I was 15 when I first read THE FIRE NEXT TIME by James Baldwin. A tiny volume first published in 1962, THE FIRE’s incendiary look at racial injustice in mid-century America excoriates the American dream as “a nightmare, on the private, domestic, and international levels.”
It is personal memoir. It is literary essay. It is unflinching report. It is passionate letter addressed to black boys who are making the transition to black men in race-dominated America. It is searing testament. It is blazing pain.
It concludes with this incontrovertible sentiment: Black Lives Matter. With its Harlem church cadence and wicked winding sentences, THE FIRE NEXT TIME taught me that it was possible to make an argument for social justice mellifluously and seductively if propelled by a strong first-person voice. It forever ignited my love for writers who push boundaries with what their work is doing tonally, personally, politically.
I recently re-read THE FIRE NEXT TIME and it continues to feel resonant and urgent (just ask writers Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jesmyn Ward). This has much to do with the courage and chutzpah of its address, and the fact that the fire Baldwin prophesied, the fire that comes from denying history and racial inequality, is now in the streets of America, Canada, and Europe.
In these long days of resistance, I have been thinking more about the epistolary as a form and as a pledge and what it might mean to write a long-form essay to the next generation, testing our own peripheral loyalty to the young but also to the ghosts of our far futures. What would it mean to write a book as an act of confessing to or testifying before those who are yet to come? What kind of promises would we wish to make? What world would we hope to bequeath?
We are part of a through-line that stretches across time. This is the lesson of Baldwin. This is the nature of our inheritance—both awesome and terrible. As the current period unfolds with many uncertainties, as we (in literary and wider communities) defend those currently under attack and protest those peddling hate, Baldwin reminds us to keep our eyes and hearts open: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
The influences on my work as a writer are profuse and multifarious, but Baldwin will always have a special place in my pantheon.
Kyo Maclear is a novelist, essayist, and children’s author. Her memoir, BIRDS ART LIFE, is on sale now.