Review: The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin

I almost reviewed James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time on my education blog rather than here, where I mainly talk about books and other things. I consider it professional reading in addition to personal reading. However, I think I will write there more generally about the educational implications of this book and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which I finished earlier this week as well.

Baldwin writes lucidly and persuasively about the oppression of African Americans in 1963. I wonder what he would make of the world we live in today. Not much seems to have changed, and Baldwin’s warnings about the dangers we face if we cannot begin to love one another, if we cannot be free, seem to be boiling over in our current political climate. One wonders if what we see around us is the last gasp of white supremacy before it is submerged finally. I hope this is true, but I cannot tell.

The structure of this book takes the form of two letters: one letter to Baldwin’s nephew on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the second letter to Americans in general. It was a little hard not to underline everything Baldwin says in the book. Not a word seems out of place or unnecessary. Like one of the best sermons or gospel songs, the entire book and every letter of every word in it is critical. Baldwin argues that Americans fear freedom and that none of us, black or white, is truly free. Baldwin could be writing about our current political movement when he says

We are controlled here by our confusion, far more than we know, and the American dream has therefore become something much more closely resembling a nightmare, on the private, domestic, and international levels. Privately, we cannot stand our lives and dare not examine them; domestically, we take no responsibility for (and no pride in) what goes on in our country; and internationally, for many millions of people, we are an unmitigated disaster. (89)

Baldwin says that our only constants are birth, death, and love, “though we may not always think so” and “safety… or money, or power” are “chimeras, by which one can only be betrayed” (92). Clinging to safety, money, and power will result in the disappearance of “the entire hope—the entire possibility—of freedom” (92). We do have a chance if we are willing to take it.

[I]f we, who can scarcely be considered a white nation, persist in thinking of ourselves as one, we condemn ourselves with the truly white nations, to sterility and decay, whereas if we could accept ourselves as we are, we might bring new life to the Western achievements, and transform them. (94)

Baldwin concludes that “we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are to become a nation” (97). The way forward is through love. Radical love, which is the theme of the post I will write on my education blog if I can manage to string together my thoughts coherently. Radical love is what we need if we are going to survive, for “hatred becomes too heavy a sack to carry” (99).

Reading Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator writing about the effects of oppression on education, and Baldwin, writing about the impact of racism on human dignity, has helped me understand what happened in our recent election with a little more clarity. Some of us are afraid. The oppressed are not staying in “their place.” But as long as continue to think of each other in terms of superiority and inferiority and cannot love each other, we will none of us be free. I wish the world around us had changed since Baldwin wrote this book in 1963 and Freire wrote his in 1970, but alas, both books speak all too clearly about and to our times.

Rating: ★★★★★

The Backlist Reader Challenge 2017I don’t remember when I added this book to my TBR list, but I certainly wasn’t serious about moving up the list until recently. I have definitely wanted to read it since I read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. The title of Coates’s book comes from The Fire Next Time. I definitely want to read The Fire This Time. now.

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Review: The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad was one of the most discussed books of 2016, so if you haven’t read it, chances are you know something about it. In any case, it is the story of runaway slave Cora who is making her way north from a Georgia plantation using the Underground Railroad, which in Colson’s novel is not a metaphorical name for the network sympathizers, abolitionists, former slaves, and others who helped escaping slaves on their way to freedom but an actual technological marvel—a railroad, under the ground. The book has been compared to Gulliver’s Travels, which earns a mention in the reading of Cora’s friend and fellow escapee, Caesar. At each station or stop in Cora’s journey, she is confronted with a different sort of evil that Americans have perpetrated against their fellow Americans, from bringing them to America in chains, to lynching, to terrorism, to more subtle means of subjugation and deception, such as medical experimentation.

My book club selected this to read, and I knew our meeting was coming up, but I wasn’t sure when until one of my friends reminded me. It’s this coming week! I wasn’t sure I could finish the book in time for our meeting, but I decided I had best pick it up and read at least some of it, especially because I was one of the members who suggested we read it.

I actually couldn’t put it down, and I read it in two big gulps over yesterday and today. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like it. Whitehead plays with documented historical fact, entwining it with speculative fiction, imagining an antebellum America where South Carolina had skyscrapers and an actual railroad leading slaves north ran underground. These fantastic aspects of the novel allow Whitehead to explore the broader history of the African-American experience through the eyes of a single character. The only other way I think he could have done it would have been a sort of immense Roots-like multigenerational epic rather than this tight narrative that allows us into the life of one character. It also allows Whitehead to show the scope of the atrocity of slavery and racism in all its depth and breadth. It’s hard to put down—I wanted to see Cora to safety in the North so badly, that I sat and read for two days! I can’t give the ending away, but I will admit I needed more satisfaction after following Cora on her odyssey all that way. And as much as anything else, the ending has to be that way because it is the truth about the African-American experience.

This novel hit me like Beloved. I credit Beloved with finally helping me get it, as a white woman. After reading Beloved, I felt like for the first time, I had a small understanding of what the lingering and devastating effects of slavery on our country. Of course I can’t ever really understand what I haven’t experienced, but through books like Beloved and The Underground Railroad, I can gain empathy I didn’t have before I read them. This book is Beloved for the next generation. It’s a critical book for our times, just as Between the World and Me is critical. In fact, I recommend they be read back-to-back if you haven’t read either book yet. It’s a wonderful book, and it might be the best one I read all year. It’s certainly in the top five.

Ron Charles (as usual) has a great review in the WaPo. Michiko Kakutani liked it, too, and she is tough. Definitely read both reviews, which capture the power of this novel better than I have been able to do here. As Kakutani so astutely notes in her review, quoting Faulkner, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In the case of this book, I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book ostensibly about slavery that also so accurately describes our own moment in history.

Rating: ★★★★★

Set in the antebellum South as Cora travels from Georgia to Indiana and that vague fantasyland known as “North,” though with some elements of speculative fiction, this book works for the Historical Fiction Challenge.

 

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Review: Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

I can’t believe it took me this long to finally pick up Between the World and Me. I’ve wanted to read it for months. I finally purchased it for my Kindle back in November, and it sat there on my Kindle for two months before I finally read it today.

I almost feel like I shouldn’t explain what this book is about because I feel like the last person to have read it, but in the event I’m not, and in the event you haven’t bumped into this book yet, Between the World and Me is a letter from Coates to his teenage son, but beyond that, it is a meditation on the history of race relations in America, a stark condemnation of the American Dream, and a powerful narrative of the current (and historical) climate of police brutality. In the Goodreads description:

In a profound work that pivots from the biggest questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of a father for his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s history and current crisis. Americans have built an empire on the idea of “race,” a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men—bodies exploited through slavery and segregation, and, today, threatened, locked up, and murdered out of all proportion. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden?

I don’t often say this about a book because I think reading is often intensely personal, and what we like and don’t like doesn’t always translate to others, but I think everyone should read this book. They probably won’t. In fact, the people who most need to read this book probably won’t read it. I’m intensely glad that I did. I learned a lot, and this book has made me think more than most of the books I’ve read. In many ways, I feel like I’ve been waking up to some hard truths about the world and specifically about America, and as a teacher, I feel responsible for my role in helping students make sense of the world around them. One feeling I had as I finished this book is a sense of failure. I know, especially early in my career, that I was not a good teacher (because I was green, mainly), but more specifically, I was a terrible teacher for the young black students in my classes because I didn’t know and didn’t understand so much.

Of this book, Toni Morrison, a writer I respect a great deal, says:

I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates. The language of Between the World and Me, like Coates’s journey, is visceral, eloquent, and beautifully redemptive. And its examination of the hazards and hopes of black male life is as profound as it is revelatory. This is required reading.

I can’t make a stronger point than Toni Morrison. If you haven’t read this book, you should, but be prepared to have your world shaken. It is one of those books that might make you measure your life in terms of before you read it and after you read it. It is beautifully written essential reading.

Rating: ★★★★★

I purchased this book in November, but it’s been on my TBR list for a while. I’m counting it toward both the Shelf Love Challenge and the Mount TBR Challenge. I’m chipping away at both of these challenges at a clip. I may need to up my participation level. It’s been good motivation to clear out some items on my TBR list and my shelves.
 

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