The Timelessness of Inequality

Essay Review: The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

by David Hurtado


Considering recent events in the news, I feel that a review of James Baldwin’s 1962 essay, The Fire Next Time, would be an appropriate place to begin discussion. Baldwin was one of the first prominent African-American authors in the United States and although this essay is over 50 years old the concepts of the novel still carries an unsettling amount of relevance today. This story, that details Baldwin’s experience growing up in Harlem and his religious journey, delves deeply into the way that minorities – particularly African-Americans – are taught they are lesser.

Recently, a policeman at a high school, brutally assaulted a young African-American student. In my classrooms this has sparked conversation about the Black Lives Matter movement. It is strange to me how quickly my peers jump to defense of the policeman and try to remove the situation from race. It is a testament to how uncomfortable challenges to current social order makes those benefitting from it. How, in light of video evidence, can the initial reaction to the images be one in defense of police rather than empathy towards a brutalized teenager. Why does conceding that people of color in this country are disproportionately incarcerated, killed, and abused feel so threatening to us? There seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding- the phrase Black Lives Matter does not inherently mean that all lives do not matter. It is simply stating that the race issues in our country demand immediate attention.

Baldwin’s essay makes chilling statements after a long discussion of race relations in the United States, “People are not, for example, terribly anxious to be equal (equal, after all, to what and to whom?) but they love the idea of being superior.” This concept is extremely relevant today, and it probably always will be. It is in human nature to seek superiority and security but I like to believe that empathy is also a characteristic of our nature. This unapologetically honest essay is brilliant, not only in the context of the beginnings of the civil rights movement, but in its examination of human history. We have made many good steps but the current relevance of this essay says volumes (although it is just over 100 pages), of how deep American roots of racism are sown. The essay is thought provoking from any angle. Looking at America through a religious lens, questions like the one posed above on equality in the face of “what”, make us consider what the utopian end goal really is. Regardless, this essay, in its brevity and tragedy, is incredibly thought provoking, especially in a modern setting. While reading this essay the following questions came to mind: Is inequality inevitable? Are sources of comfort, like modern religions, perpetuators of this issue? And what, really, is the place of minorities in this country? Where do they belong in academic, literary and social circles?

I would recommend this essay strongly to anyone interested in religion and the history of oppression. I also hope that with the constant issues in the news, our readers take time to read essays like Baldwin’s and study movements like Black Lives Matter before making a quick and easy assumptions on America’s race relations.

The following video is a compilation of great quotes from James Baldwin and a quick look at America in the 1950’s


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