Topic: Entertainment & MediaEvents

Last updated: February 10, 2019

The Fire Next Time and its Impact on the Civil Rights Movement Traditionally when reflecting upon the Civil Rights Movement, James Baldwin typically doesn’t come to mind. His ideals on racial discrimination fall between other predominant figures for the movement such as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. James Baldwin is viewed as one of the first Black writers to significantly create an impact on the revolution known as the Civil Rights Movement. The set of essays seen in his novel, The Fire Next Time, expresses Baldwin’s ideals on the issue of racial discrimination and his proposed solution though writing about his personal experiences living and growing up in a racist America. While Baldwin was writing the novel to express his personal opinion, he also created a voice for the Black community that had been ignored and silenced for far too long. The people rallied behind Baldwin’s ideals, making him a highly influential figure for the revolution, which swept across the nation in the 1950s and 1960s.

Baldwin was clear that in order to solve such a major issue, as the color-line, the country must be capable of shifting their views from that of hatred to that of love. Baldwin addressed that in order to begin this drastic shift in thinking, the nation must reevaluate several institutions that have never been previously challenged such as social oppression, religion, acceptance and beauty. Only when we can all stand back and reassess our ideals, can we make a change.

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America before the Civil Rights Movement was a country of widespread inequality that was imbedded into the past and living generations. This burden of a societal prejudice was then passed onto future generations, allowing discrimination to become a social normality. In the 1950s and early 1960s, this terrible social norm was evident in many alternate forms besides the treatment of the Black man on the sidewalk. The discrimination followed the Blacks home from the streets. They faced very strict limitations on where they were allowed to live and work. These constraints were still implemented even when Black families made the move up North. The restrictions caused Blacks to have to double and triple up families in apartments but even then rent was extremely high. The low income and struggle to find a job, along with the difficult living situation quickly made Harlem and places like it, a ghetto.

The ghetto of Harlem where Baldwin grew up, produced social pressures that he later reflected upon in his novel. Harlem was littered with troubles that terrified Baldwin as a child. “The whores and pimps and racketeers on the Avenue had become a personal menace” (Baldwin 16). This was a usual occurrence because the lack of work, which forced people to find other forms of making a steady income. Baldwin recalls feeling this pressure when he was growing up; “boys dropped out of school and went to work. My father wanted me to do the same…my friends were now ‘downtown’, busy… ‘fighting the man'” (Baldwin 18). In a place where education seemed irrelevant, because the chances to use your degree is slim to none, Baldwin and his peers were faced with the enormous pressure to go into the work force and help their families. At this time Baldwin recalls that the situation was much more hopeless than a cycle of poverty.

Blacks were never really given a choice to escape the poverty and the cycle passed down from father to son. Baldwin recalls that as boys they were, “unable to say what it was that oppressed them except that they knew it was ‘the man’—the white man” (Baldwin 19). They knew they were oppressed and restricted for the reason that they were black and there was nothing they could do that would be able to help that. “There seemed no way whatever to remove this cloud that stood between them and the sun… (Baldwin 19).

For reasons that are intangible, these boys knew where they stood in society and knew they are powerless to the hold it had on them. This invisible force that created fear and hatred for the white man was an unwelcoming concept gifted between generations. In the beginning of The Fire Next Time, Baldwin addresses his nephew, James, in a letter. Baldwin writes to his nephew with justifiable anger, fear and encouragement. The world Baldwin grew up in is different than that his nephew experienced however the same racial discrimination and significant power difference between races still remains. In the case of James, “an innocent country set {him} down in a ghetto in which…it intended that {he} should parish” (Baldwin 7). Baldwin explains that James is in a place all too familiar, where success is not expected because his skin isn’t white. Baldwin continues to advice his nephew, that the only way he can achieve success and defy the prejudice that is his life, he must escape the discrimination, the name calling, and the inferior stereotype that has been trapping him and the Black community for centuries.

However, to defy these restrictions implemented by Whites is to “put himself in the path of destruction” (Baldwin 27). The inter-generational influence creates another form of bred hatred for Whites and for Blacks. Blacks are taught to fear Whites and hate them for their situation and the consistent oppression. On the other hand, Whites are also taught to hate the Blacks as they are the inferior race. Why is this influence so predominant? It is so built in that even today racism is subconsciously shaping people’s treatment towards each other even without actively noticing it.

Baldwin sees this and writes to James that “it is innocence which constitutes the crime” (Baldwin 6). The white community has had to believe that “black men are inferior to white men” (Baldwin 9). The treatment of Blacks has been the same for a long time and the Whites are too ignorant to do anything about it.Baldwin’s radical thoughts about equality and the influential treatment between the races, initially stemmed from his experimentation in his own religious beliefs. Young Baldwin turned to religion while growing up as a refuge from the corruption lurking in the streets of Harlem. Baldwin leapt head first into the Church and immediately became captivated by the preaching and the sermons. However upon getting more involved in the congregation, Baldwin began to question the teachings and what he was preaching to the people.

The corruption he discovered in his Church is what allowed Baldwin to move forward and question not only his religion but also the role of religion in the country and the issues it creates. The Bible contains quite a few discrepancies in the messages it gives to those who follow it. It sends the message that its followers should love everyone, however in context of race, Baldwin found this to be false. It raised the question, “If His love was so great, and if He loved all His children, why were we, the blacks, cast down so far?” (Baldwin 31). It wasn’t until later that young Baldwin made the connection that, “the Bible had been written by white men…according to many Christians I was a descendent of Ham, who had been cursed, and therefore predestined to be a slave” (Baldwin 36). Even in his own refuge, Baldwin was faced with inequality, and this inequality was more profound than that he found in the streets of Harlem. He wasn’t seen as an equal to the white man even in his God’s eyes.

The contradiction of his religion led him to evaluate the way that God’s message is influencing the rest of America, “When we were told to love everybody, I had thought that that meant everybody. But no. It applied to those who believed as we did, and it did not apply to white people at all” (Baldwin 40). The different messages told between whites and blacks from a religious standpoint was only adding to the racial barrier. The Bible tells Black people to love everyone, no matter their sins, their color or status, however the Bible doesn’t expect the White people to reciprocate this ideal.

Blacks are seen as descendants of slaves, and are already set at a level lower than Whites, right from the beginning. It is at this moment when Baldwin realizes that there must be a change. The followings of God are setting up the precedent of inequality among individuals. To start a change in the nation and the way their religion is perceived, one must first change himself and how they perceive God’s message. With the flawed religion in mind, Baldwin suggests in his writings that America should let go of religion and therefore eliminate the expectations that go along with it. In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin faces another form of religious contradiction, this time represented by the Nation of Islam.

The Nation of Islam was known for their blatant hatred of Whites. The leader, Elijah Muhammed truly believed that all Whites were devils. While this is the same mindset that Whites treated and saw Blacks with, Baldwin saw it as wrong all together. The same racial hatred was there, the only difference with the Nation of Islam is that Whites take the place of the Blacks. This shift in who is the inferior race is not a viable solution, only the start of another vicious cycle of the color-line. The hatred that religion created is what Baldwin deemed to be the underlying issue.

Baldwin’s whole focus was making the shift from hate to love and only then can change really be made. With religion there was love, but not love for everyone and therefore it wasn’t a probable component in the solution for racial discrimination. The solution that Baldwin envisioned the country partaking in, is not a simple act that can be enforced over several weeks or years. Baldwin’s solution to the issue of the color-line is one that even to this day, isn’t one-hundred percent implemented. Throughout his novel, The Fire Next Time, Baldwin tackles the concept of acceptance. He believes acceptance is the key to taking a step in the right direction. However Baldwin notices that our country confuses acceptance and integration. White Americans believed that ending slavery and reintroducing the Blacks back into a normal society would promote acceptance.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. The emancipation of slaves and the motion of ending segregation is not allowing a whole community to be accepted, instead it is providing a division with an abrupt and forceful addition of opposite races and lifestyles. Baldwin clearly differentiates between the two concepts; “The reality which lies behind the words acceptance and integration… There is no reason for you to try and become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you” (Baldwin 8). Acceptance is a concept that cannot be forced among individuals or in society, it is something that must be developed independently. Acceptance is a flower that must blossom under love and careful consideration.

For the Black community to be accepted in society, they must in turn, accept those of the white community. Baldwin explains that white people have no other hope in creating acceptance. Blacks must accept the Whites, “and accept them with love” (Baldwin 8).

Integration, as Baldwin describes it, is a love that is forced on our brothers, so they can see for themselves, who they truly are and to stop fleeing from the reality of who they’ve become in order to make a change. (Baldwin 10). Ultimately the solution to the color-line lies in the careful combination of the above concepts.

Black people must first learn to love the white people. They must learn to overlook the troubles that this races has endowed upon them. Hatred only fuels more hatred and fire only fights with fire.

Love and acceptance of past events will create an atmosphere for change. The Black man must come to a realization that the White man is dreadfully innocent in their actions. The way that America has been shaped, White people have seen themselves as superior to Blacks.

This isn’t because people are anxious and at a need for equality, but we as a species are obsessed with the idea of feeling superior (Baldwin 88). Next, the black community must be able to accept who they are and as a community, integrate themselves into society. However, this process of moving towards equality is not a burden or action to be carried out by a single race. According to Baldwin, “everything white Americans think they believe in must now be reexamined” (Baldwin 103). Essentially, in order for the issue of the color-line to be eliminated, the white community needs to stop looking towards the black community for the feeling of being superior. When the Whites can be independent from the Blacks, change can be made because there was room made for the acceptance and integration Baldwin discussed.While Baldwin focused on addressing the issues with a racist America, the issues that the color-line created and how to work towards a solution, he also reflected upon the topic of beauty. Beauty is a theme that doesn’t seem to coincide with the concept of racial discrimination.

In actuality, beauty is a product of racial discrimination. The beauty that Baldwin discusses is the struggle that African-Americans have experienced. Beauty is seen in the love that Baldwin’s nephew was raised with, how James was “loved, hard, at once, and forever, to strengthen you against the loveless world” (Baldwin 7). The pain produced from black suffering ironically provided a way to see an explicit kind of beauty in a world so ugly. This beauty is also specific to the black community. White people have not experienced such pain, rather they have been the ones delivering it.

Therefore the beauty that black people can see in the world is absent for Whites. This absence for white people, creates an obligation among the black community, to teach the white community. To teach the people who oppress them, how to find the beauty in w volatile world. This teaching requires Blacks to take a step back and accept the hardships they as a race have experienced. Baldwin believes that turning the hatred for the white people into teachings of their experience will preserve this unique form of beauty and eliminate the desire for vengeance that people such as the Nation of Islam so craved. To succeed in the search for vengeance, is where Baldwin feared, the destruction of this black beauty would also succeed. The Nation of Islam spoke of Allah’s vengeance on the white people however, “when that vengeance was achieved, What will happen to all that beauty then” (Baldwin 105). The color of one’s skin should not have a value for there is no set value for something beautiful.

“Value placed on the color of the skin is always and everywhere and forever a delusion” (Baldwin 104). Once white people can release the fantasy of their own white innocence, and accept their past actions, they can work towards making an equal America. Just the same, when black people can release their pain of the past, move towards acceptance and teach the white community of their experiences, an equal America seems much more attainable. However this cannot be a one sided movement towards solution, but a combined movement where both races recognize the past and move forward with the memories of what has occurred.


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