The Fire Next Time
by James Baldwin

Nobody Knows My Name (1961-the year of the Freedom Riders) and The Fire Next Time (1963-the year of the March on Washington) were first published when the civil rights movement was in full sway across the United States. James Baldwin had already been acclaimed as the successor to Richard Wright and as a leading spokesman for black Americans. His first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), was greeted as an important portrait of black life in the United States; Notes of a Native Son (1955), his first collection of essays, introduced a clear, penetrating voice in the national debate. Giovanni’s Room (1956), focusing on a young man torn between homosexual love and love for a woman, added controversy to praise. In 1962-as James Meredith became the first black student at the University of Mississippi-Another Country, a powerful novel of racial and sexual identity and relationships, added to Baldwin’s renown. A year later The Fire Next Time consolidated his position as one of the country’s most important writers.

By the time of his death in 1987, Baldwin had created an impressive body of fiction, nonfiction, drama, and verse; but it may be argued that he was most in command of his gifts and his audience in his nonfiction of the early to mid-1960s. He remains important as a spokesman against discrimination of every kind and as a moving portrayer of interracial relationships in both the private and public spheres. Perhaps the most enduring "message," expounded from his first book, was the redemptive power of love-understood with both a prophetic, Biblical fierceness and a penetrating secular, everyday clarity of vision forged, Baldwin might argue, as art’s necessary response to American racism’s unrelenting presence. In both fiction and nonfiction he contended unstintingly that blacks and whites must work to understand and accept one another with love. He also insisted that everyone must understand his or her past and present reality, and that one must commit oneself to act upon that understanding. Nor did he soft-pedal the risk: "To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger."

Particularly in his essays—from Notes of a Native Sun onward—James Baldwin directly addressed social, cultural, and personal issues of importance to him as a black man in America and as a writer, and of critical importance to all Americans. Here, as in all his work, he was involved in a search—as an individual, an artist, and a Negro (Baldwin’s term)—for a meaningful, rewarding way of living in a world that constantly throws up barriers to love, understanding, and personal growth and fulfillment. He chronicled this search, this ongoing struggle, through a rich style that draws on a stunning range of idioms, from spirituals to Jamesian stream of consciousness, from evangelical hyperbole to Hemingwayesque understatement and the rhetoric of jazz. In both structure and tone, the elegance of a Beethoven concerto is in counterpoint to the wail of a Bessie Smith blues recording, as Baldwin presents his views on black-white relations, the relationship between the artist and society, relationships between-and among-the sexes, and the interplay between America’s character and destiny.