JamesBaldwin’s Book The Fire Next Time andItsRelevance in the Twenty-First CenturyAlexandraE. BushUniversityof Pittsburgh Abstract JamesBaldwin’s Book The Fire Next Time andItsRelevance in the Twenty-First CenturyPublished in 1962, JamesBaldwin’s book, The Fire Next Time isa book that reflects on the African-American experience during the Civil RightsEra. Now, over fifty years since its original publication and amidst manycontemporary discussions concerning race and equality in the United States,many of the ideas that Baldwin speaks on feel once again relevant.
In thefollowing paper, I will argue that the central ideas and themes in Baldwin’sbook The Fire Next Time are indeed stillrelevant in the 21st century, not only because he speaks to broad concerns ofthe human spirit, but because Baldwin was contending with issues that are stillexistent in modern American society. By examining recent studies, statistics,and news stories, I will show that concerns of the 1960’s Black American arestill very much alive today, that Baldwin’s work is not irrelevant or dead,and—perhaps most importantly—that there is value in examining history forcommentary on modern concerns.To begin, I will discussseveral core themes and ideas that Baldwin explores in The Fire Next Time. Broadly, the ideas in Baldwin’s book usuallycomment on some combination of two topics: 1) some aspect of universal humanexperience, and 2) concerns as they apply specifically to the Black American.
Generally, I found he most often directs his commentary towards thelatter—which makes sense; he often speaks to and about the Black American, as aBlack American. But this does not mean that Baldwin shies away from touching onlarger truths as they apply to society and humanity. For example, two broader”big picture” concepts he touched on that stuck out were how people think ofand treat death (Baldwin, 1962, p. 91) and on love in context of hate (Baldwin,1962, p. 95).
In this way, Baldwin doesn’t just provide commentary on finite,contextual issues but actually attempts to provide an explanation of thepsychology that leads the American society to the specific challenges it facesas well as the reactions it has to such challenges. I mention the existence ofthese broader ideas now for several reasons. First, the existence of suchcommentary was the first evidence to me as reader and scholar that Baldwin’sideas have not died with the times. When one can speak so effectually onuniversal concerns—universal themes that bridge through every human experience(after all, we are all ultimately subject to both love and death)—it is a firstsign to me that his words would hold against the test of time.More important, however, andperhaps more pertinent to a rigorous academic inspection, were Baldwin’scentral ideas that spoke on topics of race and racism in America and theirapparent causes. There are three central ideas on these topics that I willdescribe in this paper, but do note that there are, of course, other themes andideas that Baldwin spoke on. The following are simply those that I found most compellingand relevant in 21st century American society.
First of these central ideasis that narrow-minded thinking and biases propagated both knowingly andunknowingly by White people is the largest roadblock to progress, as it moldsthe minds of both Black American’s about themselves as well as White America’sexpectations of them. Baldwin (1962) eloquently speaks on this saying:They white men have had tobelieve for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men areinferior to white men. Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you willdiscover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know.
(p. 8) In this way, thenegative image of Black America, despite being “known” to be false, despitebeing legislated against, is difficult to truly dispel, and without explicitattempts to destroy this negative image, progress cannot be made. To examine whether this core idea is still relevant andimportant in the 21st century, it seems important to first ask ifsuch narrow-minded thinking about Black America still exists. In other words,do people still believe that being Black means being “a worthless human being”who is “not expected to aspire to excellence” (Baldwin, 1998, p. 7)? Are suchstereotypes of the Black American still alive today? The answer, unfortunately,is yes.
According to an AP poll reported on by USA Today, “…51% of Americans now express explicit anti-blackattitudes…” (Junius,2012). What exactly “anti-black attitudes”mean, however, is not clear. If we examine data provided by researchers at the Universityof Illinois, however, we can get a better idea of specific modern perceptionsof Black America. According to their data from a 2012 survey, over 20% of Whiterespondents perceived White people as more intelligent than Black people. Inaddition, over 30% of White respondents reported that they believed that Whitepeople work harder than Black people. The study also showed that the majorityof modern Black Americans perceive that inequality is rooted in Blackindividuals not trying hard enough, with a little over 50%agreeing with that statement (Krysan & Moberg, 2016).Basedon these recent studies on the American perception of blackness, it is safe tosay that stereotypical thinking and negative bias against Black ability andeffort still exists today. The next question is whether or not such ideas actuallyimpact Black Americans in negative ways.
According to several studies relatedto education and employer perception, the answer is again yes. In a study done forthe Journal of African American Men, researcherHerbert L. Foster (1995) found that in teachers and non-teachers alike, thereis still plenty of existent stereotypical thinking about Black male students. Inanother study coming out of John Hopkins,it was revealed that “…non-black teachers have significantly lower educationalexpectations for black students than black teachers do” (Gershenson,Holt, & Papageorge, 2016, p.
211). If we examine graduation rates from theNational Center for Education Statistics, we can see that such expectations arenot entirely unfounded. “Nationwide, black students graduated at a rate of 69 percent;Hispanics graduated at 73 percent; whites graduated at a rate of 86 percent” (“StateHigh School Graduation Rates By Race, Ethnicity”, 2012). While it is difficult to point to the reasonfor such troubling statistics, it is indicative of existent inequity both inthe way people think about Black ability and in the actual rates at which theBlack American is able to succeed in existing institutions.
Unsurprisingly,negative perceptions don’t just affect education, but they also affect the job market.In a study done by Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan (2003), theyfound that traditional “black” names were less likely to get a return on aresume compared to names perceived as traditionally “white.” In these ways, wecan see that not only do narrow-minded thinking and biases still exist inAmerican society in the 21st century but also that these ideas shapethe perception of Black America and directly impact Black American’s ability tosucceed and actualize themselves in the world.
From this, we can see thatBaldwin’s idea about the impact of stereotyping being a major road block toprogress is still a relevant and important concern for modern America. Next,I will examine another central idea that Baldwin discusses, which is therelationship between power and whiteness. Namely, Baldwin (1962) sees that thepower of whiteness lies in the institutions we trust to hand down justice—namely,through the police and the criminal justice system. Baldwin implies that it isthrough these systems that racism and injustice can be widely enacted, and,because these are systems we are meant to trust, it makes their abuse towardsthe Black population all the more immoral:In any case, white people, who had robbedblack people of their liberty and who profited by this theft every hour thatthey lived, had no moral ground on which to stand. They had the judges, thejuries, the shotguns, the law— in a word, power. But it was a criminal power,to be feared but not respected, and to be outwitted in any way whatever.
(p. 23)In this way, Baldwin saw the justice systemat the time as having an inherent bias towards Black people that ultimately didnot bring justice for Black Americans. The words “shotguns” necessarily bringsup images of violence and death—all at the hand of the government. Inthe above quote, we see that at the time Baldwin saw the American justicesystem as necessarily being in the hands of White America. Today, this is stilllargely true. Of the nine current Supreme Court Justices (as of December 10,2017), only one is African American (“Current Members”, 2017), and of the 112Justices that have served over the history of the United States, only two(1.78%) have been African-American: Thurgood Marshall (began serving in 1967)and Clarence Thomas (began serving in 1991) (“Justices 1789 to Present”, 2017).With the Black population making up approximately 13% of the overall USpopulation as of 2016, this means our highest courts in the land have not beenadequately representing Black Americans (“QuickFacts”).
Whatabout other facets of the US justice system? When it comes to police officers,approximately 12% are Black (“Police officers”, 2015). Similarly, approximately12% of state judges are Black (Jawando & Anderson, 2016). This means BlackAmericans are proportionately represented in these two jobs. However, accordingto the U.S.
Department of Justice, in 2013, 37% of the male US prisonpopulation were Black; for the same year, 22% of the female US prisonpopulation was Black (Carson, 2014). Both of these percentages show that whilethe percentage of Black police offices and Black judges closely matches theoverall percent of Black people in the general US population, the percentage ofincarcerated Black Americans is extremely disproportionate when compared to thepercentage of Black people in the general US population. This is significant onits own but is even more striking when put in perspective of Whiterepresentation in the same areas. Approximately 77% of the general USpopulation is White (“QuickFacts”) but only 32% of the male prison populationand 49% of the female prison population is White (Carson, 2014).
Additionally,approximately 78% of police officers are White (“Police officers”, 2015), andapproximately 70% of judges are White (Belczyk,2009). So while both White and Black populations areproportionately represented in the office of judges and police officers, Whitepeople are massively underrepresented in the prison population; conversely,Black people are extremely overrepresented in the prison population. Thesestatistics suggest that the institutions of power—specifically those related tothe execution of “justice”—still do not result in fair treatment of BlackAmericans. With these statistics in mind, this point is brought into evensharper relief when we consider the dozens of cases of Black Americans beingkilled or brutalized by police in recent years.
In 2016, the LA Times reportedon what it called “only a handful” of the wrongful deaths of Black Americans bythe police; in all, the LA Times article sited twenty Black American deathsbetween 2012 and 2016 as examples of wrongful killings. Some names such asFreddie Gray, Michael Brown Jr., Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, are likelyfamiliar to readers as these stories and others attracted a lot of mediaattention (Susman, 2016). With these examples of injustice happening all aroundus, it is easy to see that Baldwin’s ideas surrounding power, whiteness, andour institutions of justice are still extremely relevant in 21stcentury America.Finally,I will examine one last central idea from Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. This idea is the idea of integration andidentity.
Throughout his book, Baldwin (1962) discusses the idea that BlackAmerica should not and does not want to integrate into White American society.This is because integration implies a rejection of Black identity as inferiorand an acceptance of White identity as “normal.” Baldwin speaks on this saying,”There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is nobasis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you” (p.8).
In this way, Baldwin recommends against disappearing into the WhiteAmerican society and accommodating the way the White people think Black peopleshould be. Thisidea is perhaps one of the most striking points in the book, both because ofits general pervasiveness as well as its presence and relevance in modernity.In a piece by Orlando Edmonds (2016), Edmonds connects Baldwin’s idea of authenticintegration with the Black Lives Matter movement. Here, he argues that the Black Lives Matter movement’sattitude is a modern embodiment of Baldwin’s thoughts on Black integration. Inthe article, Edmonds quotes Patrisse Cullors who speaks on the Blackauthenticity in Black Lives Matter:”The old civil rights really upheld thenarrative around ‘respectability,’ around what we’re supposed to look like andbe like. Folks in Ferguson said, “No, we’re not your respectable Negro, we aregoing to sag our pants, are going to be ratchet, and we’re okay with that.” Webelieve that have to show up in our full-selves, without closeting parts ofourselves, marginalizing parts of ourselves, and build together.”Here, there is an emphasis on accepting andloving what it can mean to be Black, even if those qualities are not acceptedor seen as positive by White America.
In this way, the Black Lives Matter movementfundamentally rejects the idea that there is something wrong with aspects ofBlack identity simply because they don’t fit into what White people have deemedas normal and appropriate. And interestingly enough, Baldwin has something tosay about why White identity tries to assert its power and opinion over Blackidentity. On the topic he writes, “White Americans find it as difficult aswhite people elsewhere do to divest themselves of the notion that they are inpossession of some intrinsic value that black people need, or want” (Baldwin,1962, p. 94) and “…the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is theloss of their identity” (Baldwin, 1962, p. 8). These points are particularpoignant in modernity as we see the rise of neo-Nazi groups, white nationalism,and the idea of the Alternative Right around America.
Hauntingly, Baldwin’s writingcomes alive before our eyes as the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) definesthe Alt-Right saying, “The Alternative Right, commonly known as the Alt-Right,is a set of far-right ideologies, groups and individuals whose core belief is that ‘whiteidentity’ is under attack…” (“Alt-Right”). In these ways, it is obvious theideas surrounding integration and identity struggle are extremely relevanttoday.ConclusionIn conclusion, JamesBaldwin’s work The Fire Next Time haswords that are still relevant and important today as evidenced by studies,statistics, new stories, and movements throughout modern day America. It iswith a certain reluctance that I have defended this thesis, not because I wishBaldwin to be wrong, but because to see Baldwin’s words in today’s reality isto see the bias, racism, and problematic power structures from over 50 yearsago still alive and well in modern society. Through the studies, statistics, newstories, and movements explored in this paper, it is clear that Baldwin’scentral ideas can be confirmed not just by anecdotal evidence and stories ofpeople’s experience, but by hard numbers and scientific studies of the realityof living as a Black American in the 21st Century. Future researchmay be able to explore the ways in which Baldwin’s words then have impacted thenow, because though it is clear that his words are still relevant, I wonderwhat impact, if any, Baldwin may have had in influencing the way we speak,conceptualize, and ultimately think of the progress made and yet to be madetowards true equality.ReferencesAlt-Right.(n.
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