In his seminal essay, The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin questions ‘do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?’. Our society is still on fire, with a blaze of white privilege, ignorance, and refusal to change, and it is about time that we listened to Baldwin as he tells us what we need to do to put out this fire. The black community is continuing to demand what they have always deserved, and we can understand this visceral need for visibility and celebration through James Baldwin’s writing. Be it fiction or non-fiction, his work is second to none in outlining and illuminating the truth of black experience in contemporary America, and it is nothing short of shocking how resonant his writing still is, 50 years later.
Going to Meet the Man
This short story is the finale to the collection of short stories of the same name. Here, Baldwin tackles the timeless issue of institutional racism in the police force in a subtle, individualised way. The story follows a police sheriff remembering his first, incredibly visceral experiences of racial violence, which we can see have undoubtedly shaped his adult life. Throughout the story, Baldwin shocks us with unfiltered displays of racial violence, including a white community treating a lynching as a picnic, and racialised sexual violence. In letting us into the mind of a corrupt, white police officer, Baldwin reminds us of the inherent institutional racism of the US police force, which is undoubtedly relatable in the UK too. Jesse’s attitude to race, and to racial violence, is sickening, and by realising how unchanged the police force remains, this story reminds us in 2020 that police brutality must be condemned and eradicated.
The Fire Next Time
The Fire Next Time is a non-fiction book, comprising two essays. The first of these essays is a letter to Baldwin’s young nephew, outlining both the history of the civil rights movement and its future. In this essay, Baldwin cleverly appeals to the public by expressing universal truths for the black community: Baldwin discusses with his nephew what any black person in America already knows to be true, and thereby conveys black experience to naive, ignorant white Americans. This piece of writing is so incredibly emotive. As Baldwin clearly wonders aloud what his young nephew’s future in America looks like, we can truly feel his pain. It is nothing short of heartbreaking that the future to which Baldwin looked morosely is so similar to his present. Hardly anything has changed since its publication in 1963, and by understanding that black writers dreaded an unchanged future, and by seeing that his envisioned hellish future is indeed our current moment, we can begin to understand just how much work there is still to do.
The second essay in this book considers religion’s place in the fight for black liberation. This was an incredibly important question in the 1960s, between Martin Luther King’s Christian faith and Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, so Baldwin truly shows us the full range of entry points to the civil rights movement. By engaging with the key question of religion’s place in black liberation, Baldwin shows us how important it is that we consider intersectionality in the Black Lives Matter movement, and reminds us to consider every single kind of black life, not just one image we might imagine of black life.
If Beale Street Could Talk
Probably the best known Baldwin novel of our generation, owing to the 2018 movie adaptation, If Beale Street Could Talk is not only a beautiful exploration of being a young black person, but is also a brilliantly accessible entry point to Baldwin. We truly feel at home with Tish: it is impossible to read this novel and not feel as though your best friend, your sister, your cousin, is catching you up on recent events of her life. This story is at once irresistibly warm and a cold awakening as to the reality of black youth in America. What’s more, similarly to Going to Meet the Man, the narrative of Fonny’s unjust incarceration is a tale as old as time, and one that we are still hearing today. So much of the current Black Lives Matter movement’s focus right now is on issues in the American justice system, and If Beale Street Could Talk explores these issues perfectly. Wrongful incarceration is an issue for so many black people in 2020, and Baldwin tenderly explores the impact of this injustice on black families and communities.
Remember This House (1979) and I Am Not Your Negro (2016)
In 2016, Raoul Peck released a documentary film, I Am Not Your Negro, based on Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House. This film is a very personal, biographical account of Baldwin’s relationships with and memories of civil rights activists, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers. This film has been heralded not only for bringing Baldwin back into the larger cultural consciousness, but also for offering such a succinct, honest snapshot about the African American experience. In this sense, Peck truly emulates Baldwin in this film; I Am Not Your Negro takes on Baldwin’s words from Remember This House, and uses them to remind us in the 21st century that we have so much further to go in fixing race politics.
Whether short stories, full novels, factual essays, or documentaries are your thing, there is an entry point to James Baldwin’s seminal racial writing for you. I can honestly say that he is the best writer I have ever read, not least because of his ability to articulate experience which should be accepted as universal: when Baldwin writes, you wonder how something so obvious never occurred to you before. This is how we must approach understanding black experience in 2020. It is staring us in the face, all we have to do is listen to black voices and really hear what they are telling us.