The Fire This Time
I read The Fire Next Time for the first time in 2014. I found his prose too seductive, too masculine. I moved back to India after completing my PhD. Rohith Vemula killed himself. And asked to be treated as a mind. As a dynamic being, rather than a vessel of tokenistic affirmative action bestowed by the feigned generosity of the nation-state. Ferguson killings occurred. Black Lives Matter raised its voice amidst the cacophony of the election. I had moved to Toronto on a fellowship by this time. A million pink hats took to the street. I started tuning in to this energy. From a distance. A privileged distance. These were not my issues. But I had family in the US – including a young brown man, my brother. The killings of two engineers in Kansas seemed eerily close to home. I met an angry man in Toronto. Heard inspired speeches at protests. Six Muslim men were killed in Quebec. I tried to kickstart what is my wont – a place to read and write and reflect as therapy for the times we lived in. It is a weak political strategy perhaps, it is the only one I know. I read Fanon again. It struck an intellectual chord, but not an emotional one. I couldn’t, like Fanon, take on the responsibility of explaining to people the terms of their oppression. I didn’t take to Fanon’s pedantic tone.
I read The Fire Next Time. This time, Baldwin seemed to speak my fears. The fact that certain register of life is drained of possibility at its very start, is the most basic kernel of the race question. These lives are wasted, drained of opportunity, they are not part of the national dream. And yet their bare, captive and strong hands built this very nation. I am devoid of thought on this. I grew up with possibility. Baldwin wrenched possibility of an intellectual life. He took to the church. I took to the academy. I don’t mirror him – not in the power of prose for sure. But something switched in me – his ambivalence, his confusion, his use of the mind as a canvas for the world draw out its pain – seemed closer home. God is black, he said. And freedom is hard to bear. The frightening freedom of this self-congratulating world seemed hard, asphyxiating and a death-knell upon the creative need to bond with the world. Perhaps, Baldwin would have seen these traces of confusion as a critique of neoliberal intellectualism had he written today. And had he not been black.