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Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. New York: Vintage, 1963.

Recently, in a Facebook exchange (on politics, of course), someone was ridiculed as a liberal for calling another person “unkind”, and I think there is something to this. To my mind liberals, just as much as conservatives, have things they want to preserve in the world; the world as it is, fundamentally, even with all its faults, is a place worth holding on to and working on to try to fix it. For both liberals and conservatives too, these elements that they would like to preserve are sometimes real (in that they really exist, or existed at some point in the past), and sometimes simply fictions, legends (for conservatives, this might be a legend like the neverexisting “white nation”; for liberals, this might be fiction like the social contract). I think that this question of kindness must fall somewhere in the liberal camp of things – real or not – worth preserving, worth trying to cultivate in a world that has become, for various reasons, predominantly unkind.

Now, Nietzsche already exposed this myth of kindness in the 19th century, making it a hallmark of the “slave morality” of which Christianity was the apex. It seems to me that Baldwin, among many others, would recognize this characterisation of “kindness” as a virtue designed to keep people in their places. “Slave” for Baldwin is a more concrete – a more historically precise – term than it is for Nietzsche, but you can read in The Fire Next Time where Baldwin thinks kindness will get anyone. Kindness would mean accepting the limits that White society puts on you, the “place” White society expects you to know. Unkindness is a requirement for maintaining your self-respect in a world that is – at every moment – attempting to convince you of your worthlessness. The kind of social change Baldwin calls for, hopes for, requires unkindness on the part of Blacks towards Whites. In its place – for Baldwin’s book is, in fact, full of virtue if not of kindness – is the virtue of humanization, but Baldwin recognizes that in a society founded on, needing (in a deep psychological sense), seeing Black people as non-human, no one is going to grant humanity to Blacks; it can only be won through struggle, that is, through unkindness.

And I think this focus on something other than kindness, this focus on a broader – teleological, perhaps apocalyptic – sense of humanization allows Baldwin to be more understanding. Kindness requires self-censorship in order to spare feelings, but Baldwin’s unflinching portrayal not only of his own childhood and youth in Harlem, but of the Nation of Islam, and the complicated (though in the end quite simple) dynamic of White guilt and White superiority, is always tinged – as these things are, for example, in Dostoyevsky – with a forgiveness, a charity that goes beyond the simplistic virtues of the Christian (both Baldwin and Dostoyevsky had complicated relationships with Christianity), and has less in common with “love thy neighbour as thyself” than with what I think is a more subtle teaching of Jesus’: “love thy enemy”. For it is unkind to call someone an enemy – are we not all friends and neighbours? To call someone an enemy is to recognize some struggle between you, some strife that would – in the usual way of things – be unbridgeable, to call out the other’s wickedness or iniquity, to tell it like it is. Someone who says we are all neighbours is either naïve or lying, and in any event, loving one’s neighbour is easy – the world does not change because we love our neighbours. But the world does change if – and this is the more radical proposition of Christ – we can love our enemies.

And Baldwin does want the world to change, but not – as Dostoyevsky does – for it to go backward. Dostoyevsky believes in a world before liberalism, before atheism and socialism, a world where people not only accept but love the places God has set for them in society, and because of this society is a harmonious whole, fulfilling God’s plan. Baldwin doesn’t want to go backward; backward for Black people means slavery once more, slavery of that concrete kind that weighs on American history like an executioner’s hood. Baldwin is no liberal because he recognizes that for the world to change, for society to be (one hopes) improved, even the good things about the world we have now must be destroyed. White sensibilities must be pitilessly attacked for White superiority to be dismantled.

And it is this, I think, the pitiless need for the current sick world to die coupled with a profound and intelligent humanism, that makes Baldwin so important not only for American culture, but for human culture. Like Dostoyevsky, there may be much that one might disagree with – perhaps even deeply disagree with – but one must face up to his work with open eyes. Taking kindness as a virtue in and of itself, something to be adhered to blindly, means closing one’s eyes to the unkind things that Baldwin and Dostoyevsky and others have to say.

This is what elevates The Fire Next Time above the particular social and historical moment for which it was written. It is important, obviously, to always bear in mind the concrete situation Baldwin is talking about, the forces of American and World history that are still with us (as is more obvious to us today than perhaps even 15 years ago). It gives The Fire Next Time an undogmatic quality that demands attention and a sympathetic reading, and it allows for a broadening out of Baldwin’s immediate concerns to the wider field of radical politics itself. The Facebook exchange referred to above was the silliest, most childish rehash of left-wing stereotypes, the kind of thing that turns people off of politics (left or right), and is unworthy of the kind of sober, serious, humanist, consideration that thinking about these issues requires of us.

I thought long and hard about whether to post this. In the first place, there’s the question of whether I should be commenting at all on Baldwin’s book. The second question is to what extent an exhortation against kindness actually fits with how I think I and other people should behave. In the days following the “nazi punching” of Richard Spencer, this question has come up again and again. For me, a lifelong commitment to pacifism has recently started to seem more and more shaky. In Domenico Losurdo’s book on Nonviolence, he argues that “nonviolence” is always held up as an ideal to which oppressed people are expected to conform, despite the fact that oppression has always dealt violence to them. I think - going back to the example of Jesus again - we must have love in order for the world to change, but sometimes (often?) love is unkind. We have to be careful not to confuse the two.

Finally, I’m reminded of a quote from Martin Luther King that has been making the rounds recently, from his Letter from Birmingham Jail:

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.

Kindness is the hallmark of a negative peace; what Baldwin writes about in The Fire Next Time are the conditions for justice, a positive peace.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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