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September 29, 2016

Reading : The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin



In Americanah, Obinze gives Ifemelu The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, and it ignites in her a fury of book-reading and narrative-finding.  It was the second time I'd heard it referenced in a book I loved in the past year, the other being Between the World & Me which takes its title and concept from a line and general theme in Baldwin's book.

I listened to both books, Baldwin's written in 1963 and Ta-Nehisi Coates' written in 2015, on audio. Jesse Martin narrates the former, and Ta-Nehisi Coates reads his own book.  They're both short, and powerful, and I really recommend taking advantage of the concrete substance of voice for these books.  Especially Ta-Nehisi Coates, who reads like he knows this is something different and eery, yet gives a richness that's immediately accessible.  I enjoyed both, though I found Baldwin's overall message to be more constructive and empowering.

One of the underlying premises is that our present is built upon layers of history, and as such so is our future.  Baldwin forms a letter, first to his teenage nephew, and then to the American people, about the systemic racial injustice in his life, in those lives before him and what would continue perpetually unless we intervene.  He dissects how the divide between black and white lives in history, religion, education, literature, in groups and in individuals.

And he believes that the first step of intervention is developing a brutally sharp and aware consciousness of this divide.  He also believes that with this knowledge comes the agency to change all that immerses us.  He says: "To accept one's' past--one's history--is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it.  An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought."

The texture of voice adds dimension to words like these, and makes certain lines strike and linger, like: "To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger."

There are words, then there is the voice that's really the goal of all words.  For me, with books like these, the audio narration enables a depth that really reaches and touches.


I think and write about hearing and giving voice all the time, because I think that's the root of caring. It's obviously not a new idea, but it surprises me every day how much goes unheard, even when you're trying hard to listen.  I'm learning that a huge part of this is about how far back things go--how much of us is tied to yesterday, and before our own experience. Listening to these narratives has heightened the way I hear and attune to layers of language and story.  So even if you've read these books, I think it's worth listening to them, to be conscious of what's spoken, to commit to the layers beneath.


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