"The Fire Next Time" mixes memoir and political essay to engage with the ideals of the early Civil Rights Movement. James Baldwin speaks of black oppression not just in the material sense, like buses and schools, but as the cumulative affect, a loss of dignity. Much of the book is spent discussing Baldwin's visit to Elijah Muhammad of the Nation of Islam, whose goals of black separatism he found unrealistic, but whose philosophy he understood. By imagining the white man the devil, the Nation of Islam freed blacks from the curse of Ham, which white Christians had held over their heads.
Baldwin knows all too well that the white ego also depends on that same dignity that blacks are starved of. That's why to this day, white men laid-off from the factory, struggling to raise a family against the sink of the opiate epidemic, will hang a Confederate flag on the back of their truck. Baldwin says, whites "are trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it."
It is hard for me to see the end of this cycle, even as I find irony in Baldwin's doubt that we will see a black president in 40 years. He knows what we have to do though: build a new nation, one nation, not modeled after a fantasy of Europe, one where we don't romanticize our past, but hold a respect for life, death and most importantly struggle.
In 2016, we still seem so far from one nation, and as technology allows us to become more connected than ever before, it is also easier to cut out people and ideas we don't want to deal with. We all select the reality that we want to live in. Even when we read things that make us angry or anxious, we are selecting these out of a host of events we could feel angry or anxious about. In this world, we cloak ourselves so completely in our identities and our fears that we cannot accept the naked vulnerability that comes with trust and love. I see this in the violence at Trump rallies all around the country, and I see it in my heart.
We may have that black president that Baldwin found incredulous, but those bridges that Baldwin compelled us to build seem just as distant as ever.