In reading the two previous essay collections by Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name and Notes of a Native Son, you can feel where Baldwin’s thinking shifts throughout at times from an inner understanding of his own place in society toward a more clear understanding of his role as a writer. After those two books, you get The Fire Next Time, which clearly reads like a full reckoning. This essay collection feels like the fully articulated thoughts of someone so much more secure in his understanding, his expertise, his discomfort, but also his comfort in being a public voice about race and racism in America. Unfortunately, this new positioning seems to have come from a kind of breaking of James Baldwin after the murders of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. The essays continue to talk about big picture ideas about race, but then get into some of the more granular details we get from good discussions of race in the US now — policing and police violence, North v South (specifically how dishonestly smug people from the North often are about racism in the US versus a horrific, but at least honest set of beliefs in the South), and other topics that we still get at today. Like a lot of good essay collections, so much about this collection feels fresh, which is also what’s horrible about the political reality shaping and informing it.
“It must be remembered that in those great days I was considered to be an “integrationist” – this was never, quite, my own idea of myself – and Malcolm was considered to be a “racist in reverse.” This formulation, in terms of power – and power is the arena in which racism is acted out – means absolutely nothing: it may even be described as a cowardly formulation. The powerless, by definition, can never be “racists,” for they can never make the world pay for what they feel or fear except by the suicidal endeavor which makes them fanatics or revolutionaries, or both.”