The Fire Next Time (1963)

After writing an essay on the Nation of Islam for The New Yorker and publishing a letter he had written to his nephew, the two were published together at the advice of James Silberman (Leeming 212), with the letter essentially serving as an introduction to the essay. The letter was inspired by “a visit to an elementary school classroom in Dakar” (Leeming 212) and the role education of myths to black children plays in colonization. The essay deals more thoroughly with “the question of the relationship between religion and the love he had spoken of in the letter to his nephew” (Leeming 213). His own experience with the church was reflected by what he saw in Africa; blacks following white religion and how it affected race relations. The religion of Elijah Muhammad was better than Christianity in some respects, but in the end it was just as exclusive, only now from a black perspective. The final words of the book are described by Leeming as “James Baldwin’s “I have a dream”” (214) and not surprisingly, many considered him to be a prophet.  The second part of the book essentially addresses race relations, focusing on Baldwin’s personal development and the role of religion, the solution offered by the Nation of Islam, and what he thinks should happen instead. Most importantly, Baldwin rejected essentialist rhetoric and instead encouraged love, which was not an easy solution, but a necessary one (Ferriter 137). The book has been described as “a noted change in Baldwin’s work” (biography.com), moving toward a more activist style of writing and adding to his prominence. There were critics, including Eldridge Cleaver, who criticized Baldwin in Soul on Ice for his soft attitude and attacked him for his homosexuality. Nevertheless, it is still read today as an important text for understanding race relations, explaining race as “a shifting construct and a political tool” (Ferriter 131), but one with very real consequences. Baldwin has also inspired other authors, including Ta-Nehisi Coates, both in terms of style and in the topics addressed.

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