The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin


The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin was first published in 1963 amid the emerging civil rights movement. The work explores religion and racial injustice in mid-century America. Shown here is the first British edition, published by Penguin in 1964.

Baldwin’s first essay, titled ‘My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation’, takes the form of a letter to his 14-year old nephew. The second essay, ‘Down at the Cross — Letter from a Region of My Mind’, is an autobiographical account of Baldwin’s experiences growing up in New York. It is divided into accounts of his encounters with Christianity and, later, with the Nation of Islam. Out of these compelling stories develops Baldwin’s urgent political, religious critique of America. Baldwin locates religion as the root cause of oppression in America. He indicts religion for perpetuating narrow thinking, promoting separatism, and urging racial violence.

Though Baldwin’s critique is charged with anger at white America, the essay is deeply compassionate and concludes by imagining an alternative America that has overcome racial division. Baldwin proposes that white and black citizens must enact radical personal and social change, moving toward deeper thought, understanding and growth as one nation:

If we – and I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of others – do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.

James Baldwin’s influence on Hanif Kureishi

Hanif Kureishi uses The Fire Next Time as a template in ‘The Rainbow Sign’, the seminal 1986 essay that explores Kureishi’s Anglo-Indian identity. The essay’s title comes from ‘God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water but fire next time’, a line from an African American spiritual that Baldwin uses as an epigraph for ‘Down at the Cross’.

While Baldwin rejects Christianity and the Nation of Islam to affirm his own American identity, Kureishi rejects the possibility of a return to Pakistan and comes to accept, in spite of the hostility he has encountered, that he is British. Mirroring the warning found within the spiritual, Baldwin and Kureishi both conclude by prophesying that, without radical change, racial division and injustice will lead to a destructive, imploding future.

In ‘The Rainbow Sign’ Kureishi describes being struck by Steve Schapiro’s photograph of Baldwin and his nephew on the front cover of the Penguin edition. In this image Baldwin stood for him as ‘intelligence and love combined’.

Full title:
The Fire Next Time
1964, Harmondsworth, Middlesex
Penguin Books in association with Michael Joseph
Book / Photograph / Image
James Baldwin, Steve Schapiro
Usage terms

Steve Schapiro (cover photograph): © Steve Schapiro. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further.

Held by
British Library

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