The Fire Next Time (1963)
by James Baldwin
I became a reader through the books of Albert Payson Terhune, who wrote almost exclusively about collies. At any given time, he owned as many as twenty of these dogs, "the tawny swarm," as he described them, and identified so strongly with his favorites—Lad, Bruce, Gray Dawn—that he was compelled to describe the world from their point of view. These collies were marvels of courage, compassion, and intelligence, infinitely superior to the humans they encountered, but especially humans of foreign provenance, of Levantine aspect or name and "swarthy" hue. He was in fact a terrible bigot, and all unknowing I breathed in his bigotry with his love of dogs.
In fact, bigotry was always in the air around me and in the language I heard and thoughtlessly used, growing up in the South, in Salt Lake City and the mountains of Washington State, and in an eastern boarding school with one black student. The greatest challenge to that reflexive assumption of superiority came in the form of James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, published when I was 17. With relentless logic and an unsentimental view of our history, Baldwin held up to his readers the possibility of seeing ourselves as we really were, caught in an officially sanctioned cycle of blindness and fear, giving rise to emotional and physical violence as destructive to the unjust as to those suffering the injustice. "Whoever debases others," Baldwin wrote, "is debasing himself." I came to recognize myself in those words; they stung.
Yet racism was not the only problem that Baldwin explored in this great book. He was concerned with our talent for hiding unpleasant truths from ourselves, particularly truths that would implicate us in the evils of the world and contradict our happy picture of ourselves as innocents—though the evidence of history and of our own lives, our own thoughts, all suggested otherwise.
Baldwin's argument: To live in and profit even passively by an unjust social arrangement must inevitably create a sense of self-disgust unless we invent a consoling counternarrative. And if we are to make ourselves comfortable while others are mistreated and deprived of the rights that we enjoy, only one explanation will suffice—that they are less human than ourselves. To be comfortable, we must build our lives on that lie, spend our souls reinforcing it, and die strangers to the truth and to ourselves.
Baldwin did not wish that fate on us. For all its measured ferocity, The Fire Next Time was written as an act of love, to hold up the mirror and give us the chance to change what we do not like to see. "The most important thing that one human being can do for another," Baldwin wrote, is to "bar the door" to his "spiritual and social ease." He did that for me. And if I am not all I should be, I am at least uneasy.
Tobias Wolff's latest collection, Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories, won the Story Prize in 2009.