving them a false sense of superiority.” “It will always break down in a crisis,” he warned. “That’s the history of Europe simply; it’s one of the reasons that we are in this terrible place” (Baldwin in Clark, p. 60).
Yet even the most derisive critics could not deny that Elijah Muhammad had accomplished impressive goals. “Mr. Muhammad may be a rogue and a charlatan,” one black journalist wrote, “but when anybody can get tens of thousands of Negroes to practice economic solidarity, respect their women, alter their atrocious diet, give up liquor, stop crime, juvenile delinquency and adultery, he is doing more for the Negro’s welfare than any current leader 1 know” (Schulyer in Lincoln, p. 142).
The Nation of Islam won national attention when the eloquent and charismatic spokesman Malcolm X dared to challenge the more moderate tenets of Martin Luther King Jr. His assertions that King, a leader revered throughout the country, had hindered the emancipation of blacks in the United States sparked debates that divided civil rights activists.
Upon his release from prison on parole in 1952, Malcolm X went to Chicago to join Muhammad’s movement. He soon emerged as the Nation of Islam’s most prominent speaker. Malcolm X decried King’s support of nonviolence, and dismissed King’s campaign in Birmingham. “Any time dogs have bitten black women, bitten black children,” he protested, “and the one who advocates himself as their leader is satisfied in making a compromise or a deal with the same ones who did this … it’s a sellout” (Malcolm X in Clark, p. 43).
In response to Malcolm’s allegations that his approach pleased whites, King rejoined, “If anyone has ever lived with a non-violent movement in the South … and seen the reactions of many of the extremists and reactionaries in the white community, he wouldn’t say that this movement makes … them comfortable. I think it arouses a sense of shame within them” (King in Clark, p. 26).
James Baldwin explained some of the conflicts between the two leaders. He pointed out that many of the blacks living in the North had fled the South during the first half of the century hoping to find a promised land free of racism. When they found instead crime-ridden slums terrorized by bigoted policemen, it shattered their optimism. King’s quest for integration could hardly appeal to them. Most blacks of his day, Baldwin explained, “dismiss white people as the slightly mad victims of their own brainwashing” (Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, p. 116). “Do [blacks],” Baldwin wondered, “really want to be integrated into a burning house?” (The Fire Next Time, p. 108).
“Martin’s a very rare, a very great man,” Baldwin insisted, “[but] he has [no moral authority] whatsoever in the north” (Baldwin in Clark, p. 60). Although he applauded King’s use of nonviolence, Baldwin admitted “you can only survive so many beatings, so much humiliation, so much despair, so many broken promises before something gives” (Baldwin in Clark, p. 58). Baldwin pointed out that the protesters represented only a fraction of the black population of the United States. “There [are] many, many, many, many more,” he warned, “who [have] given up, who [are] desperate and whom Malcolm X can reach” (Baldwin in Clark, p. 59).
Nevertheless, Baldwin did not approve of Malcolm’s campaign. He thought it dangerous to build pride on a foundation of lies. He agreed with Malcolm that blacks should be proud of being black, but did not agree that blacks were innately superior to whites. “What [Malcolm] does,” Baldwin explained, “is say ’You’re better because you’re black.’ Well, of course that isn’t true. That’s the trouble” (Baldwin in Clark, p. 59).
MALCOLM’S BREAK WITH THE NATION OF ISLAM
Malcolm X’s views changed after 1963, the year Baldwin’s essay was published. He broke with the Nation of Islam and took a trip to the Middle East, where he learned about genuine, orthodox Islam. Upon his return, Malcolm tempered his anti-white rhetoric and encouraged blacks to unite with sympathetic whites. He denounced Elijah Muhammad as a racist and a fraud. On February 21, 1965, as he took the podium to speak at a ballroom in Manhattan, Malcolm was shot and killed. Three black Muslims were convicted of the murder, although many contested the validity of the convictions. Years later, Talmadge X Hayer, one of the three convicted, said that he had in fact committed the murder, but that the other two men were innocent.
In sum, Baldwin saw merits and flaws in the strategies of both King and Malcolm X, and they themselves adjusted their viewpoints over the years. Malcolm is said to have often remarked in private that he respected King immensely and felt that his own antagonistic presence made it more possible for King’s movement to reach its goals. King, on the other hand, developed a new appreciation for the obstacles faced by Malcolm and other Northerners after living in Chicago for a while and campaigning for civil rights there. Affected by their separate experiences, the viewpoints of the two black leaders grew closer together toward the end of their lives.
Before describing his encounter with Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, Baldwin retells the story of his own break from the Christian church. As a child in Harlem he suffered a religious crisis when he was fourteen. Not only had the developing forms of schoolgirls tempted his eyes away from the pages of the Bible, but his friends were beginning to drink, use drugs, and drop out of school. Watching the hookers and drug dealers on the corner, Baldwin had realized that for his generation crime was not “a possibility, but … the possibility” (The Fire Next Time, p. 35).
Desperate to find some escape from this fate, he took refuge in religion. Avoiding the church where his own domineering father preached, Baldwin began attending services with a school friend. Although he enjoyed the music and drama of the ceremony, he realized “I could not remain in the church merely as another worshipper. I would have to give myself something to do” (The Fire Next Time, p. 46). Out of a “deep adolescent cunning” (The Fire Next Time, p. 46), he became a young minister, preaching from the pulpit for over three years. He enjoyed the attention, especially when people left his father’s church to come hear him.
On April 5, 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered the flag flown at half-mast and proclaimed the following Sunday to be a day of national mourning. A day earlier, Martin Luther King Jr., standing on the balcony of a motel room in Memphis, Tennessee, discussing plans to support striking city workers, had been shot and killed. Blacks poured into the streets of the nation’s cities and, in an eruption of grief and rage, looted and burned places of business. More than 40,000 police, joined by over 30,000 soldiers, suppressed the riots. By April 11, 46 people had been killed and over 35,000 injured. “I remember the sick feeling that came over me,” President Johnson wrote, “as I saw black smoke from burning buildings fill the sky over Washington” (Johnson in Fairclough, p. 124)
Some of Baldwin’s Jewish school friends, however, questioned him about his faith. They pointed out that, according to Christianity, blacks were descendants of Ham and therefore predestined to be slaves. “As I taught Sunday school,” Baldwin confesses, “I felt that I was committing a crime in talking about the gentle Jesus, in telling [the children] to reconcile themselves to their misery on earth in order to gain the crown of eternal life” (The Fire Next Time, p. 53). Baldwin admitted to himself that his bursts of eloquence in the pulpit were not moments of sincere inspiration, but rather attempts to outdo his father.
The essay recounts how distancing himself from the pulpit allowed Baldwin to consider Christianity within a historical context. He realized that the Christian church had been used to sanctify not only European conquests in Africa but also slavery in America. “Whoever wishes to become a truly moral human being,” the essay counsels, “must first divorce himself from all the … hypocrisies of the Christian church” (The Fire Next Time, p. 61).
Baldwin had heard of Elijah Muhammad long before he finally met him. “I paid little attention,” he explains, “because the burden of his message did not strike me as very original” (The Fire Next Time, p. 61). It was not until he noticed that the police in Harlem were hesitant to disperse the crowds gathered around spokesmen for the Nation of Islam that Baldwin began to listen.
The spokesmen insisted that white people were devils whose reign over the earth would soon come to an end. God is black, they explained, and black people are superior to whites. It was not the theology, however, that impressed Baldwin, but rather the fact that the Nation of Islam had done what decades of political wrangling and social reform had failed to achieve. It had helped drug addicts break their habits, kept ex-convicts from returning to prison, and invested blacks with a sense of pride.
When Elijah Muhammad invited Baldwin to dinner at his stately mansion in Chicago, Baldwin accepted. The two were joined by several of Muhammad’s adherents who, as their leader spoke, chimed in “Yes, that’s right .... The white man sure is a devil” (The Fire Next Time, p. 79). Baldwin listened while Muhammad explained that Allah—the Islamic God—allowed the devil to create the white man, but has grown anxious to restore peace to the world by destroying him.
In Baldwin’s eyes, “there is nothing new in this merciless formulation except for the explic-itness of its symbols and the candor of its hatred” (The Fire Next Time, p. 81). He felt inclined to disagree with Muhammad, and to point out that Baldwin himself has white friends. He hesitated, however, knowing that this assertion would seem flimsy when weighed against the horrors of the black experience in the United States.
Leaving Muhammad’s mansion, Baldwin could not escape the sense that Muhammad regarded
him with skepticism. Baldwin felt he had failed some sort of test. For his part, although he admired Muhammad’s charisma and conviction, he did not accept his views. He admitted that it was hardly surprising that hundreds of thousands of blacks, having endured insufferable humiliations, were eager to believe that they are superior to whites. Elijah Muhammad, who insists that whites are devils, deserved no more censure than the preachers who for hundreds of years alleged that the descendants of Ham were destined for slavery. But Baldwin cautions that “the glorification of one race and the consequent debasement of another … has been and always will be a recipe for murder” (The Fire Next Time, p. 96).
Baldwin concludes his essay with another caution. The rise of the Nation of Islam, he warns, should have alerted white legislators to the fact that there is a dangerous faction of American blacks who are not content to limit themselves to passive resistance. “The intransigence and ignorance of the white world,” he warns, “might make … vengeance inevitable … no more water, the fire next time!” (The Fire Next Time, p. 120).
Baldwin’s view of black-white relations
In an introductory note addressed “to my nephew” (The Fire Next Time, p. 15), Baldwin warns that one must beware of the words acceptance and integration. “There is no reason for you to try to become like white people,” he explains, “and there is no basis for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you” (The Fire Next Time, p. 22). Warning that many white Americans are too cowardly to abandon the notion that they are somehow superior, Baldwin warns his nephew “the really terrible thing ... is that you must accept them” (The Fire Next Time, p. 22).
Baldwin contends that too many whites have misunderstood the drive for integration. “There appears to be a vast amount of confusion on this point,” he maintains, “but I do not know many Negroes who are eager to be ‘accepted’ by white people, still less to be loved by them; they, the blacks, simply don’t wish to be beaten over the head by whites” (The Fire Next Time, p. 35).
Integration, Baldwin explains, is not a matter of blacks merging with the white majority, for the white majority has already proven itself to be corrupt and spineless. Rather it is up to whites to rise to the standards blacks have set for them by reminding them of the founding principles in the Declaration of Independence and other significant legal documents. Civil rights leaders strove not simply to free blacks from unjust civil codes, but to free whites from the shackles of their own prejudices. The sentiment and ideas he expresses here convey the tenor that underlies the subsequent essay.
Baldwin’s experience with Elijah Muhammad inspired the writing of The Fire Next Time. More specifically, Baldwin’s perspective on race has been attributed to his time abroad. Baldwin’s experience in France may have caused him to differ with Elijah Muhammad. As he adapted to life in a foreign country, Baldwin realized how much he had been shaped by American culture. He noticed, as he watched Algerians and French mingle, that in Europe he was no longer different because he was black, but rather because he was American. “I began to see [America] for the first time,” he admitted (Baldwin in Standley and Louis, p. 15). “If I hadn’t gone away, I would never have been able to see it” (Baldwin in Standley and Louis, p. 15). He returned to the United States to express his conviction that “the Negro has been formed by this nation, and does not belong to any other—not to Africa and certainly not to Islam” (The Fire Next Time, p. 95).
By 1963 Baldwin had already won renown as well as censure for his fiction. The publication of The Fire Next Time, however, made him both a political as well as an artistic figure. President Kennedy invited Baldwin to join other prominent black artists and leaders in a discussion of race relations in the United States. Baldwin didn’t hesitate to castigate Kennedy for failing to quicken the pace of integration.
Many critics, however, were more impressed with Baldwin’s style than his politics. “Despite its still formidable reputation as a central document in the struggle for equality,” one critic complained, “The Fire Next Time turns out to have little of interest to say about the question of racial politics. Its impact comes solely from the fact that it is so exquisitely written” (Teachout in Stine and Marowski, p. 19). Another critic dismissed the essay as “an apologia for Black Muslim theology (or demonology) [which] ends with a mixture of real threats and unreal demands” (Gross in Stine and Marowski, p. 17).
Militant black activists contended that Baldwin’s essay had betrayed his race. They accused him of perpetuating “the self-contempt which for generations the whites had subtly forced Negroes to suffer” (Campbell in Stine and Marowski, p. 15). Baldwin’s entreaties, they asserted, amounted to little more than a sheepish apology for the unpardonable crimes whites had committed.
Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. New York: Dial, 1963.
Clark, Kenneth, interviewer. King, Malcolm, Baldwin: Three Interviews. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1985.
Fairclough, Adam. Martin Luther King, Jr. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990.
Lincoln, Eric. The Black Muslims in America. Boston: Beacon, 1961.
Muhammad, Elijah. The Supreme Wisdom. Chicago: University of Islam, 1957.
Standley, Fred, and Pratt Louis. Conversations with James Baldwin. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989.
Stine, Jean, and Daniel Marowski, eds. Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 42. Detroit: Gale Research, 1984.