The Fire Next Time: a review

Dear H-,

Today's activists make a lot of recommendations, but I don't trust their taste or judgment.   On the other hand James Baldwin kept popping up on people's "greatest essayists of all time" charts and Black Lives Matter kept quoting him like a dead saint, so why the hell not?  I picked up The Fire Next Time and gave him a go. 

His position on the chart was well-earned.  James Baldwin was an honest man with a great soul in a bad place in the wrong skin at the wrong time.  His hard days as a post-war black kid, a portrait of his own emotional scars and distrust of whites, is chronicled here vividly and honestly; and for those of us who are cynical toward the ideas and the motives of black activists in general, Baldwin might be the first to not only make us really consider what it's like to be black in America, but to make a staunch conservative sympathize with even the worst parts of our civil rights legislation.

One thing that's lacking in Mr. Baldwin's commentary on the pre-Civil-Rights black experience is the same thing that's missing in our commentary about the post-Civil-Rights black experience: an inability for many black people to see past the black experience.  People say that writers should write what they know.  But what so many black activists and writers are missing is there's a world beyond what they know, and it's something you get from what's known as a liberal education.  Baldwin seems to be convinced that at some point in history, race was invented to justify oppression.  But it was neither invented, as he believes, nor invented recently.  He writes,  

[White Christians] have forgotten that the religion which is now identified with their virtue and power[…] came out of a rocky piece of ground in what is now known as The Middle East before color was invented […].
We agree that the idea of race can cause problems for modern men; but if it does, the idea of tribe was equally pernicious to the ancients.  Mr. Baldwin, for a man who claimed to have a serious conversion to Christianity, seems to be completely ignorant of the "interactions" between the Jews and the Moabites; between the Jews and the Canaanites; between the Jews and the Samaritans; between the Jews and practically everyone, really -- and he seems to be ignorant in a way that almost completely excuses the Jews from any accusations of racism.  He forgets that (despite Moses' commanding the Israelites to treat foreigners with humanity) Jews were only allowed to enslave foreigners; that Jews were only allowed to practice usury on non-Jews; that Jews (as a race) had been supposedly enslaved by the Egyptians; and that the Apostle Paul, speaking in an age which Mr. Baldwin describes as being before the scourge of racism, says the body of Christ prefers none of the races, almost immediately before going on to describe how all the Cretans were liars.  

James Baldwin
He also seems to forget that beyond Biblical history, the ancient Greeks referred to everyone who wasn't Greek as barbarians; that the term slave originated
from the term Slav; that the Indian color-based caste system was as rigid as it is ancient; that the Spartans had formally and permanently enslaved the Helots; that the Romans and Persians and Babylonians and Greeks and the Muslims* tried to enslave practically everyone who wasn't them; and that ancient history, if it isn't loaded with tales of outright genocide and oppression, was a time when many people were okay with sexually enslaving a neighboring territory's women only because the territory was neighboring.  The conquering of peoples in the ancient world, if not done in terms of race, wasn't very different from it; and if racial slavery is an evil invented by white men after centuries of what Mr. Baldwin misperceives as something-like-equality, those centuries of something-like-equality occurred only after white people and Christians had fought bravely to end centuries of the practice of slavery.

What Baldwin also seems to forget is that white men have been very comfortable enslaving each other.  The history of Christian Europe, aside from its conflicts with the swarthy god of the Muslims, is a history of intra-racial warfare and serfdom and conquering; and England, which Mr. Baldwin derides because of its racial colonization, was itself a subjected colony of the Normans, who enforced a racial/class divide not entirely unlike that experienced by blacks in America. (and it's hard to blame Baldwin for his ignorance of Scotland, when so many white Americans just learned about William Wallace and prima noctae** from Braveheart). 

What black activists have forgotten is that the answer to our problems isn't an elimination of the idea of race.  And the black and white supremacists, on the other hand, have forgotten how segregation goes deeper than colors.  Wherever we go, the diversity of clans and cultures, of talents and spirits, of appearances and pire chance will breed some of us who win and others who lose; and the winners will almost always separate themselves as a class -- while subjecting and despising the losers.  An attempt at eliminating differences between people will never eliminate dominance of people by people.  It will only shift supremacy based on talent, which gives some sense of legitimacy to an already horrible situation, to a supremacy based on quotas, which turns losers into leaders -- who will only lead us toward losing.  The question isn't whether some people are supreme in any situation.  It is how they got there and what they do with their supremacy.

Strangely enough, there are some striking resemblances of Baldwin's theories to those of Edmund Burke's, and especially insofar as both men respect not what we say about ourselves, but what we do with what we are.  Aside from the similarity between Baldwin’s It is not necessary that people be wicked but only that they be spineless and Burke’s The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing, Baldwin notes in one passage, speaking of the growing popularity of the Nation of Islam, that
 In order to change a situation one has to see it for what it is[…]. The paradox – and a fearful paradox it is – is that the American Negro is unwilling to accept his past.  To accept one’s past – one’s history – is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it.
Both men despised the half-baked notions of quack-religionists and bad political scientists -- that we can magically change who we are by inventing a new history and a new political system to live in; and if Mr. Baldwin appeared to side with the 60's progressives, his philosophy in this respect mirrored that of England's original conservative.  We only wish he'd taken his own advice.  Baldwin was naive in thinking that by eliminating race and religions and totems and creeds -- in another word, by eliminating our humanity -- we could eliminate the worst parts of our history, and the distinguishing between peoples.   Jesus said the poor would always be with us.  He might have just as easily said those unfairly oppressed by their identity.  He have said the American blacks

Mr. Baldwin has more suprises for us.  While in certain aspects he mirrors Burke, in others he resembles the Whig historian and master essayist Macaulay.  In Macaulay's essay on Mirabeau, he insisted that the difference between the French and American and Glorious Revolutions was a matter not of how different the French and English and Americans were from one another naturally, but how badly they had been enslaved by their oppressors, and thus how little they had been able to exercise their virtues***. The Fire Next Time seems to parallel Macaulay’s argument about the social effects of liberty and tyranny -- that after the Civil Rights Movement, a black neighborhood is most likely to be a bad neighborhood; like Macaulay said the French government after the Revolution was incapable of being a good government****.  Decades of bloodshed and terror followed the destruction of the Bastille.  Could we expect anything less, or for any shorter period of time, from a people who were never allowed their own country, and had to make it through Jim Crow*****?

But the most interesting thing about The Fire Next Time -- and it can't be stressed enough how interesting this book is, if it isn't always helpful -- is Mr. Baldwin's idea of the nature of inclusion.  Foregoing the leftists demands, that white men must learn to accept blacks, Mr. Baldwin flips the notion on its head, insisting that it's blacks who should learn to accept whites.  A history of oppression can't easily be erased with a few laws and the singing of Kumbaya.  Whites alone don't have a monopoly on hate and distrust.  Both races must judge individuals honestly.  Both of us have to give each other a chance -- in fact, multiple chances, as there are and will be multiple wrongdoings.  Ending racial problems isn't just white people considering what it means to be black.  It's also black people getting outside of the black experience and considering how it feels to be white.  Whites have to stand against white racism -- and black men have to stand against black.  Black men will have to consider the world not only in terms of the black experience, but by examining oppression and freedom and forgiveness in light of the totality of history.  They'll have to leave the black race, in a sense, and become something much bigger; as though the heritage of liberty and equality really is their history, and their struggles aren't a separate volume in the annals of human progress, but in a universal sense only the most recent chapter.  This will be the foundation for the new society -- and we will never have the new society until both sides are ready to do it.  Baldwin was sharp enough to see this, and that's one of the many reasons each of us should read Baldwin.


*Christopher Hitchens wrote a pretty interesting essay on Thomas Jefferson's run-in with Muslim pirates, explaining not only that around 1.5 million Europeans and Americans were enslaved in Islamic North Africa between 1530 and 1780, but that Thomas Jefferson, when he contacted Tripoli's ambassador to London in 1785, was told "it was written in the Koran, that all Nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon whoever they could find and to make Slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Mussulman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise."  Baldwin's ignorance concerning our history is depressing; and at least partially the fault of white Americans, who (perhaps in their own obsession with themselves) haven't only failed to tell the stories of the other races, but whose supremacy was purchased at the cost of an ignorant, and thus significantly less sensible black America. 

**What Mel Gibson so conveniently forgot to mention in Braveheart was that prima noctae, or a lord's "right" to deflower another man's bride on the night of her wedding, was first enforced (according to Macaulay) by Scottish nobles against Scottish peasants.   Even without the "racial" divide between English and Scots, the reigning Scots found the most offensive ways to violate their Scottish subjects -- a lesson Baldwin would have been wise to admit, if he'd only been aware of it.

***Macaulay writes in the essay on Mirabeau: It is not true that the French abandoned experience for theories. They took up with theories because they had no experience of good government. It was because they had no charter that they ranted about the original contract. As soon as tolerable institutions were given to them, they began to look to those institutions. In 1830 their rallying cry was "Vive la Charte". In 1789 they had nothing but theories round which to rally. They had seen social distinctions only in a bad form; and it was therefore natural that they should be deluded by sophisms about the equality of men. They had experienced so much evil from the sovereignty of kings that they might be excused for lending a ready ear to those who preached, in an exaggerated form, the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people.  

We might just as easily say that black men, so accustomed to hearing about the inequality between whites and blacks, might easily be persuaded that all men are equal -- something easily disproved not even by a comparison between blacks and whites, but by a comparison between the best and the worst blacks. 

****This was written about two weeks before reading Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me, which made clear that since the Civil Rights Era, a new middle-class black community has escaped the ghetto to run their own successful neighborhoods, complete with prejudice against the lower-class blacks they left behind.  Division, whatever Baldwin believes about race, is natural.

*****It's worth mentioning that for all Macaulay and Baldwin wrote on the subject, their words can be summed up in a single Biblical passage: that under three things the earth trembles; under four it cannot bear up -- and the first thing it mentions is a slave who becomes king.