The Fire Next Time  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Fire Next Time is a 1963 book by James Baldwin. It contains two essays: "My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation," and "Down At The Cross — Letter from a Region of My Mind." The first essay, written in the form of a letter to Baldwin's 14-year-old nephew, discusses the central role of race in American history. The second essay deals with the relations between race and religion, focusing in particular on Baldwin's experiences with the Christian church as a youth, as well as the Islamic ideas of others in Harlem.

The book was first published by The New Yorker and owing to its great success, it was subsequently published in book form by Dial Press in 1963, and in Britain by Penguin Books in 1964; both essays in the book had previously been published in The Progressive and The New Yorker, respectively. Critics greeted the book enthusiastically; it is considered, by some, one of the most influential books about race relations in the 1960s. It was released in an audiobook format in 2008 and narrated by Jesse L. Martin.

The book's title comes from the couplet "God gave Noah the rainbow sign / No more water but fire next time" in Mary Don't You Weep, a Negro spiritual.


This book consists of two essays, both examining the problems blacks faced in America in the early 1960s.<ref>"Negro" was the term then in use for African-American and is used interchangeably with the term "black" in this book. The use of both terms in this analysis is therefore reflective of their usage in the book and of the socio-cultural-literary context in which they were written.</ref> Themes other than "the Negro Problem" explored by the book include an examination of the shallowness and ineffectiveness of religious faith and of intergenerational influences and relationships.

The two essays in this book make up what is essentially a three-point dissection of "The Negro Problem" (a euphemism for racial tension) in the America of the early 1960s. The first of these three points is a personal perspective on the experience of being a Negro in America at that time and is developed in both essays: throughout the entirety of the first, and in the extended middle section of the second. In both pieces of writing, the author speaks eloquently, at times with anger and at other times with an almost desperate compassion, of how it feels to live the life of a Negro, with all the racist connotations of that word intact.

In this context, the first essay can be seen as a plea to his young nephew and, by extension, other young Negro men to transcend already simmering anger and adopt a broader, perhaps even compassionate, perspective. This plea can be seen, but not so plainly, also in the writing in the middle section of the second essay, a narration of the author's experience of dining with Elijah Muhammad, a popular and charismatic Negro leader. The other young men in attendance at the dinner are, in many ways, portrayed similarly to the author's nephew; the writing in the section is a similarly phrased and felt plea for broader perspective, deeper thought, and greater understanding.

The second point of dissection in the book is its detailed, unrestrained examination of Christianity and its role in both American society and in the oppression of the Negro race. This examination takes place in the first part of the second essay, in which the author describes, with occasional poeticism, the joy with which he first became involved in the Christian church. He also describes his subsequent growing disillusionment with the church and its teachings. He describes at length how that disillusionment simultaneously deepened and broadened as he became older, detailing what he sees as the church's hypocrisies, developing theories about how the hypocrisies affected and continue to affect American life. He suggests that the only way America can become what it has the potential to become is to abandon Christian teaching.

The third point of examination of "the Negro Problem" is related to the second and is portrayed throughout the book as the narrow, self-deluding limitations of the Christian, American perspective not only on Negro Americans but also on life itself. It is important to note that throughout the book, these limitations are discussed not only in terms of white Americans but also in terms of Negroes. The author suggests that in the same way as whites have been blinded to both their collective and individual truths, so have Negroes. They have bought into what they have been taught to believe and told they must believe and so are fearful of challenging anything that might disrupt the safe, but toxic, status quo.

Throughout the book, the author suggests the way past the Negro Problem. In general, both Negro and white races must transcend what they think they know, believe, understand and fear. He suggests that America, as both a country and an ideal, is handicapped by narrowness of thinking. Only by expanding perception and experience, on both sides, can America and the people living there become fulfilled and honored in the way it can and perhaps should be.


Jacquelyn Dowd Hall wrote an article that focused on the Civil Rights Movement, led by Martin Luther King, building on Baldwin's work. Baldwin's piece examined the issue of racism mainly in his area of Harlem, New York, and Hall emphasized that the racial issue they confronted in America was not a sectional but a national problem.

Another article that expands on Baldwin's new religious view was written by Jon Nilson, a theology professor. In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin focused on how Christianity was corrupted. Observing that Baldwin challenged the Catholic Church, Nilson said that when Martin Luther King was assassinated in April 1968, it almost seemed like The Fire Next Time had come true.

In December 2016 Can I Get a Witness? The Gospel of James Baldwin, a 2016 musical theatrical tribute to James Baldwin by musician Meshell Ndegeocello and based on The Fire Next Time was premiered at the Harlem Stage in Harlem, New York.

See also

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