The Fire Next Time

Book review by
Barbara Schultz, Common Sense Media
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Baldwin's essays are essential reading to understand racism.

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

James Baldwin's memories and observations reflect the prejudice endured by Black Americans from the 1920s through the early 1960s, and beyond. His book is a historical document as well as a philosophical one, because it reveals prevailing points of view and during Baldwin's early life. The author also briefly discusses the fate of Jewish people during the Holocaust.

Positive Messages

Just about every paragraph of Baldwin's iconic book contains unforgettable statements, but the most straightforward message is, "Whoever debases others is debasing himself."

Positive Role Models & Representations

Baldwin debates the merits of Christian leaders and Nation of Islam leaders. He helps readers understand the appeal of a religious life, and the path that the Nation of Islam advocates to address racist crimes. However, the best role model in this work is Baldwin himself. He encourages readers to think critically about the way the United States treats Black people, and what avenues Black Americans can take toward justice.


Baldwin mentions the occurrence of violent events, including murders and World War II, but there's no graphic violence.


Baldwin uses the archaic term "negro," and points to Elijah Muhammad's references to "white devils," but there's no cursing in this book.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Baldwin makes several references to adults drinking and being in bars, and describes a time in his life when his friends had started to drink and smoke.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that James Baldwin's short book of nonfiction The Fire Next Time, first published in 1963, includes two essays: "My Dungeon Shook -- Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation" and "Down at the Cross -- Letter From a Region of My Mind." Baldwin discusses his relationship with his father, the role that religion played in his life, and his meeting with Elijah Muhammad, founder of the Nation of Islam. A couple of times, Baldwin compares the treatment of European Jewish people during World War II with the plight of Black Americans. He examines a world of issues facing Black Americans, including the damage wrought by racism, and the possible outcomes of reparations. Baldwin mentions drinking and smoking, as well as violent acts that were perpetrated on Jews and Black Americans. Most important, this book explores signnificant philosophical ideas around the civil rights movement, and continuing issues of injustice in America. This book was written for adults, but it's approriate for teens. The ideas are best digested by mature readers.

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What's the story?

James Baldwin's iconic book THE FIRE NEXT TIME comprises two essays: "My Dungeon Shook -- Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation" and "Down at the Cross -- Letter From a Region of My Mind." Both essays were originally published in magazines in 1962 before being released in this book in 1963. Both examine the intersection of religion and race in America, and ways of addressing racial injustice. As a point of departure, Baldwin relates his own experiences as a teen pastor, his relationship with his father, and a meeting with Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad.

Is it any good?

This short nonfiction work by one of America's greatest writers is essential reading for teens wanting to learn about the American civil rights movement, the experience of Black citizens, and racism. Almost every paragraph has memorable lines that speak volumes about the effects of racism. Readers will learn about the disparate ideas being debated in the Black community during Baldwin's life, and they'll be fascinated (but probably not surprised) to note how many problems remain unresolved.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the time when The Fire Next Time was written and compare the author's observations about conditions in 1963 with what it's like to be Black in America today. What's changed since the early 1960s? What problems linger?

  • What role did Christianity play in James Baldwin's life? Why did he leave the church?

  • James Baldwin was a key voice in the civil rights era. What writers are leading the discussion about African Americans' fight for racial justice today? How much influence can writers have in the struggle for social, economic, and politcal change?

  • What contemorary African American writers have you read? Who are your favorites?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love stories about civil rights and racism

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