James Baldwin – The Fire Next Time

The words of “My Dungeon Shook” ring in my ears almost every single day.  Somehow the centerpiece of that ringing is a simple imperative sentence about 3/4 of the way through the final, two-page paragraph:

You, don’t be afraid.

That paragraph, itself, lays out almost every needed inch of the conceptual and emotional terrain needed to make critically informed arguments about race, but does so without a single footnote or 50-cent word.  The sentences are long, but not so as to be confusing or abstract, but instead, they’re the long sentences people really speak in, when they’re not trying to do the things their high school English teachers taught them.

They are also the words, if I recall correctly, with which Michelle Alexander chooses to end The New Jim Crow.   Considering just how chocked full of statistics and policy details that book is, it’s a stunning decision on her part, but if you’re read both, it makes perfect sense.  Baldwin is well aware of every one of those policies (or their 1960’s equivalents) – his writing is very clearly informed by them, though it does not inform its readers about them, sticking in emotional and personal registers to accomplish something similar.

The Fire Next Time – It’s hard to write about this book without just exhorting you to read it.  The idealist in me thinks if I could somehow get the entire white population of the United States to honestly read and attempt to comprehend this book, and then act upon that comprehension, our country would be a much different place.  That’s probably naive, and is also an argument preempted by “Down at the Cross” (the title of the second essay that makes up the book The Fire Next Time):

Here was the South Side–a million in captivity–stretching from this doorstep as far as the eye could see.  And they didn’t even read; depressed populations don’t have the time or energy to spare.  The affluent populations, which should have been their help, didn’t, as far as could be discovered, read, either–they merely bought books and devoured them, but not in order to learn: in order to learn new attitudes.

When people write about this book, they use adjectives like “searing,” “incendiary,” “penetrating,” and those are all right, but they’re not ultimately much better than when someone recommends a great album by saying “it’s just really good.”  Which it probably is, and what more can you say sometimes?

So, enough with the superlatives.  I’ll just go with straightforward description: this is a book written as two essays, “MY DUNGEON SHOOK: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation,” and then “DOWN AT THE CROSS:  Letter from a Region of My Mind.”  The first is one of the more viscerally honest, vulnerable and intimate pieces of writing designed for public consumption I have ever encountered.  That is a really difficult trick to pull off: writing for the public, and also crating a sense of intimacy.  Here, it works.  Its paragraphs unfurl with both crystal-clear logical precision and generous, open-ended feeling.  Its sentences and clauses breathtakingly pivot, double back, create concentric circles of elaborated meaning, and create moments of epiphany – different moments, but equally powerful – each time I read it.

That “you, don’t be afraid,” announces the coda of this piece of music, and in a sweeping historical vision, demands that its audience achieve the impossible (that it is impossible is acknowledged several times through “Down at the Cross”).  The sentence just before it has announced the enormity of the problem:

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.

It’s rare you encounter such a grand cluster of metaphors that somehow succeed in not being overstated.  The letter then moves to its finish with a sentence of simple declarations that never fail to move me:

For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become.  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.  You know, and I know, that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon.  We cannot be free until they are free.  God bless you, James, and Godspeed.  Your uncle, James.

Those lines have the feeling of revealed truth, of an old-testament prophetic voice speaking in the present (it’s from more than 50 years ago, but it’s still boldly and vividly the present).   Like I said before, I read this aloud with almost every one of my classes; what I have yet to develop is the really critical set of interactive activities that might follow, that might allow my students to absorb it more thoroughly.  But I have had multiple students tell me that just reading these essays has been life-changing (which is a good reminder to me – sometimes as a teacher, you just need to get out of the way and let your students encounter texts that you know are good, and let them do what they will at that point), and I have the faith to know that they can do something with that that I will likely not see, at least not while I know them.

“Down at the Cross” is originally a longer-form New Yorker-type piece, a profile on Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam.  But it begins with an extended personal note on Baldwin’s part, about his early experiences with Christianity.  If you read Go Tell It On the Mountain, this will all sound familiar, but also shed quite a bit of light on it.  The middle third of the essay is a description of a visit to Muhammad at his south-side mansion, and its final third is an attempt to reconcile the limitations of Christianity as Baldwin has described them, on the one hand, with the fatalism and chauvinism with which Baldwin diagnoses the Nation of Islam.

In the end, “My Dungeon Shook,” for me anyway, does a better job of articulating this vision than “Down at the Cross” does, but then I’ve read it more times.  The first is, in many ways, a poem, the second definitely prose.

There are a lot more passages I could quote, but I’ll just leave it at that.  Go read these essays, and figure out how you can read them not just to “learn new attitudes,” but really, “to learn.”

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