AuthorArcher, Deborah N.
PositionAnnual Book Review Issue

THE FIRE NEXT TIME. By James Baldwin. New York: Dial Press. 1963 (Vintage International 1993 ed.). Pp. 110. $13.95.


In 2020, the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the ravaging of Black communities occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic and an inequitable public health infrastructure put the violence of racism, in all of its forms, on full display. This racial violence is enabled by the central role that white supremacy has played throughout the history of the United States. (1) Our society has embedded racial inequality and white supremacy into our laws, policies, practices, environment, narratives, and cultural norms to form an infrastructure of racial inequality.

In 1857, in Dred Scott v. Sandford, the Supreme Court proclaimed that Black people possessed "no rights or privileges" beyond what white men might "choose to grant them." (2) So much of American history can still be understood through this lens. American institutions, laws, and cultural norms have developed as tools to subjugate, control, regulate, and devalue Black people. Although formal slavery ended with the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, lynchings continued into the 1960s. (3) They have both been replaced with new tools--often authorized or enabled by the state--to continue enforcement of the racial order. Slavery gave way to convict leasing, Jim Crow, racial segregation, and the theft of Black land and property. Indeed, the infrastructure of racial inequality is working exactly as it was designed to work. In communities of color around the country, racism is all encompassing. For Black people in the United States, it is hard to escape racism's brutal grasp.

As the United States has embarked on a so-called "racial reckoning," Black people are breaking out of the boxes created to perpetuate systemic racial inequality and challenging the narratives used to justify their oppression. That progress has been met with efforts to protect the "assumptions, privileges, and benefits that accompany the status of being white" and make whiteness "a valuable asset." (4) We saw this resistance during the January 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection, a blatant and violent attempt to disenfranchise Black voters and brand their participation in this democracy as illegitimate. The resistance to Black encroachment on the privileges of whiteness has also been rhetorical, as defenders of white supremacy have doubled down on narratives of Black criminality and inferiority, delegitimized counternarratives, and even banned efforts to understand and publicize the role of white supremacy in American history. (5) This resistance has also infiltrated our legal system by expanding exclusionary voting and housing laws, challenging affirmative action, and weaponizing the police to protect "white spaces" against people guilty of "Living While Black." (6)

The current moment is not unprecedented. Every generation has experienced the rage, urgency, anger, and exhaustion that drive demands for change. Every generation has collectively and publicly grieved racialized brutality and the loss of Black lives. Every generation has been viscerally reminded of racism's grinding pain and the systems designed to contain, isolate, and crush Black people, physically and psychologically. Every generation is reminded that our systems are still founded on the white-supremacist belief that Black people have "no rights or privileges" beyond those that white people "choose to grant them." (7)

As this country is forced to confront, once again, the truth of who we are and how we got here, James Baldwin's searing examination of the architecture and consequences of racism, The Fire Next Time, offers a framework for understanding how racism persists in its power. In many ways, Baldwin's essays were prophetic, diagnosing the ways racism would continue to manifest, day after day, year after year, and generation after generation. It is a lens that connects the injustices of the past to those of today. The Fire Next Time can offer truth and comfort to those of us seeking to understand the cycles of resistance and retrenchment that allow racial inequality to not only persist but thrive.


    Published during the civil rights movement, The Fire Next Time "provoked and challenged the dominant white American frame for understanding race relations." (8) The book consists of two powerful essays--"My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation" and "Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind"--that speak to how racism constrains and burdens Black lives, ultimately destroying Baldwin's father, brother, and countless others. Together, the essays explore the intentional design of racial inequality, the devastation of exile and exclusion, and the racial narratives of blame, worth, and belonging that all help drive the true nature, power, and persistence of racism.

    In the first essay (p. 3), The Fire Next Time explores how deeply engrained racial hierarchy is in American society and speaks to the physical, emotional, and psychological toll racism takes on both its victims and its perpetrators. In the wake of recent civil rights victories, Baldwin believed that despite the progress made by the civil rights movement, "the country [was] celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon," when the country had not even begun to acknowledge the full scope of the problem or the harm (p. 10). He rejected the idea that the racial inequality that continued to exist all around him was natural or accidental. Instead, he warned James that "[t]he details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you" (p. 8). Indeed, he believed that no element of Black people's lives was left to chance; it was all a part of racism's design:

    You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and/or no other reason. The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being, (p. 7) The racially disproportionate impact of COVID-19 provides a powerful modern example of the impact of Black people being systematically restricted, excluded, and dehumanized. A complicated web of historic discrimination, current policies, and deeply entrenched inequalities helps us understand why admonitions to wear masks, wash your hands, socially distance, and get vaccinated have not been sufficient to protect Black people, who were disproportionately impacted on all levels. (9) COVID-19 ravaged Black communities and other communities of color because it was introduced into a society that is racially discriminatory in individual, institutional, and structural ways. (10) Black people are not innately more susceptible to COVID-19, but because of years of entrenched and compounded inequality, Black people were disproportionately likely to be exposed to the virus and at a greater risk of developing serious complications. They also experienced a disproportionate share of the social, emotional, and economic fallout from the virus and related restrictions and lockdowns. (11) Racial disparities in access to medical care, housing, infrastructure, education, and socioeconomic status all contributed. (12)

    Many Black people were reluctant to trust what the government and medical officials said about COVID-19 or to seek medical treatment, and some declined to receive the COVID-19 vaccine due to longstanding distrust of healthcare professionals. (13) This reluctance is grounded in America's disturbing history of medical experimentation on Black people without their knowledge or consent. (14) James Marion Sims, considered the father of gynecology, conducted experiments on enslaved Black women without using any painkillers or anesthesia. (15) The Tuskegee Experiment, which lasted four decades, from 1932 to 1972, saw the Public Health Service infect Black soldiers with syphilis and then study the effects--all without informing these men or attempting to treat them. (16) This history, coupled with longstanding racial disparities in access to healthcare--including the closure and chronic underfunding of community hospitals--contributed to Black people being less likely to be tested for COVID-19 and being more severely impacted once they contracted the virus. (17)

    Further, a dizzying array of housing-related policies and restrictions have corralled Black people into highly dense, racially and economically segregated housing in underresourced communities that predictably contributed to the racial disparities of the COVID-19 pandemic. (18) This was compounded by other factors known to put racial minorities at increased risk of contracting COVID-19, (19) including the increased likelihood of Black people living in a community plagued by environmental stressors such as mold and lead paint. (20) In addition, low-income Black communities disproportionately face lack of access to reliable transportation, as well as exposure to pollution from roads and highways running through their...

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