Wednesday, 18 September 2019

The Fire Next Time

There's a (North)American obsession with race that I've always thought baffling. Also, I do sense a fanatical streak to it that is beyond my comprehension. It's probably to do with the fact that the vast North-American territory was conquered by puritans who were so morally strict that their fellow Brits could not stand them any longer and kicked them out, as Robertson Davies once remarked.

Many white North-Americans seem not to have understood what their founding fathers stated in the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal ...". And, the Christians among them seem not to have grasped that, according to the Bible, all human beings are made in the image of the divine. 
Copyright@2019 by Steve Shapiro
Trainees sing "We Shall Overcome" in Oxford, Ohio, before boarding a bus in June 1964. Organizers warned trainees about the dangers in Mississippi. People would be beaten, arrested, and sometimes killed, they told the hundreds of Northern students..

James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time was first published in 1963; it is now reprinted with more than 100 photographs from Steve Shapiro who travelled the (North)American South with Baldwin for Life magazine. 

"I'm not better because I'm black, but if you say God is white why shouldn't I say he's black? The question isn't whether you're as good as white people but whether you're a man", Baldwins writes and thus makes clear that America's so-called "Negro problem" goes way beyond skin colour and segregation. 

"Behind what we think of as the Russian menace lies what we do not wish to face, and what white Americans do not face when they regard a Negro: reality – the fact that life is tragic. Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have."
Copyright@2019 by Steve Shapiro
A protester laughs before a phalanx of state troopers in Selma. "To me, this is a very symbolic picture," says Shapiro, "it expresses two sides of the coin, two different attitudes."

When debating race one often hears the argument that Blacks or Asians or Latinos should have the same rights and opportunities as white people. To argue like this however presupposes automatically that white people believe, in the words of James Baldwin, that "they are in possession of some intrinsic value that black people need, or want. And this assumption – which, for example, makes the solution of the Negro problem depend on the speed with which Negroes accept and adopt white standards – is revealed in all kinds of striking ways, from Bobby Kennedy's assurance that a Negro can become President in forty years to the unfortunate tone of warm congratulation with which so many liberals address their Negro equals."
Copyright@2019 by Steve Shapiro
Thousands crossed the bridge with King, but not all walked the fifty-four eventful miles to Montgomery.

The Fire Next Time is much less a historic document than an important book for Baldwin's approach to "the race problem" forcefully points out that what we have come to grips with is not the topics we mostly discuss, from skin colour and integration to religion and culture, but our fears and longings.

"Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word 'love' here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace – not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth."

James Baldwin
Steve Shapiro
The Fire Next Time
Taschen, Cologne 2019

No comments: