We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us

The Fire Next TimeThe Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What is this book? I cannot describe it. Of course he writes about race and about white America, and about freedom, injustice, and pain. But how could I comment or add to that? It is a challenge for a slow witted middle aged white man to say anything much less come to any conclusions from this book by James Baldwin. But don’t worry, I have no conclusion, no pronouncements…but I am human and I will, with trepidation, offer some observations.

First off the obvious, almost too obvious, when I went to copy out parts I wanted to quote I could have just kept typing and retyped the whole book. And there is some flat out “heavy” thinking going on in here, really “deep” stuff. A

Behind what we think of the Russian menace lies what we do not wish to face, and what white Americans do face when they regard a Negro: reality - the fact that life is tragic. Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death – ought to decide - indeed, to earn ones death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. Pg. 91

Like I said this is some deep stuff. His analysis from 1962 is sadly still pretty spot on.

It is so simple a fact and one that is so hard, apparently, to grasp: Whoever debases others is debasing himself. That is not a mystical statement but a most realistic one, which is proved by eyes of any Alabama sheriff...Pg. 83

...In any event, the sloppy and fatuous nature of American good will can never be relied upon to deal with hard problems. These have been dealt with, when they have been dealt with at all, out of necessity- and in political terms anyway, necessity means concessions made in order to stay on top Pg. 87

Baldwin shakes you up, or at least he should, by not always ending up where you that he was leading you. Even if this short book I got worn out by the reminders of white oppression, but right when you feel like throwing in the towel on all of society he pulls out something close to optimism and says things like...

[talking about people overthrowing one dictator for another]...Perhaps this will always happen...But at the bottom of my heart I do not believe this. I think that people can be better than that, I know that people can be better than they are. We are capable of bearing a great burden, once we discover the burden is reality and arrive where reality is. Pg. 91

And to see something even more relevant to our nation today.

Freedom is hard to bear. It can be objected that I am speaking of political freedom in spiritual terms, but the political institutions of any nation are always menaced and are ultimately controlled by the spiritual state of that nation. Pg. 88

That pretty much describes our political state now. What we have really does reflect the “spiritual sate of the the nation”. It is in our faces, it is real and it is us, as a nation.