Conversations Magazine, March/April 2024

Conversations Magazine, March/April 2024

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Tony Lindsay Presents... "A Look At James Baldwin"

At the pinnacle of his career, and during the height of The Civil Rights Movement, James Arthur Baldwin's 'The Fire Next Time' was published. The book arrived after the success of Go tell on the Mountain, Notes of a Native Son, and Giovanni's Room. Baldwin had established himself as an essayist, novelist, playwright, and columnist . . . a writer. 'The Fire next Time' had been published in parts in both The New Yorker and the Progressive in 1962. At this point in his career, James Baldwin had America's ear and what he chose to tell her made history.

The work, 'The Fire Next Time' is divided into two parts; the first being a letter of advice to Baldwin's nephew, also named James his namesake, on how to survive within the racist climate of America in 1962. He titled the letter "My Dungeon: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation." What was startling about the letter is that during a period of proposed integration and assimilation Baldwin advises:

If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go. The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you. Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity and fear. Please try to be clear, dear James, through the storm which rages about your youthful head today, about the reality which lies behind the words acceptance and integration. 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. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand: and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They 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. To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case, the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity. Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shining and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one's sense of one's reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man's world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar: and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations. (8)

One should remember the "letter" was written in 1962. Here Baldwin speaks to the equality of men based on knowing themselves; if his nephew knows from whence he came the lies of white superiority would be of little affect on his development and survival; not bad advice for any man during any time.

Tony Lindsay is an award-winning author and adjunct professor at Chicago State University. His new book ONE DEAD DOCTOR is available now on Amazon. He can be reached at or on Facebook at

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