I had a wonderful week: I spent it with James Baldwin's essays in The Fire Next Time and Notes of a Native Son. I first fell in love with with Baldwin's prose a few years ago with Sonny's Blues and now finally got around to reading some of his brilliant non-fiction works.
Published in 1955, Notes of a Native Son was James Baldwin’s first collection of non-fiction. The ten essays include autobiographical writing about his experiences from growing up in Harlem and life as a black American in the United States as well as abroad. The first three pieces are discussions of the protest novel and the representation of black people in US culture. These are full of sharp analysis and conclude that misrepresentation in the media can be at least as hurtful to a social group as a lack of representation. Yet, it is the other essays that make this collection so truly brilliant. The honesty, the hurt, the bitterness, but also the hope with which he investigates his own experiences is heart-breaking and eye-opening. Baldwin’s presentation of the unfairness of racism is powerful in its frankness. Despite the moments of bitterness you always see him look for the best in his fellow humans, the points of intersection where reconciliation is possible and hope for a better future exists.
While I would have gladly read on an on, I am happy that Notes of a Native Son is such a small book, easily put in a bag to be carried everywhere, so that I can dive back into it at any point.
The Fire Next Time was first published in 1963, influenced by and giving a voice to the civil rights movement in the USA. The book consists of two letters, one to his fourteen year old nephew James, the other to the public “from a Region in My Mind,” and discusses his childhood in Harlem, religion and the devastating consequences of system racism and racial injustice.
Baldwin has certainly been an author many have picked up in 2020 in an attempt to educate themselves on the logics and reality of racism and sadly it remains terrifyingly timeless. In the first, shorter letter to his nephew, Baldwin elaborates how those who need to believe they are white determine what it means to be black, and how those who believe them (like his own father did) will be destroyed by this definition. The letter is an incredibly personal account of his own experiences with racism and how it affects his loved ones. Does it even mean anything to say you are white? Yes, but only because we made it so. Only because white people used and use endless violence to establish and maintain a difference, to build a hierarchy, to oppress and rule. But Baldwin is a hopeful writer, his language is full of love. He uses love against the hate – towards white people as the only tool to overcome hatred and build bridges between people and social groups, but also towards black people, such as his nephew, to carry inside them as a shield against the brutality they face.
These themes carry on the in the second letter, “Down at the Cross”, but here Baldwin focuses his discussion on religion and Christianity in particular. Having been a junior preacher as a teenager, before becoming aware that religion itself is man-made and of the oppression inherent in it. Nevertheless, his sermonic origins are reflected in his writing style. It is poetic and disarmingly honest. As Baldwin never loses sight of hope and love, The Fire Next Time does not read as an angry book, though it is certainly conceived of anger. The title itself alludes to this: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!” – it is a warning that next time, there will be no forgiveness.