Americans’ idea of Baldwin is often limited to this decade—the 1960s—perhaps because no other U.S. writer embodies that period better than he does. Although he had published an impressive set of works in the ’50s, it was the release of the novel Another Country (1962) and the two essays that make up The Fire Next Time (1963) that solidified his reputation as one of America’s preeminent writers and public intellectuals. In these civil-rights-era works, Baldwin was keen on interrogating white power and championing love to realize the full promise of America.
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Of Baldwin’s writings from this period, The Fire Next Time is the most representative. It offers his most trenchant critique of white supremacy—how it is contingent on black subjugation, and how that asymmetry totally warps the people, institutions, and moral character of the United States. More specifically, Baldwin identified a feeling he called “innocence” to be a constituent feature of white supremacy. As he put it, “It is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.” To author devastation—that is, to enslave, maim, lynch, and disenfranchise a group of people—entails one type of power. And, as Baldwin delineated, it takes yet another kind to disavow those violent acts.
Innocence, Baldwin argued, masks America’s violent racial past and present record, enabling white Americans to shirk responsibility and to reproduce an idea of themselves and of the United States based on the republic’s noble ideals rather than its ignoble history. Baldwin believed that no substantive racial progress, and no fundamental transformation of the nation, could be achieved so long as innocence remained the organizing feeling of American whiteness. This is why he had championed love as a countervailing feeling. In fact, he believed it to be the only remaining force powerful enough to free whiteness from its arrested state of innocence, concluding, “If love will not swing wide the gates, no other power will or can.”
In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin identifies three key ways for love to remake the country at a decisive time in its history. First, Baldwin saw black love as one crucial vehicle for white redemption. Addressing his 14-year-old nephew, and by extension a black collective, he writes:
Please try to be clear, dear James, through the storm which rages about your youthful head today, about the reality which lies behind the words acceptance and integration. There is no reason for you to try to become like white men and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them, and I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love, for these innocent people have no other hope.
Baldwin attacks the assumption of an American keyword such as integration, which in 1963 widely meant the acceptance of African Americans by white people, institutions, and standards. Instead, he inverts that logic and insists that it’s African Americans who have to accept their white counterparts and change U.S. institutions and norms on black terms. Writing two years before the end of legal segregation, Baldwin demands black people not only to accept whites, but to do so with love, positioning black love as a vital instrument for white liberation and interracial renewal on a national scale.