From the startling images of uncontrollable flames we’ve been seeing every evening on television, along with the hourly reports on our radios, it seems that the whole world is on fire. In the U.S., California, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington State are burning. This devastating situation was preceded last year by the searing scenes in Australia and was joined recently by Syria, a place not usually associated with wild fires. In California 3 million acres were ravaged in one week, and more than 5 thousand square miles have burned so far this year. Our hearts go out to our fellow dwellers on this fragile planet as the walls of flame come into our living rooms, and we watch the danger mount, the brave firefighters struggling to contain the destructive onslaught.
Several times during this fire season, my mind turned to the the literary giant James Baldwin and his famous book The Fire Next Time. It’s a matter of embarrassment for me that I wrote one of my graduate essays on the book and received a pretty good grade but can’t recall anything that I wrote. But when thoughts about the book and its portentous title kept coming back to me, I decided to revisit it in an excellent audio version.
The Fire Next Time consists of two essays: “My Dungeon Shook” and “Down at the Cross, Letter from a Region of My Mind.” The 1962 essay “My Dungeon Shook ” is “A Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation.” Authors find the letter format to be an effective vehicle for conveying information that comes from the heart. Benjamin Franklin’s masterpiece, Autobiography, is a letter to his son. Baldwin’s letter to his nephew is charged with deep emotion as he counsels James, the author’s namesake, about race relations in America and how to navigate life under the dangerous circumstances.
The book takes its title from two lines of a Spiritual:
God gave Noah the rainbow sign,
Not the water but fire next time.
The lines are an allusion to the biblical story of Noah and the catastrophic flood that destroyed the world and nearly all humankind. This story is one that Baldwin was familiar with since, as a teenager, he was a preacher in the Pentecostal religion. The book’s ominous title is charged with apocalyptic possibilities. What’s the fire next time going to be like? Some who commented on the book saw the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 and the combustive aftermath as the fire next time, but that time of upheaval, burning, and extensive destruction came and went. Do the current protests in cities across the U.S. in the wake of the deaths of several Black men and a Black woman at the hands of the police point to that time? The destruction of property amid the fires that have raged in the heart of business districts and the sight of police cars going up in smoke look frightening from the television news footage. But as alarming as these scenes are, they may not be the fire next time. They may just be what firefighters call the “hot spots.”
There are reasons for the fires that are raging in California and other places in the Pacific Northwest. Climate change, lightning strikes, downed power lines, even a carelessly discarded cigarette butt have all been blamed. And a so-called “reveal party” has been cited for causing one fire. In Syria the wild fires have broken out in camps where displaced persons live in squalor. One question that should be asked is, What is the cause of the fires in city streets across the nation? The answer: anger, rage, unjust treatment, a sense of frustration at constantly being beaten down and the seeming impossibility of being able to rise up and live like a dignified human being.
When will Baldwin’s fiery vision come to pass? None of us knows. But we are in a volatile present, and it is highly desirable that those who can will be bold enough to make changes to the social structures that would invite the fire. We can’t see too far into the future, but we can be alert. I have dear friends in California. I keep my antennae up for news reports and call them (sometimes at the risk of being annoying) for reassurance; I’m always glad when I hear they’re safe. Fire stokes our fears. However, “God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7).
Instead of being consumed by fear, let’s get on the good side of fire with its potent symbolism. We can begin to burn with desire and determination to help alleviate some of the conditions that set the place ablaze—conditions such as poverty, intolerance, societal acts of unkindness and oppression, and blatant injustice. Let’s not be hampered by discouragement or lack of concern. Whoever we are, wherever we are, we can be on fire for good in some small way and so help to hold back the fire next time.
I hope you have enjoyed reading my books and are now ready to share them with family and friends. How about a gift of Dark Days on the Fairest Isle for a friend’s upcoming birthday, or just for someone to have an enjoyable reading experience during these COVID stay-at-home days? Dark Days on the Fairest Isle has been selected by a university’s director of library services to be added to their “Caribbean Collection.” I am quite pleased about this.
Hi Judith, this essay/blog is on point. I was introduced to James Baldwin’s work as a young adult, ‘Go Tell It On The Mountain.’ I could so relate to his story because I came from a Pentecostal upbringing.
Thank you so much for sharing this with your readers.
Hi Fartema, Baldwin had the gift, didn’t he? His works have never gone out of vogue, but in these times what he had to say is quite pertinent. Yet, I’m not anticipating the predicted fire, whenever that might be. As I pointed out, we can all get the fire within to help us burn to help make a change. Thanks for your comment. JN
YOU HAVE SO MUCH INSIGHT AND THOUGHT AS THOUGH YOU ARE THERE STANDING ON THE BRINK OF THE FIRES LOOKING INTO WHAT WAS ONCE THERE, OR IN THE TOWNS WHERE THERE HAS BEEN UNREST, YOU CAN LOOK PAST THE ANGER AND HURT AND BRING ABOUT AN UNDERSTANDING OF HOW IT SHOULD BE.
COULD WE HAVE EVER IMAGINED ALL OF THIS HAPPENING TO OUR WONDERFUL COUNTRY ?
THE VIRUS HAS CHANGED OUR LIVES IN WAYS WE COULD NEVER HAVE IMAGINED AND THE RIOTS AND DREADFUL FIRES HAVE ADDED TO THE FEAR WE NOW FACE.
I CAN THINK BACK TO DAYS WHEN WE SHARED ONE ANOTHER’S COMPANY IN A DIFFERENT WORLD.
MANY A DAY I PICK UP ONE OF YOUR LOVELY BOOKS AND SIT IN MY DEN THINKING ABOUT THE CONTENTS AND DRIFTING BACK TO THE DAYS WE SHARED.
PLEASE KEEP WRITING BECAUSE WE ALL NEED TO HAVE A DIVERSION FROM THE WORLD OF ANGER, FIRE AND VIRUSES. WITH LOVE, NANETTE.
Nanette, how good to hear from you! Your comments are so well expressed. Indeed these are unusual times, but we can’t give in to worry or fear. There is One who walks beside us. We are safe. Thank you for sharing your heartfelt thoughts with us. Stay safe. Judith
Your Fire metaphor is well chosen for this week’s blog. In addition to natural disasters of fires in many western states of the US and floods in the south, a blaze started during the recent uninspiring debate between the incumbent President and his Democratic challenger. Flaming rhotoric from the President set many people on fire. But it was not a purifying fire. It was a distructive fire, flaming with hatred and byproducts of avarice. It burned away truth and common sense only to replace them with destabilizing ideas of seperation, undergirded by unreasonable promises. Is this The Fire Next Time that Baldwin envisioned? May be It is a reminder, that we Watch and Pray without ceasing.
Preach it, brother! “How great a matter a little fire kindleth” (James 3:5). I read a commentary this morning about the tongue and the consequences when it’s used unwisely. It’s an amusing story that I can’t repeat here (doesn’t make us women look good), but it supports the point of your comment very well. We have to be careful with “the words of our mouths” so there’ll be no resulting destructive fire.
Thanks for reading my blog post and taking the time to comment, Barrington. JN
The relevance, connotation and wisdom of your awesome blog in today’s challenging times cannot be understated.
The beauty about the word “fire” is that it evokes passion. As to whether that passion is deemed positive or negative is directly correlated to the context from it stemmed, be it literal or metaphorical. Without diving into the myriad of examples, “fire” can facilitate food production, can propel humans to reach for greater heights. Alas, conversely, once triggered, and if without any control, it can also trigger wanton irreversible destruction.
We seem to live in a world today where “herd mentality” rules. Where people seemingly just skim the surface of any subject and jump to conclusions without cognitive analysis, especially if it compliments a mindset. A world where arguably anything that challenges one’s initial assessment is more than likely dismissed, or even treated with contempt. Where “depth” is inexplicably becoming more of an aberration.
A huge part of the problem is that, in the face of legitimate complaints/grievances, the reluctance by the consummately powerful to abandon the covert philosophy of yesteryear: “ if I do not acknowledge you, you do not exist“. Gaslighting did not work fifty years ago, did not work one hundred years ago, and will not work today. When you ignore people who have had egregious acts committed against them, and who then believe that they seem to have no form of recourse to justice, this ignites a “fire”.
I watch with dismay at where are today and seem to be heading, and cannot help but cite another famous writing ironically also full of metaphors:
The Second Coming
BY WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
*correcting a typing error in my comments:
“…. I watch with dismay at where we are today and seem to be heading,…”
Correction noted. JN
Sinan, I was happy to read your comment with its pointed look at our present-day social dilemma. It pleased me very much that you quoted one of my favorite poems by William Butler Yeats. The word “fire,” as you have pointed out, has many applications, some very positive ones. I’m now reading “River of Fire” by Sister Helen Prejean. In it I see the application of fire in the positive sense. Let us embrace the fire that spurs us to sense the urgency and commit to doing our part to help make a difference. Thank you for commenting. JN