When writing about James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates said that Baldwin had the ability to talk through you. What I took that to mean is that Baldwin’s words were such a focused fury, combining intellect and rhetoric that it connected with the reader in a deeper way than most. I felt that somewhat in The Fire Next Time, but I especially feel it in this one, which is almost more personal.
Baldwin doesn’t let his foot off the gas for this book-length essay. Drawing on American history, the reality of white supremacy, the belittling of children of African descent, and the messy state of affairs in US politics (after all, this was the Reagan era and the cowboy loomed over everything), Baldwin takes a long, panoramic view of the country as a microcosm through the murders of young people in Atlanta and the subsequent trial and conviction of Wayne Williams, a Black man, who was tried for only two murders based on forensic fiber evidence but was convicted in the court of public opinion for many more.
This isn’t a true crime book in a conventional sense, although it contains elements of it. This is Baldwin using his famous style to focus the reader on how easily disposable the Black body is, both in the deaths of children and the flimsy conviction of an adult. He posits that there is no justice or redemption to be found in a country that continually holds the existence of Black people as a crime.
Also, some who wonder how Baldwin would have handled the Obama administration need look no further than this book. He saves plenty of fire for Atlanta’s Black power structure, making the point of the limits of the power Black politicos and public officials can possibly have in a structure that prevents their collective vertical reach.
This is more unfocused than Fire Next Time and it has spots where it gets redundant. But it’s still an incredibly written jeremiad that’s worth the time to read it. Let Baldwin speak through you.