I was curious how James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time compared to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. They both have similar agendas to speak to a younger generation not yet accustomed to being black in a white world. But their writing styles and insights take the reader on different journeys. Where James Baldwin writes raw and unhinged as a thought exercise imagining what conditions would give the Nation of Islam the six or seven states that they claimed are owed to Negros by the United States as “back payment” for slave labor.” Ta-Nehisi shapes a more cautionary tale when he writes, “All my life I’d heard people tell their black boys and black girls to “be twice as good,” which is to say “accept half as much,” and the love ones who helped shape his life. It wasn’t until I read The Fire Next Time, that I could look back and conclude that Ta-Nehisi didn’t push as far as James did into the unknown of the black experience.
Like Ta-Nehisi, James Baldwin lays out in plain terms the difficulties it is to be black in America. But I was struck at his candor to address his exodus out of the Christian church. James writes, “I realized that the Bible had been written by white men. I knew that, according to many Christians, I was a descendant of Ham, who had been cursed, and that I was therefore predestined to be a slave.” Then he goes a step further to discuss his departure isn’t that much different from other black folks’ dissatisfaction with the church. One being the symbolism of a white Jesus that led many to flee to the Nation of Islam to find a black God in name of Allah.
In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi didn’t dive into the practicality of black people’s hope for more freedom. In a previous book review, I wrote, “How many black sons have died for not having this heart to heart?” It was my way of saying what he shared could save some to live another day. But I’d like to add that being filled with a head full of insight isn’t enough to navigate a white world. Being falsely accused or not having a skillset to build your own or ability to build with other black folks will not help young black men and women go from surviving to thriving. But if I’m honest this wasn’t a take away from James Baldwin either. He merely hinted a need for a greater ability among us when he writes, “The only thing white people have that black people need, or should want, is power – and no holds power forever.”
I found myself underlining countless passages (I could have just underlined everything) in The Fire Next Time but when James writes, “Well, the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar: and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth shaken to their foundations,” he like Ta-Nehisi nailed my frustration I’ve gone through all my life. A breath of fresh air that reminds black folks that their experience isn’t made up or an isolated event but something that unjustly happens across our nation.
Although The Fire Next Time was published over 54 years ago, it still being relevant speaks to the depth of work needed to be done in the United States. A saying that I heard often growing up James writes, “The white man’s Heaven,” sings a Black Muslim Minister, “is the black man’s hell.” One should not be able to look to the highest public office in the United States and still pose James Baldwin’s question, “How can one respect, let alone adopt, the values of a people who do not, on any level whatever, live the way they say they do, or the way they say they should?”
But James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me are two books you give to a younger person of color to at the very least help them survive another day. If we’re lucky twenty years from now we’ll get another book from a new brilliant writer that will share insight for the next generation coming into their own from the rear.
Rashaun J. Allen (@rashaunjallen) received his MFA in Creative Writing and Literature from SUNY Stony Brook. He’s eyeing agents to help publish his coming of age story, Christine’s Dream – A Memoir of Love, Loss & Life. He is the author of A Walk Through Brooklyn & In The Moment and has been published in TSR: The South Hampton Review. When not writing he runs for the thrill of crossing the finish line. Find more of his work at www.rashaunjallen.com.