Social Context of The Fire Next Time

Social Context of The Fire Next Time

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Social Context of The Fire Next Time

The Fire Next Time was published in a time of great chaos. A civil rights revolution was sweeping the country. Many of the institutions of American life were being challenged, including religion. Author James Baldwin saw power as a key to African-American success in the civil rights movement.

In 1955, Rosa Parks refused to sit in the Negro section of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Dr. Martin Luther King transformed a racial protest into a massive resistance movement in the late 1950s. In the early 1960s, the sit-in tactic was launched in Greensboro, North Carolina, when black college students insisted on service at a local lunch counter. "Freedom Riders" were sent to the South in 1961 by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to test and break down segregation laws.

In a few years, there would be a sexual revolution, as well as a trend toward peace and love. For the time being, however, hatred and misunderstanding were widespread. Baldwin realized the importance of these events and movements and answered them with The Fire Next Time.

As Baldwin became a teenager in Harlem, he began to realize the presence of temptations such as sex and drugs. In order to fight these evils, he fled to the church. Eventually Baldwin realized that the church didn't preach love to everyone, but only to the ones who believed as they did. Despite this bad experience in the church, Baldwin never forgot the positive elements of religion.

According to Kenneth Kinnamon, Baldwin realized that Christians had kept blacks down through history, but he still understood the need for religion. "However much he may revile the historical role of Christianity in the enslavement of black people, The Fire Next Time attests that [Baldwin] has never forgotten the compensatory values of his [adolescent] religious experience," he writes (3). After a meeting with Elijah Muhammad, Baldwin realized that Christianity wasn't the only flawed religion. Baldwin saw that both Islam and Christianity needed to compromise their strong beliefs for a unified black movement to have any real power.

Baldwin knew the acquisition of power would have to play a key role if blacks were to achieve full civil rights. Baldwin writes, "The only thing white people have that black people need, or should want, is power--and no one holds power forever" (96). He recognizes that whites would be reluctant to relinquish the power they had over blacks.

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"The power of the white world is threatened whenever a black man refuses to accept the white world's definitions. So every attempt is made to cut that black man down--not only was made yesterday but is made today" (69).

The Fire Next Time is a voice of both controlled rage and eloquent reason in a time of racial injustice and political upheaval. James Baldwin fanned the flames of the civil rights movement with his grasp of history, perception of religion, and knowledge of power.

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