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February 6, 2015

The book that rocked a nation: Stanford's Another Look book club takes on James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time

"It is the innocence which constitutes the crime," author and activist James Baldwin wrote in 1963. Says novelist Tobias Wolff, "His words burn as hot today as when they left his pen."

By Cynthia Haven

Writer and activist James Baldwin in 1967. (Photo: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

In the last year, the killings of black youth have sparked protests and violent clashes with police across the nation, putting racial justice in the headlines. Next month, the "Another Look" book club will reflect on these issues with a public discussion of James Baldwin's 1963 book The Fire Next Time, the author's scathing, yet compassionate, reflections on the consequences of America's racial inequities.

The event will take place at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 5, at the Bechtel Conference Center at Encina Hall on Serra Street. Another Look discussions are free and open to the public, with no reserved seating.

The discussion will be moderated by Michele Elam, professor of English, with Harry Elam, vice provost for undergraduate education, and acclaimed author Tobias Wolff, professor of English and the founding director of Another Look. Michele Elam is a widely published authority on race and culture; Harry Elam is a leading scholar of African American theater and performance.

Michele Elam said that she selected The Fire Next Time "because its urgent insistence that black lives matter is as poignantly relevant today as it was in the civil rights era." Elam, whose The Cambridge Companion to James Baldwin will be out this month, added, "The Fire Next Time offers some of his most cogent and searing insights into race, power and love in America."

The book has two parts: Baldwin's essay, "Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind," which originally ran in the New Yorker, and "My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation," a shorter piece that Elam called "a meditation on the fragility of black boyhood."

Baldwin wrote to his nephew of the hundreds of thousands of lives destroyed, and his countrymen who "do not know it and do not want to know it." He added, "But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime."

He claimed in the longer essay that white men project their fears and their longings onto African Americans. "The only way he can be released from the Negro's tyrannical power over him is to consent, in effect, to become black himself, to become part of that suffering and dancing country that he now watches wistfully from the heights of his lonely power and, armed with spiritual traveller's checks, visits surreptitiously after dark."

Baldwin was born in Harlem in 1924, the first of nine children. He never knew his biological father, but his stepfather was a harsh preacher. At school he studied with Countee Cullen, a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance, and worked on the high school magazine with Richard Avedon, who would become a world-famous photographer.

The Fire Next Time dwells briefly on Baldwin's precocious and brief teenage career as an evangelical preacher. He moved to Greenwich Village at 17 to be a writer.

Later, a British television journalist pointed out to Baldwin that when he started his career he was black, impoverished and homosexual – "How disadvantaged can you get?"

"No," Baldwin responded, "I thought I hit the jackpot." Then, after the laughter subsided, he added, "It's so outrageous you could not go any further, so you had to find a way to use it."

Use it he did. He wrote more than a score of fiction and nonfiction works, including novels, essays and plays. The Fire Next Time sold more than a million copies and put Baldwin's face on the cover of Time magazine. The award-winning author was a popular speaker – lively, epigrammatic, scathingly witty, passionate and deeply humane. He eventually settled in the south of France, where he was named a Commander of the Legion of Honor the year before his death of cancer in 1987.

"The Fire Next Time is one of the great books of the last century," said Wolff, who teaches the book every fall. "With forensic calm born of rage, Baldwin performs an autopsy on the self-flattering myths by which we blind ourselves to the radical injustices of our society, even as we congratulate ourselves on its moral superiority. Grounded in historical and personal experience, relentlessly logical, his words burn as hot today as when they left his pen."

Certainly the book changed minds and lives. When he was still a seminary student, Bob Fitch, who currently has a photography exhibition at Stanford University Libraries spotlighting the civil rights era, spent all night reading the book and the next day bought a camera and began photographing the civil rights movement. A few years later, at an informal staff meeting held in Martin Luther King Jr.'s bedroom, he saw The Fire Next Time among the leader's rumpled bedsheets. King told the young photographer that the book had inspired his own 1967 book, which would be his last, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? The Green Library exhibition continues through March 18.

The Another Look book club focuses on short masterpieces that have been forgotten, neglected or overlooked – or may simply not have gotten the attention they merit. The selected works are short to encourage the involvement of the Bay Area readers whose time may be limited. Registration at is encouraged for regular updates and details on the selected books and events. Another Look also invites readers far away to join in reading the book and to send comments. Podcasts of previous events are on the website.



Cynthia Haven, Another Look:

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965,


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