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Gilbert: The Fire Next Time

(Host) In January 1963, fifty years ago, the great American writer James Baldwin published a famous book entitled The Fire Next Time. It was a profoundly influential statement about race relations in the midst of the Civil Rights movement. Here's commentator and Vermont Humanities Council executive director Peter Gilbert with these thoughts.

(Gilbert) The title, The Fire Next Time,comes from a pre-Civil War Negro spiritual that became popular again during the Civil Rights movement. The line is God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water the fire next time. The line's a warning about living unholy lives, but not a threat. The book is, its publisher tells us, a plea that all Americans look to the true state of their land one hundred years after Emancipation.

The book contains an essay entitled Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation. It presents white Americas seen through the eyes of an African American; some of its language and ideas are challenging even fifty years later, let alone when it was written.

The essay is about many things: familial love, racism, hope, forgiveness. It's also about trying to help his fourteen-year-old nephew and all America understand how difficult,confusing, and terrifying white America finds it, in that time of social upheaval , to see relations between Blacks and whites change,for white America to no longer see black men in the denigrating light and situation that they'd been in for so long.

About white Americans Baldwin tells his nephew, The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them... and accept them with love... They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have [long believed] that black men are inferior... Many of them, indeed, know better, Baldwin adds,but... people find it very difficult to act on what they know.To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger.

In this case, Baldwin writes, " the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity. . . . The black man has functioned in the white man's world as a fixed star... and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations."  "It is as dramatic, (Baldwin says), as waking up one morning to find the sun and stars shining at the same time. Seeing nature so out of order is terrifying, he asserts, because [quote] it so profoundly attacks one's sense of one's own reality. [unquote] As a result,white men, Baldwin says, are losing their grasp of reality.

Amazingly, Baldwin concludes by telling his nephew,But these men are your brothers - your lost, younger brothers... We, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it... We can make America what America must become. . .

Of course much has changed in race relations in America, but Baldwin's essay reminds us how difficult it can be sometimes, in whatever the context, to recognize change, acknowledge it, and act on it.

Excerpted from My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation copy;1962 by James Baldwin. Copyright renewed. Collected in The Fire Next Time , published by Vintage Books. Used by arrangement with the James Baldwin Estate.


Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.
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