James Baldwin writes The Fire Next Time to share his own self-discovery and inspire others to explore humanity. By focusing on the individual, Baldwin hopes to end the racial and religious divide that has plagued society since white Christians first invaded North America. Throughout this book, Baldwin presents himself as an observer of a movement, bearing witness to the racial and religious separations present in Harlem during the 1960s. He encourages people to recognize one another as individuals, distancing himself from the segregationist views of his father, Malcom X, Elijah Muhammad and other leaders of this time.
In “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” Baldwin uses Uncle Tom’s Cabin to explain how disastrous categorization can be. While this novel had good intentions, Baldwin argues that it has negative results, including archetypes of black people that are still prevalent today. He reminds readers that while the author seems to be providing a book in support of black people, she makes them one-dimensional, denying their humanity by categorizing them within their ability to please white people. “Our passion for categorization,” Baldwin says, “has led to an unforeseen, paradoxical distress; confusion, a breakdown of meaning” that creates destruction and ends our sense of humanity (Notes of a Native Son, p. 19). By adhering to this separation of people, “the oppressed and the oppressor are bound together within the same society; they accept the same criteria, they share the same beliefs, they both alike depend on the same reality” (Notes of a Native Son, p. 21). Baldwin is emphasizing the harmful repercussions of categorization, a separation that creates ill will between races and religions.
In the beginning of The Fire Next Time, Baldwin describes his relationship with religion and his attempts to please his father. After preaching for a few years, Baldwin reports that religion is another form of separation, and that the Christian faith, “is more deeply concerned about the soul than it is the body,” indicating that their conquests and movements to “liberate the infidels” has taken innocent lives in the pursuit of evangelism (The Fire Next Time). There is a “remarkable arrogance” when Christians assume that the “ways and morals of others [are] inferior to Christians, and that they therefore [have] every right, and [can] use any means, to change them” (The Fire Next Time). As someone who has grown up in the Americanized Christian faith, I agree with such statements and I am reminded of how lightly we touched on the Conquistadors in school, and instead how fiercely we studied the Holocaust and other movements that did not directly involve “us”. The sense of “us,” follows Baldwin’s critiques of culture, as races and religions separate themselves from one another, creating a sense of “us” and “them”. This practice has proven deadly as people deny one another’s humanity in their efforts for self-righteousness. Baldwin encourages people to detach themselves from this inclination toward separation saying, “whoever wishes to become a truly moral human being…must first divorce himself from all the prohibitions, crimes and hypocrisies of the Christian church…if the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only to make us larger, freer, and more loving” (The Fire Next Time).
Baldwin also suggests that the fear between groups of people lies in their fear of death. He states that, “perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves…in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have” (The Fire Next Time, p. 91). Baldwin emphasizes that embracing life, death and love is the key to a free existence, for people of all races and religions. People spend most of their lives worrying about things like money, power and separation, they deny the human condition and put their hope in things they believe they can control which inevitably leads to “sterility and decay” (p. 93). Above all else, Baldwin warns of identity groups, reminding readers that past efforts at separating and defining people have failed. Identity politics, according to Baldwin, group people “in accordance to a principle that has nothing to do with love, a principle that releases them from personal responsibility” (p. 81). By denying their responsibility and love for one another, humans are bound to the dream of power, believing they need to achieve symbols of power instead of symbols of humanity.