Call me a nerd, but one of the things I miss about being in school is writing book reports (anyone remember BOOK IT! at Pizza Hut?!) Although there’s no personal pan pizza waiting for me as an adult, I like how reporting on a book forces me to read for comprehension and really pause at those passages that resonate with me the most.
So, occasionally I like to share what I’m reading on this Blog. Consider it like a book club for introverts :) ... I write about the book and then share a few of my thoughts.
First up is a classic from James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time.
“A knowledge of the role [these people] played - and play- in American life would reveal more about America to Americans than Americans wish to know.”
This was my first time reading James Baldwin. Although I’ve seen many clips of his interviews and knew him to be a profound influence on many writers and social activists, it was an entirely different experience reading his work.
The Fire Next Time is a non-fiction book from 1963, which contains two essays: "My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation," and "Down At The Cross — Letter from a Region of My Mind." The first essay, relatively brief, discusses the role of race in America, written as a letter to his nephew. The second dives deeper into the life experiences of African Americans and Baldwin’s own relationship with religion, including his time in the Christian church and his view on the Nation of Islam.
The Fire Next Time definitely left me wanting to dive into more of Baldwin’s work and, in a weird way, makes me wish I was alive during this time to witness him and his spirit.
From My Perspective
Two things I love most about Baldwin so far: 1) his unrelenting pursuit to speak the unspoken - particularly in the 1960s; and 2) his incredible ability to knock you over with the truth. Take for example this quote from page 89, which feels particularly relevant now as we watch international conflict unfold:
“The American dream has therefore become something much more closely resembling a nightmare, on the private, domestic, and international levels. Privately, we cannot stand our lives and dare not examine them; domestically, we take no responsibility for (and no pride in) what goes on in our country; and, internationally, for many millions of people, we are unmitigated disaster.”
I’ve always had a deep appreciation and admiration for people who can cut like a sharp knife with their words, ripping right through to what’s at the core. I personally believe it is that type of truth-telling that has the power to affect social change.
When I reflect on my own experience with calling out injustice (or not), it can feel complicated at times. As an HSP, I often need time to process and might prefer to write down my thoughts over vocalizing them in the moment. I’ve also experienced how white supremacy culture operates to keep us from challenging the status quo – I was once told by my manager that my tendency to “play devil’s advocate” in group situations was getting in the way of my leadership potential.
However, what I’ve come to learn is that even though speaking out might feel uncomfortable or unpopular, I have never experienced the threat to my physical, mental, or emotional safety that Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color feel every day for disrupting racist behaviors or policies. And yet, it is most often the Women of Color in the room who are the ones speaking up about how they are being impacted, bringing truth to power, or even just kicking off a conversation about equity.
I can only imagine the fatigue of enduring microaggressions, mustering up the courage to interrupt them, and then having to be vulnerable in a diverse group who want you to help figure out a solution. On page 99, Baldwin describes this burden:
"It demands great force and great cunning continually to assault the mighty and indifferent fortress of white supremacy, as Negroes in this country have done for so long. It demands great spiritual resilience, not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your child to hate."
There’s a lot of work that we as white people need to do - namely, not perpetuating white supremacy in the first place. But today I’d like to channel some of James Baldwin’s energy and say that we need to SPEAK UP. A lot more!
It’s probably an understatement to say that white folks have not been keeping up our equal share of naming in justice. If you benefit from white privilege or other privileges that protect your safety to speak up, I invite you to spend that privilege on some truth telling.
What truths do you want to tell this week? This could look like having the courage to speak up at an all-staff meeting to challenge “the way things are done” at your office. It could look like naming a microaggression you overheard from a friend. It could also look like being vulnerable and admitting to a mistake you made. For me, I’m going to commit to talking with a client about how their fundraising practices often times pander to white donors.
It will take courage, it will feel uncomfortable, and it may feel tiring, but it is TIME. And Baldwin believed in us:
“If we - like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others - do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.”