Amy has a BA/MA Criminal Justice. Worked with youth for over 20 years in academic settings. Avid reader, history and mystery lover.
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.
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?''
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.''.
Upon meeting Elijah Muhammad, Baldwin describes him as ''...small and slender, really delicately put together, with a thin face, large warm eyes, and a most winning smile.'' Baldwin is drawn to him, and acknowledges to himself that Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam are correct in their observations of how white people treat Blacks.
However, Baldwin is not able to agree with their approach to solving racial issues by destroying white society and creating a separate Black nation. Baldwin, during the dinner, respectfully listens to Elijah's proselytizing on Islam and the white devils but thinks to himself ''I love a few people and they love me and some of them are white, and isn't love more important than color?''
For Baldwin, the Christian church and the Nation of Islam were flipsides of the same extremist coin. Baldwin, when thinking about Elijah, says, ''I felt very close to him, and really wished to be able to love and honor him as a witness, an ally, and a father'' but goes on to admit that ''...we would always be strangers, and possibly, one day, enemies.'' Baldwin was hopeful and believed in the power of love. He could not accept hateful doctrine from the church or Elijah.
The main character in The Fire Next Time is the author himself, James Baldwin. Other characters are those in which he interacted with as he recalled some of his experiences with racism. James Baldwin had hope and love in his heart, despite his negative experiences and observations of white supremacy and was able to see beyond the white and Black divide.
- Another character is Big James, nephew of James Baldwin, whom he addresses in an essay that is written in the form of a letter.
- The Christian church, in which he sought safety in his youth, is in a way a character and played a vital role in Baldwin's life until he got older and became aware of the church's intolerance towards others.
- The Nation of Islam was led by Elijah Muhammad who desired to do great things for the Black community. Baldwin agreed with Elijah and the Nation of Islam on many points, but could not condone the hate of white people and the creation of a Black nation.
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