The Fire Next Time: Characters & Quotes

Instructor: Amy C. Evans

Amy has a BA/MA Criminal Justice. Worked with youth for over 20 years in academic settings. Avid reader, history and mystery lover.

'The Fire Next Time' is a work of nonfiction written by James Baldwin, an author who describes some of his experiences as a Black man in a dominant white American society. In this lesson, we will get to know some of the characters he writes about and explore quotes from the book. Updated: 11/22/2021

Author James Baldwin

James Baldwin was born in 1924 into an American society that was divided along racial lines, despite the end of slavery. His relationship with his father was strained and at times abusive, which is a subject he touches upon in 1963's The Fire Next Time, a work of nonfiction that consists of two essays.

James Baldwin set his own course of life separate from the limitations that he felt his father and larger society sought to place upon him. He grew to become an internationally respected author and activist who explored themes of race, power, sex, and civil rights. Let's take a closer look at The Fire Next Time and get to know Baldwin, his perspective on race, and some of the people he encountered.

Characters and Quotes

The few characters in The Fire Next Time are real-life people that Baldwin interacted with during his lifetime. The main character is himself seeking an identity for himself that was his own, not one imposed on him by his father or white people.

Baldwin's father wanted him to leave school and go to work, but he refused. Baldwin's father worried that his son was headed to a life on the streets and was unsettled by Baldwin's confidence in equality: ''The fear that I heard in my father's voice, for example, when he realized that I really believed I could do anything a white boy could do, and had every intention of proving it...'' terrified his father.

His father feared that ''...the child, in challenging the white world's assumptions, was putting himself in the path of destruction.'' This led to tension, and on occasion, physical violence from his father who, in his fear, was abusive in his efforts to protect him.

Big James

Another character is Big James, Baldwin's namesake nephew. One of the essays in The Fire Next Time takes the form of a letter to Big James, used as a vehicle for Baldwin to express his desire for his nephew, and Blacks in general, to not allow themselves to be defined by white people. Baldwin writes that ''The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you. 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.''

The Christian Church

The Christian church, in many ways, is also a character. To Baldwin at the age of 14, the church was a place of safety from a hostile world. He was not religious, but he was practical, and he knew that street life was full of danger. So when a friend brings him to church, and the woman preacher, who also represents the church, asks him ''Whose little boy are you?'', he eagerly responds to her with ''Why yours.''

The church played a significant role in Baldwin's life, but as he grew older, he also grew in his ability to evaluate and separate his identity. After making a Jewish friend, Baldwin begins to distance himself from the church, which was intolerant of those it viewed as unsaved and/or different. He questions ''...what was the point, the purpose, of my salvation if it did not permit me to behave with love toward others, no matter how they behaved towards me?''

Elijah Muhammad

The character of Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam, proves to be a complicated one. Elijah Muhammad has deep compassion for the plight of Blacks in America and at the same time a deep hate for white people for whom he believes are devils. After Elijah Muhammad sees James Baldwin on a television program that also featured civil rights leader Malcolm X, he invites Baldwin to take a meal at his house.

Baldwin accepts. He has seen the good that the Nation of Islam and its leader in their mission: ''to heal and redeem drunkards and junkies, to convert people who have come out of prison and to keep them out, to make men chaste and women virtuous, and to invest both the male and the female with a pride and a serenity that hang about them like an unfailing light.''.

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