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Baldwin’s Book The Fire Next Time and
Relevance in the Twenty-First CenturyAlexandra
E. BushUniversity
of Pittsburgh               Abstract                     James
Baldwin’s Book The Fire Next Time and
Relevance in the Twenty-First CenturyPublished in 1962, James
Baldwin’s book, The Fire Next Time is
a book that reflects on the African-American experience during the Civil Rights
Era. Now, over fifty years since its original publication and amidst many
contemporary discussions concerning race and equality in the United States,
many of the ideas that Baldwin speaks on feel once again relevant. In the
following paper, I will argue that the central ideas and themes in Baldwin’s
book The Fire Next Time are indeed still
relevant in the 21st century, not only because he speaks to broad concerns of
the human spirit, but because Baldwin was contending with issues that are still
existent in modern American society. By examining recent studies, statistics,
and news stories, I will show that concerns of the 1960’s Black American are
still very much alive today, that Baldwin’s work is not irrelevant or dead,
and—perhaps most importantly—that there is value in examining history for
commentary on modern concerns.To begin, I will discuss
several core themes and ideas that Baldwin explores in The Fire Next Time. Broadly, the ideas in Baldwin’s book usually
comment on some combination of two topics: 1) some aspect of universal human
experience, and 2) concerns as they apply specifically to the Black American.

Generally, I found he most often directs his commentary towards the
latter—which makes sense; he often speaks to and about the Black American, as a
Black American. But this does not mean that Baldwin shies away from touching on
larger truths as they apply to society and humanity. For example, two broader
“big picture” concepts he touched on that stuck out were how people think of
and treat death (Baldwin, 1962, p. 91) and on love in context of hate (Baldwin,
1962, p. 95). In this way, Baldwin doesn’t just provide commentary on finite,
contextual issues but actually attempts to provide an explanation of the
psychology that leads the American society to the specific challenges it faces
as well as the reactions it has to such challenges. I mention the existence of
these broader ideas now for several reasons. First, the existence of such
commentary was the first evidence to me as reader and scholar that Baldwin’s
ideas have not died with the times. When one can speak so effectually on
universal concerns—universal themes that bridge through every human experience
(after all, we are all ultimately subject to both love and death)—it is a first
sign to me that his words would hold against the test of time.More important, however, and
perhaps more pertinent to a rigorous academic inspection, were Baldwin’s
central ideas that spoke on topics of race and racism in America and their
apparent causes. There are three central ideas on these topics that I will
describe in this paper, but do note that there are, of course, other themes and
ideas that Baldwin spoke on. The following are simply those that I found most compelling
and relevant in 21st century American society. First of these central ideas
is that narrow-minded thinking and biases propagated both knowingly and
unknowingly by White people is the largest roadblock to progress, as it molds
the minds of both Black American’s about themselves as well as White America’s
expectations of them. Baldwin (1962) eloquently speaks on this saying:They white men have had to
believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are
inferior to white men. Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will
discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. (p. 8) In this way, the
negative image of Black America, despite being “known” to be false, despite
being legislated against, is difficult to truly dispel, and without explicit
attempts to destroy this negative image, progress cannot be made. To examine whether this core idea is still relevant and
important in the 21st century, it seems important to first ask if
such narrow-minded thinking about Black America still exists. In other words,
do people still believe that being Black means being “a worthless human being”
who is “not expected to aspire to excellence” (Baldwin, 1998, p. 7)? Are such
stereotypes of the Black American still alive today? The answer, unfortunately,
is yes. According to an AP poll reported on by USA Today, “…51% of Americans now express explicit anti-black
attitudes…” (Junius,
2012). What exactly “anti-black attitudes”
mean, however, is not clear. If we examine data provided by researchers at the University
of Illinois, however, we can get a better idea of specific modern perceptions
of Black America. According to their data from a 2012 survey, over 20% of White
respondents perceived White people as more intelligent than Black people. In
addition, over 30% of White respondents reported that they believed that White
people work harder than Black people. The study also showed that the majority
of modern Black Americans perceive that inequality is rooted in Black
individuals not trying hard enough, with a little over 50%
agreeing with that statement (Krysan & Moberg, 2016).Based
on these recent studies on the American perception of blackness, it is safe to
say that stereotypical thinking and negative bias against Black ability and
effort still exists today. The next question is whether or not such ideas actually
impact Black Americans in negative ways. According to several studies related
to education and employer perception, the answer is again yes. In a study done for
the Journal of African American Men, researcher
Herbert L. Foster (1995) found that in teachers and non-teachers alike, there
is still plenty of existent stereotypical thinking about Black male students. In
another study coming out of John Hopkins,
it was revealed that “…non-black teachers have significantly lower educational
expectations for black students than black teachers do” (Gershenson,
Holt, & Papageorge, 2016, p. 211). If we examine graduation rates from the
National Center for Education Statistics, we can see that such expectations are
not entirely unfounded. “Nationwide, black students graduated at a rate of 69 percent;
Hispanics graduated at 73 percent; whites graduated at a rate of 86 percent” (“State
High School Graduation Rates By Race, Ethnicity”, 2012). While it is difficult to point to the reason
for such troubling statistics, it is indicative of existent inequity both in
the way people think about Black ability and in the actual rates at which the
Black American is able to succeed in existing institutions. Unsurprisingly,
negative perceptions don’t just affect education, but they also affect the job market.

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In a study done by Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan (2003), they
found that traditional “black” names were less likely to get a return on a
resume compared to names perceived as traditionally “white.” In these ways, we
can see that not only do narrow-minded thinking and biases still exist in
American society in the 21st century but also that these ideas shape
the perception of Black America and directly impact Black American’s ability to
succeed and actualize themselves in the world. From this, we can see that
Baldwin’s idea about the impact of stereotyping being a major road block to
progress is still a relevant and important concern for modern America. Next,
I will examine another central idea that Baldwin discusses, which is the
relationship between power and whiteness. Namely, Baldwin (1962) sees that the
power of whiteness lies in the institutions we trust to hand down justice—namely,
through the police and the criminal justice system. Baldwin implies that it is
through these systems that racism and injustice can be widely enacted, and,
because these are systems we are meant to trust, it makes their abuse towards
the Black population all the more immoral:In any case, white people, who had robbed
black people of their liberty and who profited by this theft every hour that
they lived, had no moral ground on which to stand. They had the judges, the
juries, the shotguns, the law— in a word, power. But it was a criminal power,
to be feared but not respected, and to be outwitted in any way whatever. (p. 23)In this way, Baldwin saw the justice system
at the time as having an inherent bias towards Black people that ultimately did
not bring justice for Black Americans. The words “shotguns” necessarily brings
up images of violence and death—all at the hand of the government.            In
the above quote, we see that at the time Baldwin saw the American justice
system as necessarily being in the hands of White America. Today, this is still
largely true. Of the nine current Supreme Court Justices (as of December 10,
2017), only one is African American (“Current Members”, 2017), and of the 112
Justices that have served over the history of the United States, only two
(1.78%) have been African-American: Thurgood Marshall (began serving in 1967)
and Clarence Thomas (began serving in 1991) (“Justices 1789 to Present”, 2017).

With the Black population making up approximately 13% of the overall US
population as of 2016, this means our highest courts in the land have not been
adequately representing Black Americans (“QuickFacts”). What
about other facets of the US justice system? When it comes to police officers,
approximately 12% are Black (“Police officers”, 2015). Similarly, approximately
12% of state judges are Black (Jawando & Anderson, 2016). This means Black
Americans are proportionately represented in these two jobs. However, according
to the U.S. Department of Justice, in 2013, 37% of the male US prison
population were Black; for the same year, 22% of the female US prison
population was Black (Carson, 2014). Both of these percentages show that while
the percentage of Black police offices and Black judges closely matches the
overall percent of Black people in the general US population, the percentage of
incarcerated Black Americans is extremely disproportionate when compared to the
percentage of Black people in the general US population. This is significant on
its own but is even more striking when put in perspective of White
representation in the same areas. Approximately 77% of the general US
population is White (“QuickFacts”) but only 32% of the male prison population
and 49% of the female prison population is White (Carson, 2014). Additionally,
approximately 78% of police officers are White (“Police officers”, 2015), and
approximately 70% of judges are White (Belczyk,
2009). So while both White and Black populations are
proportionately represented in the office of judges and police officers, White
people are massively underrepresented in the prison population; conversely,
Black people are extremely overrepresented in the prison population. These
statistics suggest that the institutions of power—specifically those related to
the execution of “justice”—still do not result in fair treatment of Black
Americans. With these statistics in mind, this point is brought into even
sharper relief when we consider the dozens of cases of Black Americans being
killed or brutalized by police in recent years. In 2016, the LA Times reported
on what it called “only a handful” of the wrongful deaths of Black Americans by
the police; in all, the LA Times article sited twenty Black American deaths
between 2012 and 2016 as examples of wrongful killings. Some names such as
Freddie Gray, Michael Brown Jr., Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, are likely
familiar to readers as these stories and others attracted a lot of media
attention (Susman, 2016). With these examples of injustice happening all around
us, it is easy to see that Baldwin’s ideas surrounding power, whiteness, and
our institutions of justice are still extremely relevant in 21st
century America.Finally,
I will examine one last central idea from Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. This idea is the idea of integration and
identity. Throughout his book, Baldwin (1962) discusses the idea that Black
America should not and does not want to integrate into White American society.

This is because integration implies a rejection of Black identity as inferior
and an acceptance of White identity as “normal.” Baldwin speaks on this saying,
“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” (p.

8). In this way, Baldwin recommends against disappearing into the White
American society and accommodating the way the White people think Black people
should be.            This
idea is perhaps one of the most striking points in the book, both because of
its general pervasiveness as well as its presence and relevance in modernity.

In a piece by Orlando Edmonds (2016), Edmonds connects Baldwin’s idea of authentic
integration with the Black Lives Matter movement.  Here, he argues that the Black Lives Matter movement’s
attitude is a modern embodiment of Baldwin’s thoughts on Black integration. In
the article, Edmonds quotes Patrisse Cullors who speaks on the Black
authenticity in Black Lives Matter:”The old civil rights really upheld the
narrative around ‘respectability,’ around what we’re supposed to look like and
be like. Folks in Ferguson said, “No, we’re not your respectable Negro, we are
going to sag our pants, are going to be ratchet, and we’re okay with that.” We
believe that have to show up in our full-selves, without closeting parts of
ourselves, marginalizing parts of ourselves, and build together.”Here, there is an emphasis on accepting and
loving what it can mean to be Black, even if those qualities are not accepted
or seen as positive by White America. In this way, the Black Lives Matter movement
fundamentally rejects the idea that there is something wrong with aspects of
Black identity simply because they don’t fit into what White people have deemed
as normal and appropriate. And interestingly enough, Baldwin has something to
say about why White identity tries to assert its power and opinion over Black
identity. On the topic he writes, “White Americans find it as difficult as
white people elsewhere do to divest themselves of the notion that they are in
possession of some intrinsic value that black people need, or want” (Baldwin,
1962, p. 94) and “…the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the
loss of their identity” (Baldwin, 1962, p. 8). These points are particular
poignant in modernity as we see the rise of neo-Nazi groups, white nationalism,
and the idea of the Alternative Right around America. Hauntingly, Baldwin’s writing
comes alive before our eyes as the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) defines
the Alt-Right saying, “The Alternative Right, commonly known as the Alt-Right,
is a set of far-right ideologies, groups and individuals whose core belief is that ‘white
identity’ is under attack…” (“Alt-Right”). In these ways, it is obvious the
ideas surrounding integration and identity struggle are extremely relevant
today.ConclusionIn conclusion, James
Baldwin’s work The Fire Next Time has
words that are still relevant and important today as evidenced by studies,
statistics, new stories, and movements throughout modern day America. It is
with a certain reluctance that I have defended this thesis, not because I wish
Baldwin to be wrong, but because to see Baldwin’s words in today’s reality is
to see the bias, racism, and problematic power structures from over 50 years
ago still alive and well in modern society. Through the studies, statistics, new
stories, and movements explored in this paper, it is clear that Baldwin’s
central ideas can be confirmed not just by anecdotal evidence and stories of
people’s experience, but by hard numbers and scientific studies of the reality
of living as a Black American in the 21st Century. Future research
may be able to explore the ways in which Baldwin’s words then have impacted the
now, because though it is clear that his words are still relevant, I wonder
what impact, if any, Baldwin may have had in influencing the way we speak,
conceptualize, and ultimately think of the progress made and yet to be made
towards true equality.ReferencesAlt-Right.

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