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Patrick Redford: I have to begin by confessing that I had not read much of James Baldwin’s fiction and none of his non-fiction before cracking open The Fire Next Time. As expected, I found myself in awe of his clarity and vulnerability and strength as a writer and as a thinker. So, to get us started, Kelsey, why did you pick this one; everyone else, how much other Baldwin have you read?

Kelsey McKinney: Baldwin was my pick this month because, however late, I have fallen in love with his work. I read several of his major books (Go Tell It On The Mountain, If Beale Street Could Talk) in college literature classes, but a few months ago I finally read Giovanni’s Room and it fucked me up more than any novel I’ve read in a long time. Rachelle Hampton, friend of the site, reads it every single year and has recommended it to me on countless occasions and, for years, I have told her that I’ll get to it eventually. Finally, this was the year! And I fell so deeply in love with it, and with Baldwin’s voice on the page generally, that I think I too will probably read it every year from here on out. So I wanted to read another Baldwin, and we chose together to try non-fiction! 

Maitreyi Anantharaman: I read Notes of a Native Son in school, and some of his writing on art and the literary process. It can be kind of funny to read a work you have read so many responses to before you arrive at the work itself. I had that experience here and it made The Fire Next Time an even more impressive feat to me. Nothing beats the original.

PR: To that point, I started Between The World And Me a few years ago only to learn it was, while fundamentally different, downstream of this book, so I decided to shelve it until after I’d read the original.

David Roth: I’d read Go Tell It On The Mountain years ago, and liked it well enough that I wished I’d read it in a college class, instead of trying to process the density of it with my rapidly aging brain across a series of subway rides and pre-bedtime sessions. The copy of The Fire Next Time that I read first last summer, and which I went back over for this, was something I scooped up in the Take It Or Leave It room at the Surry, Maine dump. They call it a “transfer station” up there; my father-in-law, who visits it basically every other day, calls it The Surry Bookstore. It had a stamp on the inside marking it as having belonged to a local school district. I read half of it in the backseat across a longish car trip, which is as good a way to blow one’s own mind as any, I guess, and which really delivered that special sense of decompression that you get when you’ve been reading something very intense, very intensely, and then abruptly are called back into normal waking life. For me that meant like 20 minutes of locking in on some of the most astonishing language and analysis I’d ever read, a master writing very clearly and very righteously about problems that have not remotely resolved in the intervening decades, and then going into the Home Depot in Ellsworth for something my father-in-law needed, and which they did not have. 

Giri Nathan: I was assigned “Stranger in the Village” in a high school class and still remember that hair-raising feeling. We’d read a lot of essays that year but his voice obviously has a way of cutting through the din. I’ve since read a lot of his nonfiction and Giovanni’s Room is another favorite of mine. It is always kind of painful to read him, because it’s a reminder of how many other writers (including lots I like) have tried to mimic him, and how egregiously they’ve fallen short.

KM: A thing I also find stunning about Baldwin, and particularly in his non-fiction, is how unbelievably strong his voice is on the page. It is painful for me to read him not only because you can hear the echoes of his voice in so many others voices, but because that kind of assuredness feels so difficult to achieve, if not impossible. Look at this fuckin' sentence I highlighted:

“For 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: a cousin, mother of six, suddenly gone 31 mad, the children parceled out here and there; an indestructible aunt rewarded for years of hard labor by a slow, agonizing death in a terrible small room; someone's bright son blown into eternity by his own hand; another turned robber and carried off to jail.” 

Like, not to be dramatic but I would give up decades of my life to write this way. To write like that, maybe, is a gift like the genetic ability to high-jump or something. It doesn’t feel trainable. But perhaps it is also practice. He wrote so much

DR: I believe that it’s a gift, although that's surely at least in part because as a writer you just kind of feel like a different grade of being reading it. I also have a jumpshot, but am fundamentally doing a different thing than Steph Curry when I put one up. But also just as a reader there is something to the way that the images and sentences work, in the bit Kelsey highlighted and throughout, that looks simple and just absolutely is not. You don't have to be a writer to see that, obviously. The beats make sense, the pace of it—you can read it out loud and hear this part very clearly—the way the images snap right into place with each other. And when that’s not done as well, it just doesn’t fit right. It either comes off as simplistic—too serious, too much—or as kind of flailing free jazz. (Do not ask me how I know what it's like when it doesn't work.) I think even if you haven’t read Baldwin much, as I hadn’t really going into The Fire Next Time, there will still be this feeling of recognition that in some sense you’d been reading a degraded imitation of his language for many years. And then you get the actual thing, what everyone was going for.

MA: Baldwin counted Henry James among his influences, and the sentences can be kind of amazing in the Jamesian way. Dense, with all these clauses, but still achieving this stunning clarity somehow.

GN: There’s a little literary autobiography smuggled in here when Baldwin talks about writing a sermon every week as a teenager. While he has very vexed feelings about that whole pursuit in the end, there’s something clarifying about writing something meant to be read aloud. In the few instances (weddings, etc.) I’ve had to do that in my life, I’ve found that the drafts came out syntactically cleaner and more rhythmically straightforward, because you have to weigh how each clause will sit with a first-time listener, in real time. It’s kind of the perfect counterbalance to an obsession with byzantine Jamesian sentences. What an incredible synthesis he’s achieved.

PR: It was very funny that Baldwin was like I was writing these bangers in my sleep btw about his sermon era. This is maybe too broad of a question, but what did you guys make of his relationship to religion generally? He clearly came into the Christian church for specific reasons, the shortcomings of which he explained in thorough detail, and I found myself struck by his skepticism and wariness of religious networks while maintaining a reverence for the stuff he picked up there. One of the lodestars of the whole work is the freedom and possibility that comes with true acceptance of mortality, in his words, “It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death—ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life.” That idea seems to me an extension of some of the basic tenets of Christian theology, though elevated to a very beautiful, liberating place.

KM: Unfortunately, for me I felt extremely aligned with Baldwin on all of this. I love reading all of his writings about religion because I do feel like he, for a period of time, did really believe the teachings of the Christian faith, and so to lose it and become skeptical of it was a tumultuous journey that has always really resonated with me as someone who… uh… also went through that journey. The problem with believing something so much and then not believing it at all, which I think he does such a good job of in this, is that you can never fully hate it because there is some beauty there that is attached to you. “The church was very exciting. It took a long time for me to disengage myself from this excitement, and on the blindest, most visceral level, I never really have, and never will,” he writes in The Fire Next Time. And unfortunately, I have found this to be true. 

DR: That was some of the stuff resonated the most for me in Go Tell It On The Mountain, too, the way in which the church and the belief (and other stuff) that fills it was for him a way of growing up and becoming whoever you were going to become, but also a way of navigating that period where you are being presented with all these notional ways and people to be and trying to pick the one that feels most true. The version of Baldwin as public intellectual, for lack of a less fussy term, is the one I knew best, from various essays and imitations of those essays and from the excellent Raoul Peck documentary about him. And if you can see the stylistic and ethical imprint of the church experience on him in work like The Fire Next Time you can also see the places where he left it behind; it shaped him, and it gave him a framework, but it wasn’t doing the job fully enough. And this sort of work is where you can see him filling in the rest himself, and trying to make what he’d been taught to believe align with what he sees every day, or at least putting them in conversation. 

KM: What did everyone think of the structure of the book and the second piece in particular? 

MA: The book is two letters—the first a shorter one with a specific recipient on a specific occasion, the second a letter to the reader “from a region in my mind.” The throughline, I think, is this generational one; he evokes the memory of his father (his nephew’s grandfather) in the letter to his nephew, and carries that memory to the next essay. When Baldwin speaks with Elijah Muhammad in that middle section of the second letter, he “felt that I was back in my father’s house,” feeling the stifling authority of religion again. 

GN: The letter has three big sections. The first section poses a problem; the second section examines one potential solution; the third section is an emphatic rejection of that solution while offering a more abstract counterproposal. Baldwin introduces the reader to the basic predicament that black people face in America, then explores (quite empathetically) why someone like Elijah Muhammad might come to believe what he believes, and finally explains the flaws he sees in Muhammad’s approach. What’s really miraculous, to me, is how slippery the structure is on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis. Baldwin changes registers so frictionlessly: One sentence he’s offering a tiny anecdote from personal history, the next he’s tidily summing up a few centuries of geopolitical history, and then we’re in a spell of purely figurative language for a few beats, and now we’re back in a present-day scene. 

PR: That flow is what makes this such a smooth read, which one might not expect from a work about such lofty fare. The way he can build to a stunning conclusion, or use a few sentences about his father to arrive at some abstract truth, and do it over and over totally arrested my attention. It’s not light to read exactly, but there’s a graceful sense of ventilation to it. That is, until the very end when he builds this whirling crescendo and slams you over the head with that kicker and makes clear that the stakes are no less than the survival of humanity. He obviously earns that density, and the contrast and off-beat structure I think make it hit that much harder.

MA: Yes, for as earnest or, to use your word, “lofty,” as the ending is—“we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world”—it’s still so satisfying and earned. 

KM: I completely agree. I think without that good of a kicker, a lot of the beauty of this piece would kind of fade out. But because it’s so strong and such a fucking banger, there’s this bookending that keeps all the feelings right there within the text! Even something as simple as him writing, “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain,” carries so much weight and passion. I find it interesting that in this conversation, more than in many of the other DRABs, we feel more tightly engaged with both the actual words on the page and the ideas behind them. I’m not sure if that’s just a product of engaging with non-fiction, or if it is a product of how close Baldwin holds the reader. 

DR: The grace of the language was what hit me hardest when I read it that first time in the backseat of a Subaru traveling at precisely the posted speed limit and also upon revisiting it, but I think that’s mostly a matter of me and my preferences. But the use to which he puts all that (legit unparalleled, I can't underline this enough) craft is thrilling, not just in terms of the bigger argument—which, inevitably, is tragic in various ways—but in the cleanness with which he uses it to dismiss the stubborn and load-bearing illusions he's described. The grace with which he moves past all these socially produced and reproduced abstractions—all those hierarchies of power and shame and fantasy, built on nothing but habit and ignorance and denial—is startling, not just in the sense that so many aspects of the national conversation are still so caught up in them, but in the ease with which they’re dispatched. I feel like this is kind of every writer's fantasy, to some extent—that you could describe something so well and correctly that it would be undeniable.

There’s a lot of that in here, and there's a challenge shot through all of it. “We are controlled here by our confusion, far more than we know,” he writes at one point. “Privately, we cannot stand our lives and dare not examine them; domestically, we take no responsibility for (and no pride in) what goes on in our country; and, internationally, for many millions of people, we are an unmitigated disaster.” This is a lot, if also difficult to argue with on the merits. And that challenge runs throughout the bigger argument, which resolves to the obligation to see oneself and the country and the conflicts that define it clearly. It seems like a reasonable place to start, but there’s obviously nothing easy about it.

MA: It’s an extension of that same idea that begins in “Letter to My Nephew”: “I keep seeing your face, which is also the face of your father and my brother… both you and your father resemble [your grandfather] very much physically.” There’s this sense of the weight of history, that it has to be understood, as a matter of survival. 

“To accept one’s past—one’s history—is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it. An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought.”  

PR: It was extremely stirring to read this book in this current moment, not only because the intensity of the suffering in Gaza and the acuity with which we are forced to experience it are so painful, but also because of the sense that those opposed to the slaughter are powerless against it. This combination of awareness and helplessness is not particular to this case, either. It's broadly felt and largely unresolvable. I found in Baldwin's invocation of the impossible a stirring challenge, one that would perhaps feel unearned in lesser hands. Here's how he put it:

“I know what I'm asking is impossible. But in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least that one can demand—and one is, after all, emboldened by the spectacle of human history in general, and the American Negro history in particular, for it testifies to nothing less than the perpetual achievement of the impossible.”

MA: I had the same thought, Patrick, especially reading his words on children, for whom he clearly felt so much affection. They shouldn’t be responsible for “the bill … coming in that I fear America is not prepared to pay." 

DR: It’s tough to know what or how to write about that reality, or the way it feels. Obviously Baldwin’s argument in this is specific to the way that American racism is experienced and structured, but the feeling of living downhill and at the mercy of this vastly stupid, vastly cruel, completely deluded power is in a sense kind of politically neutral, and an experience available to any (every?) American with the capacity to see and acknowledge their relationship to that broader structure. Finding an answer to that problem, or even to that feeling, at the end of any book feels fanciful, but I wouldn’t say that this one left me feeling despondent so much as it did kind of lit up and furious. Both pretty valid responses in their way, but I felt that there was power in just seeing this clearly and calling it what it is.

KM: I was also bound up in the current reality while reading this. Baldwin is obviously so specific about American racism and his experiences with it, but in that specificity (which I know this is a writing advice cliché, but still) it did feel really universal and broad enough to include the hell we are currently watching unfold. I found his ability to write so cleanly and succinctly about the reality and terror and inevitability of death so refreshing when so much of what we are reading right now is all muddied up by outside forces trying to stake a claim. I loved this damning quote: “The subtle and deadly change of heart that might occur in you would be involved with the realization that a civilization is not destroyed by wicked people; it is not necessary that people be wicked but only that they be spineless.” 

DR: And deluded, too, he keeps coming back to that—the things people can’t or won’t admit, or acknowledge, the specious beliefs that get hung up in front of actual values because they are easier to look at and ask less of us in that way. I guess that’s also spinelessness, choosing to believe something you suspect or outright know isn’t true. And the tension between seeing things clearly and living with that is very deeply felt and empathetically understood here, I think.

Because to know all that, and to see it as it is, doesn’t excuse you from having to live in the world that all that wickedness and spinelessness has made. It doesn't help you navigate it, either. This is what made the device of the letter to his nephew—the extent to which this is addressed to a loved one who is just starting out in his life—and what Maitreyi noted above about his tenderness towards the generation that was inheriting all this, feel so devastating. All this truth doesn't really afford any kind of protection for being true, but it still beats a lie.

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