Impact of The Fire Next Time
James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time is a powerful book. It fanned the flames of the civil rights movement and stands as a staple of African-American literature. It is a testament to black culture and the problems that climaxed during the middle of the 20th century.
One walks away from the book feeling three things. The first is a heightened sense of awareness about growing up in Harlem. The second is a new perspective from which to interpret the struggle for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s. The third is a respect for Baldwin as a writer and critical thinker.
Baldwin grew up in Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s. He calls on several of his experiences growing up as a background to the contemporary ideas he addresses in The Fire Next Time. Baldwin writes:
The wages of sin were visible everywhere, in every wine-stained and urine-splashed hallway, in every clanging ambulance bell, in every scar on the faces of the pimps and their whores, in every helpless, newborn baby being brought into this danger, in every knife and pistol fight on the Avenue, and in every disastrous bulletin. (20)
Critic Darryl Pinckney says the 1950s and 1960s had a feeling that was unparalleled by any other time in history, and that was due in part to The Fire Next Time. “The climate of the times–perilous sit-ins and voter registration drives, murders and marches, songs of toil and deliverance–had everything to do with the sensation created by The Fire Next Time” (1). Baldwin makes the reader aware of the concessions blacks need to make in order to achieve acceptance and integration in his letter to his nephew. He writes, “There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing…is that you must accept them” (8).
Baldwin’s talents as a writer are indisputable. His powerful words influenced generations of young black authors. He had an undoubtable impact on noted scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., as Gates grew up in the segregated mountain communities of West Virginia. Gates writes:
I knew that “black culture” had a texture, a logic, of its own, and that it was inextricable from “white culture.” That was the paradox that Baldwin identified and negotiated, and that is why I say his prose shaped my identity as an Afro-American, as much by the questions he raised as by the answers he provided. (38)
Through his writing, Baldwin became a respected man among literary circles. His audience appreciated his technique of using the past to show the need for change in the future. The Fire Next Time was a seminal work of consciousness-raising for a multitude of Americans. His work scared many people, not only literary circles, because of its power. Because of his worldwide presence, Baldwin was talked about as a possible recipient of the Pulitzer Prize.
The Fire Next Time is an essential work in American history. For years, it has made readers reassess the racial situation of the times. It also has given readers an understanding of life in black America, specifically Harlem. The Fire Next Time has inspired countless young blacks to transcend the stereotypes and succeed in America.