The main branch of the New York City library at Fifth Avenue straddling 41st and 42nd Streets is one of the most famous public temples of knowledge in the United States. Even if you’re just a regular person looking for information or inspiration, all you have to do is walk in and ask. It is that white-marble Beaux Arts landmark with those two lions, Patience on the left, Fortitude on the right, whose pillared building and park take up an entire city block.
I spent most of my senior year as an undergraduate in her research rooms and all of my lunch hours with random academics, artists and vagrants sitting on her front steps consuming the old sandwiches and cold coffee sold by street vendors. I felt I belonged there, which is why I was continually offended when the same Black security guards stopped me at the door every day every time going in and coming out without looking me in the eye to search my body and book bag, and finding nothing then ignored me without even the contemptuous courtesy of waving me on.
James Baldwin described a different experience as a Black boy in New York City.
“I was 13 and was crossing Fifth Avenue on my way to the 42nd Street library, and the cop in the middle of the street muttered as I passed him, ‘Why don’t you n-----s stay uptown where you belong?’ ”
Born in Harlem in 1924, Baldwin grew up poor, gay and devoutly Christian. He wrote 20 books and many more essays, poems and plays. His voice evokes Old Testament-scale suffering unleashed for being the wrong color, loving the wrong person, or making the wrong choice, even if it’s the only one. But there is also sometimes the chance for redemption in our same unholy streets, bars and bedrooms. Whatever his subject, he inevitably empathizes with “the other.”
In “The Fire Next Time,” white people are “the other.” His argument runs through these pages like a live wire, and the shock is deeper than a casual reader may be prepared to bear.
It’s a deceptively slim volume of just two essays: a letter to his 15-year-old nephew on the 100th anniversary of Emancipation and a longer piece called “Down at the Cross,” which was first published in two oversized editions of The New Yorker in 1963. It also got Baldwin on the cover of Time magazine, which called him a major voice of the Civil Rights Movement.
White liberals of the day embraced him as a prophet who could finally tell them “what Black Americans want.” Black activists attacked him for being too understanding of what we now call systemic racism.
After the briefest preamble in the first essay, Baldwin advises his nephew on growing up Black in America: “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, old buddy, is that you must accept them. ... They are trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.”
Baldwin contends that a large part of America thinks that if only Black people could be more like white people, we’d all get along.
“And this assumption — which, for example, makes the solution to the Negro problem depend on the speed with which Negroes accept and adopt white standards — is revealed in all kinds of striking ways, from Bobby Kennedy’s assurance that a Negro can become President in 40 years to the unfortunate tone of warm congratulation with which so many liberals address their Negro equals.”
These words are all the more striking now, half a century later, when we have had a Black president and now have a Black vice president. Kennedy argued that these kinds of triumphs would prove that the power of racism in the U.S. had ended. The reality is those advances reinvigorated a backlash of violent mistrust as dangerous to democracy now as in his day.
But Baldwin not only looks the problem in the eye, he is also prepared to solve it, telling his nephew:
“And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it. For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become.”
When confronted by Black nationalists, like his friend Malcolm X, who accused him of being too ready to forgive a nation’s sins, Baldwin wrote: “In short, we, the Black and white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation — if we are really, that is, to achieve our identity, our maturity, as men and women. To create one nation has proved to be a hideously difficult task; there is certainly no need now to create two, one Black and one white.
“If we do not now dare everything, the fulfilment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: ‘God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!’ ”
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