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Black intellectualism and learning from Asia — a sort of review of The Fire Next Time

cover of audio version of The Fire Next Time

James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963) contains two essays. The first, a letter to Baldwin’s teenaged nephew, served as inspiration for Between the World and Me which I extolled not only for the content, but for Ta-Nehisi Coates’ inspirational writing skill. It is like a finger pointing at the moon, and I am glad for Coates directing my attention to all that heavenly glory. “My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation,” written in the early 1960s is still relevant, and not surprisingly, influencing many young Black people today.

The second essay, “Down At The Cross — Letter from a Region of My Mind”, is much longer, and an elegant rumination of the black politics at the time. I particularly enjoyed Baldwin’s visit to the home of Elijah Muhammad — the anxiety of the experience is palpable — and Baldwin’s analysis of the Nation of Islam’s approach to the Civil Rights Movement. The book is undeniably an American classic, and Baldwin’s skill as a novelist and playwright shines through.

Near the end of his argument, the following passage particularly stood out to me:

I cannot accept the proposition that the four-hundred-year travail of the American Negro should result merely in his attainment of the present level of the American civilization. … It is a bargain I refuse. The only thing white people have that black people need, or should want, is power—and no one holds power forever.

White people cannot, in the generality, be taken as models of how to live. Rather, the white man is himself in sore need of new standards, which will release him from his confusion and place him once again in fruitful communion with the depths of his own being.

Forgive me for turning this excellent book about another man’s — another people’s — experience into something about me, but I have experienced this observation from a slightly different direction: eastward.

At a young age, filled with the liberal ideologies Baldwin so roundly rebukes in Fire, I moved to Japan and was shocked, shocked, at how they didn’t do anything right. There was too much conformity; too much bureaucracy; too much hierarchy. I mean, the banking system was still based on cash and the ATMs were closed on the weekends! The other foreigners surrounding me in in my gaijin bubble (exclusively white as I look back on it) provided an echo chamber of smug western-ness. We were young and overly confident in our ignorance, you might say.

It wasn’t until I had been back and forth to the West a few times, until I became more educated about why we do things the way we do, that my perspective evened out, became nuanced.

Living in a foreign country you start to build two lists in your head: 1) what is better about your adopted country; and 2) what is better about your home country. Much of the content of these lists are a matter of taste, often an accident of circumstance, and over time it is interesting to see how the items change or are removed. What is more striking is when you return to your home country for a few years: the list does not disappear. It is not filed away in some mental drawer, never to be viewed again. In fact, you begin a new version of that list. And in my case, it invalidated my original list.

Thus, upon returning to Japan I found myself confronting those in my old gaijin bubble about their grievances for how things were done there, rather than smugly echoing agreement (economics and education policy are just two examples). Having never left, they never had the opportunity to refine their perspective. It wasn’t merely about maturing, it was about gaining perspective. For me it was transnational experience, witnessing my spouse’s experience as a woman of colour in Canada, and reading. Counter-intuitively, long-term white expats can have a more difficult time confronting their whiteness. It is something they hold onto even tighter as they construct their identity in an environment of isolation. (It is particularly difficult in countries like Japan that have been reaching for whiteness for over one hundred years, which acts to reinforce such attitudes.)

Living more minimalistically, realizing and rejecting the symbols of whiteness here in North America (a.k.a. the American Dream), I wholeheartedly approve of Baldwin’s assertion that “White people cannot, in the generality, be taken as models of how to live.” History is littered with the evidence, yet the old power still hangs on. Baldwin contends that “the white man is himself in sore need of new standards.” This is not just for the sake of race relations in the United States. It is for how western countries interact with the world in a post-colonial era, which is still recovering from the effects of colonialism. Where do these standards come from? Reconciliation between the various communities in our own countries is certainly one step, but I would add learning from countries with much longer histories. For me, of course, this is eastward, to the long-standing cultures of Asia. So much of Chinese and Indian (and surrounding countries) remain opaque to us in North America, to our detriment.

The 21st century has been dubbed “the Asian century.” Do not mistake this merely for Asia rising up to take the reins of global power from the Americans as they did from the Brits before them. Before the Europeans began their catastrophic colonial capers across the globe and history, Asia was the locus of global power. The reins of power are being returned. Baldwin wrote his book in the 1960s, when America was at its height, and as he warned “no one holds power forever.”

Regardless of these thoughts of one white dude with ties to Asia, The Fire Next Time is a brilliant book that everyone should read. 5 stars.