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James Baldwin Warned Us: The Fires Last Time Are the Fires This Time

James Baldwin, 14 November 1974
Photo credit: Rob Croes / Anefo

It’s a kneejerk reaction to imagine what James Baldwin would say about the state of things in the US when the anniversary of his death comes every December 1. Especially now. Much like how the issues that folk legend Odetta sang about are still, sadly, relevant today, so it goes for the issues Baldwin wrote about in Notes of a Native Son. Which is why our director, Helene Atwan, says it remains so potent a text to go back to:

Sixty-five years ago, Beacon Press had the honor and privilege to publish a landmark book: James Baldwin’s first collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son. It has never been out of print, and we have only witnessed the audience for Baldwin’s prophetic voice grow over the decades. But this spring and summer, and into this year of crisis and reckoning, James Baldwin’s writing is resonating more powerfully than ever.

It was thirty-three years ago, on November 30, that his family received the news of his death. Today, their solace and ours is that he is very much alive in the hearts and souls of all those, in this nation and internationally, who care about human rights and racial justice. We are so thankful in the holiday season to have Jimmy’s work to inspire us.

Noted Baldwin scholar Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. is also thankful for his shrewd insight. In fact, he recently published the much-praised biography Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Message for Our Own. When he talked to Trevor Noah about it on The Daily Show, he mapped out the connection between the US of Baldwin’s time to the US we live in today:

The later Baldwin is a Baldwin who’s trying to come to terms with America’s betrayal. Most folks say he’s bitter, he’s angry, [that] his rage has overwhelmed his art. But Baldwin is trying to come to terms with the fact that the country has assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr. He’s collapsed. In 1969, he tries to commit suicide. [He has a] failed relationship. The country is on the road to not only electing Richard Nixon but is on the road to electing Ronald Reagan. Many people don’t understand that Ronald Reagan was as notorious as George Wallace for Black folk in this country.

I was interested in [the] Baldwin who is trying to make sense of our trauma, our pain, our wound. Trying to pick up the pieces in the face of America’s betrayal. And here we are in our moment, after Barack Obama’s presidency, the vitriol of the Tea Party, voter suppression and voter ID laws. And then we vomited up Donald Trump. I was trying to deal with my own despair and disillusionment, so I turned to him in that moment.

Baldwin’s observations of our nation’s societal struggles were also in conversation with the work of his dear friend and confidant Lorraine Hansberry, or Sweet Lorraine. Interdisciplinary scholar Imani Perry wrote about their radical friendship and the reverberating intention of his words in her biography Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry:

Jimmy called A Raisin in the Sun a play in which Lorraine served as a witness to black America. He did too. In perhaps his most famous book, the 1963 epistolary text The Fire Next Time, he answered Walter Lee’s climactic action. In Raisin, standing before his son, Walter Lee insists upon moving into the white neighborhood and rejects the offer of a lot of cash in exchange for maintaining segregation and abdicating his dignity. In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin testifies to his nephew about his late father. Jimmy wants his nephew to see how his father (like their father before him) had been crushed by the forces of white supremacy in his life. He issues an appeal to his nephew’s generation to make use of their righteous anger rather than be distorted by it. Jimmy, a former child preacher, preaches to the Walter Lees of the world and to the others. He makes plain the wages of white supremacy.

In the second essay of the slim book, Jimmy echoes Beneatha, the character in Raisin whom Lorraine based upon herself. Beneatha, headstrong and sophomoric, questions Christianity and the existence of God. Mrs. Younger responds by slapping her across the face. As long as she is in Lena Younger’s house, Beneatha learns, she is required to believe. Jimmy, too, questions American Christianity and the way in which it inures people, black and white, to a vile order. Instead, he says, Americans ought to move beyond the status quo of their fears, beliefs, and oppressions. That was precisely what the young Beneatha, sometimes in a silly way, was trying to do. And what Lorraine and Jimmy tried to do in their lives also.

Now, the forces of Perry and Glaude are joining in our latest Baldwin publication. We’re excited to release Nothing Personal, his famous 1964 essay on social isolation, race, police brutality—sounds a lot like what we’re living through during the pandemic, doesn’t it?—with a foreword by Perry and an afterword by Glaude. A trifecta of Black brilliance. Baldwin’s critique of American society at the height of the Civil Rights movement is as incisive as ever. He recounts his own encounter with police in a scene disturbingly similar to those we see today documented with ever increased immediacy as more activists and average citizens alike capture injustice on iPhones. Baldwin's documentation of his own troubled times cuts to the core of the issues we find ourselves in today as the Black Lives Matter movement fights for a more just world. This will be the first time it’s published as a stand-alone gift edition. We can’t wait until it comes out next June!