Ferguson and The Fire Next Time
by Bob Schwartz
The appearance of The Fire Next Time in 1963, just as the civil rights movement was exploding across the American South, galvanized the nation and continues to reverberate as perhaps the most prophetic and defining statement ever written of the continuing costs of Americans’ refusal to face their own history. It became a national bestseller, and Baldwin was featured on the cover of Time magazine. Critic Irving Howe said that The Fire Next Time achieved “heights of passionate exhortation unmatched in modern American writing.”
Baldwin was one of the great writers of his or any other American generation. He shouldered the burden of being a triple threat to America of the 1960s—a black man, a brilliant and outspoken intellectual, and gay. This he did with unequaled prose grace, and this work and others are required reading for anyone who wants or claims to be a writer.
The first of the two essays is My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation. Brief and unforgettable, it is a summary of how things are and why his teenage namesake cannot give up and in. It does no justice to this book to excerpt it; it stands as a whole that must be read—not the least of all because with the real progress we have made, we are foolish and destructive to over-measure how far we have come. But here is how the essay closes:
And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it. For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become. It will be hard, James, but you come from sturdy, peasant stock, men who picked cotton and dammed rivers and built railroads, and, in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity. You come from a long line of great poets, some of the greatest poets since Homer. One of them said, “The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off.”
You know, and I know, that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon. We cannot be free until they are free. God bless you, James, and Godspeed.