When I approached Assistant Professor of Africana Studies Judith Casselberry at the end of class and asked her for the name of the book that has most influenced her, she had an instant response. When I asked why, she called her choice—"The Fire Next Time" by James Baldwin—revelatory. “Hallelujah,” she said.

"The Fire Next Time" pairs a letter, entitled “My Dungeon Shook,” that Baldwin wrote to his nephew on the 100th anniversary of Emancipation along with his essay “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in my Mind.” Published in 1963, "The Fire Next Time" is philosophy, theology, sociology and a cultural history of American race relations. It is also voraciously readable: Baldwin’s brilliance is both sociopolitical and linguistic.

 He writes about the experience of being a black Christian man in the 1960s with elegance and a surprisingly lilting sense of hope within his clear condemnation of American society: “The universe, which is not merely the stars and the moon and the planets, flowers, grass, and trees, but other people, has evolved no terms for your existence, has made no room for you, and if love will not swing wide the gates, no other power will or can.” To a reader, Baldwin’s language is beautiful, heart-wrenching and indicative of the similarities between 1963 and 2017.

 James Baldwin was born in New York City in 1924. “Down at the Cross” covers his experiences as a young black man in Harlem, exploring religion as an alternative to the perceived depravity of life “on the Avenue,” and to the snarling realities of American racism. My class with Professor Casselberry, Spirit Come Down: Religion, Race, and Gender in America, cuts to the heart of intersectional scholarship by centralizing black women in narratives of black American religion. Both pieces in "The Fire Next Time" have a decidedly male perspective. Even while Baldwin writes about the female preacher who inspired his own religious conversion, he is writing to the male experience. But Baldwin, a gay black man, brings his own angle to the themes of identity and sexuality that inform his discussion about race and religion.  

“My Dungeon Shook” is only twelve pages, but its intimacy shook me almost more than the entirety of the book’s following essay. Writing to his nephew in the 20th century, Baldwin is speaking directly to the history and lived experience of black men. His words on American race relations and identity find ironic prophesy in their applicability to our time.

 Speaking of the racism of white people toward black people, Baldwin tells his nephew: “Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case, the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity.” He strikes to the heart of the current ongoing conversations at Bowdoin and nationwide about the importance of "showing up" and decentralizing the emotional responses of white allies.

 "The Fire Next Time" is beautiful in its lucidity and its calm perceptiveness. I found it thought-provoking both personally and academically, recommended by a professor who has deeply impacted many of my classmates. "The Fire Next Time" stretches from the personal to the classroom to the wide world, from history to the present and into the future. This book is literary nonfiction at its best, rightfully considered one of the most important books on American race relations, and a testament to the lasting power of James Baldwin.