(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
(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."
book contains an essay entitled "Letter to My Nephew on the One
Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation." It presents white America
as seen through the eyes of an African American; some of its language
and ideas are challenging even fifty years later, let alone when it
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.
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, [quote] "the
danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their
identity. . . . [T]he 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." [unquote] 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… [W]e, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they
are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it… [W]e
can make America what America must become. . ."
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" ©
1962 by James Baldwin. Copyright renewed. Collected in The Fire Next
Time , published by Vintage Books. Used by arrangement with the James