In the mid-1960s I first read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, a collection of two published pieces. Each deals with how to survive as a black person in the USA. The first is a painfully realistic letter to James Baldwin’s nephew. The second describes Baldwin’s own struggle as a black Christian, beginning at age 14.
Now, at the end of 2020, I’m reading Baldwin’s small book again. Sadly, most white citizens of the USA still haven’t figured out how to do the right thing by our black citizens.
Instead, we’ve formed factions for which we ‘need’ an enemy (who isn’t necessarily our enemy). Something or someone to squabble about. A diversion from painful realities. Sadly it seems to offer a way of winning, even though we’re all losing.
Remember divide and conquer? As children, we played it all the time.
Sadly, people in power love to see us fighting each other instead of fighting against an unjust system in which some human beings continue to pay an unjust price. Given our history, it seems white citizens would rather fight each other than deal with injustice to people of color.
Early in his second essay, Down at the Cross, James Baldwin describes our perennial problem. I’ve highlighted the line that caught my attention.
There appears to be a vast amount of confusion on this point, but I do not know many Negroes who are eager to be “accepted” by white people, still less to be loved by them; they, the blacks, simply don’t wish to be beaten over the head by the whites every instant of our brief passage on this planet. White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.
The Fire Next Time, pp 21-22;
First published by The Dial Press, NY, 1963
Vintage International Edition first published 1993
If this is the biggest question we white citizens face, it doesn’t matter which way we voted. What matters is whether we can learn to “accept and love ourselves and each other.”
We don’t need our perennial “Negro problem” in order to feel good about ourselves. Why not? Because this never was a “Negro problem.” It’s been a White problem from the very beginning.
Highly recommended, even if you read it way back when.
© Elouise Renich Fraser, 3 December 2020
Book cover image found at amazon.com