The Fire Next Time - James Baldwin

There are two parts to this book -

  • The first part is written as a letter of advice to his nephew on the one-hundredth anniversary of emancipation.
  • The second part explores various themes around the growing Nation of Islam movement in the 1950s

Part 1 - The Dungeon Shook

Here are some of the quotes that stood out to me from the first part

You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity.

Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity and fear.

Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar: and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations. You, don’t be afraid.

It will be hard, James, but you come from sturdy, peasant stock, men who picked cotton and dammed rivers and built railroads, and, in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity. You come from a long line of great poets, some of the greatest poets since Homer. One of them said, The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off.

Part 2 - Down At The Cross

To create one nation has proved to be a hideously difficult task; there is certainly no need now to create two, one black and one white.

This part of the book highlights James Baldwin’s meeting with Hon. Elijah Muhammad - the leader of the Nation of Islam, where they discussed each other's views.

James Baldwin uses this section to debate those viewpoints.

Here are some of my takeaways -

  • His motivation to become a minister
  • Communism
  • The lack of will
  • Broken Promises

Motivation to Become a Minister

Before getting to the topic of the Nation of Islam’s advocating for a separate state, James Baldwin describes his motivation for becoming a Christian minister while still in school. He lived in a crime-ridden neighborhood where there was too much temptation for kids his age to turn to a life of crime, and realizing this, James Baldwin decided to join the Church.

For the wages of sin were visible everywhere, in every wine-stained and urine-splashed hallway, in every clanging ambulance bell, in every scar on the faces of the pimps and their whores, in every helpless, newborn baby being brought into this danger, in every knife and pistol fight on the Avenue, and in every disastrous bulletin: a cousin, mother of six, suddenly gone mad, the children parcelled out here and there; an indestructible aunt rewarded for years of hard labor by a slow, agonizing death in a terrible small room; someone’s bright son blown into eternity by his own hand; another turned robber and carried off to jail.

Every Negro boy—in my situation during those years, at least—who reaches this point realizes, at once, profoundly, because he wants to live, that he stands in great peril and must find, with speed, a “thing,” a gimmick, to lift him out, to start him on his way…. And, by an unforeseeable paradox, it was my career in the church that turned out, precisely, to be my gimmick.


James Baldwin makes two observations on the growing influence of communism of the 1950s on some of his viewpoints.

A separate nation (for African Americans as advocated by the Nation of Islam) would only result in a trade of masters, as experience and history have shown. He draws parallels to the revolution in Cuba.

eventually, they do change their situation—as in Cuba—we are menaced more than ever, by the vacuum that succeeds all violent upheavals. We should certainly know by now that it is one thing to overthrow a dictator or repel an invader and quite another thing really to achieve a revolution. Time and time and time again, the people discover that they have merely betrayed themselves into the hands of yet another Pharaoh, who, since he was necessary to put the broken country together, will not let them go.

The fear of the communist influence on the freedom movements in many African nations may have influenced the US Supreme Court ruling that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.

Most of the Negroes I know do not believe that this immense concession would ever have been made if it had not been for the competition of the Cold War, and the fact that Africa was clearly liberating herself and therefore had, for political reasons, to be wooed by the descendants of her former masters. Had it been a matter of love or justice, the 1954 decision would surely have occurred sooner; were it not for the realities of power in this difficult era, it might very well not have occurred yet.

The Lack of Will

The subtle and deadly change of heart that might occur in you would be involved with the realization that a civilization is not destroyed by wicked people; it is not necessary that people be wicked but only that they be spineless.

James Baldwin describes how he was refused service at an airport bar in Chicago because the bartender “thought” he looked underage.

It took a vast amount of patience not to strangle him, and great insistence and some luck to get the manager, who defended his bartender on the ground that he was “new” and had not yet, presumably, learned how to distinguish between a Negro boy of twenty and a Negro “boy” of thirty-seven.

More importantly, James Baldwin was attempting to make the point that, at the moment, none of the other patrons at the Airport Bar attempted to side with James Baldwin and his friends, one of whom was a Korean War Veteran. He was disgusted by spineless people.

…—a young white man standing near us asked if we were students. I suppose he thought that this was the only possible explanation for our putting up a fight. I told him that he hadn’t wanted to talk to us earlier and we didn’t want to talk to him now.

Broken Promises

The American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed that collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world’s most direct and virile, that American women are pure.


This book by James Baldwin ends with the following quote, a call to work together in ending racism -

If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.

If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!