A Critic's Meta-Review: 4/5

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin (REVIEW)

There is no better time to be reading this book than right now. James Baldwin, whose work I am honestly astonished is not included in the curriculum of most English classes throughout the United States (at least in the midwestern United States, where it was, sadly, absent from our syllabi) – in many respects – a prophet. At the very least, he should be mentioned during any discussion surrounding the output of those who came up during the civil rights era. He was, after all, the dude that convinced Maya Angelou to start writing her thoughts down…which resulted in I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.

So he is not exactly a lightweight.

What, then, is he (or was he, rather, since he is unfortunately no longer with us in the world of form)?

James Baldwin was a prolific writer who made his bones in an era when black people were considered to be less than human, at least in a lot of parts of the United States. His style was deeply evocative and lucid as can be; when you read Baldwin’s writing, it almost feels as if you are having a conversation with him. The Fire Next Time in particular can probably more accurately be classified as an extended personal essay rather than a book, at least in the traditional sense of what a novel entails. There are characters, sure, and there is definitely a coherent plot, but it is much more…real…than any of his works of fiction, such as Another Country or If Beale Street Could Talk (both of which are incredibly realistic portrayals of lifestyles that many among us find themselves carrying out on a day to day basis, so that is saying something for sure).

What is the central message of this essay, then? What is its thesis? What is the gist of what our man Jimmy B is trying to get across with his words, ever so artfully chosen, in this here collection of thoughts?

It is simple: white people just don’t get it, man.

And they still don’t. Even the ones who say they do – in fact, they are the least likely to get it.

They’re probably all standing in line waiting to vote for Joe Biden so they can say that they played a part in electing the nation’s first female black vice president (and potentially first female black president if old Uncle Joe slides off his rocker any further), without even giving a moment’s thought to the fact that, as the District Attorney of San Francisco, she helped convict nearly two thousand non-violent drug offenders – the majority of whom were black. But it doesn’t matter, because white liberals cannot possibly be racist…right?        

“Not quite” he whispered from beneath his gravestone at the Ferncliff Cemetery in New York.

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