James Baldwin: The Fire Next Time, and This Time
How might James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, published in 1963 at the height of the civil rights movement and considered one of the most important essays on the history of black protest and race relations in the U.S., help us navigate our current conditions? How has his work prepared us for such a time as this? Has it prepared us?
"The contemporary moment is rooted in our collective history, and understanding that allows us to understand our present," says McKinley E. Melton, a Gettysburg College Assistant Professor of English and former Hampshire College faculty member.
“Baldwin's words continue to resonate,” he says, “to bring significant insight into contemporary issues such as police brutality, Black Lives Matter, cultural shifts, the shooting in Charleston, and how faith and conflict and personal belief can quickly escalate and become tremendously influential in social conduct."
The Fire Next Time was selected as this year’s common reading for incoming Hampshire students. Melton gave a talk to the Hampshire community on“Facing the Fire This Time: James A. Baldwin and a Prophecy Fulfilled?" and prior to Professor Melton's lecture, student orientation groups discussed the book with the faculty members who will lead their academic tutorial during the fall semester. There was also a screening of the Baldwin biography James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket on September 3.
"Seeing students read Baldwin for the first time is an impossibly beautiful experience," says Melton. "I think Hampshire will see rewards for the next few years from having chosen this common reading. What Baldwin wrote was on point for what they're confronting in their day-to-day lives. His words are not going to leave them any time soon, which I think is important for developing citizens who will be moving into the fullness of their adulthood as community members."
Baldwin was one of the most important African-American intellectuals of the twentieth century. In his novels, essays, and plays he explored the themes of race and sexuality in unprecedentedly complex and provocative terms. Baldwin taught at Hampshire from 1983 to 1986, and Hampshire's James Baldwin Scholars Program, which provides scholarships to talented students from underserved communities, was founded in his honor.
"The Baldwin Scholars program is near and dear to my heart,” says Melton, who worked closely with the Baldwin Scholars at Hampshire. “The program is all about creating opportunities which otherwise might not have been available for these intellectually gifted students.”
"Most people focus on the second essay in The Fire Next Time,” Melton says. “But the first essay, which is brief but extraordinarily powerful, Baldwin wrote to his nephew to remind him that his destiny was never to be limited by how others defined him, or what they constructed for him. Through your own sheer sense of self and force of will, Baldwin believed, you can move beyond what anybody may have ever expected you to be. This is exactly what the Baldwin Scholars program is about."
Dean of Multicultural Education and Inclusion Kristen Luschen says that, after the success of Solomon Northup's Twelve Years a Slave as the common reading last year, she expects this year’s reading to continue to encourage dialogue on the history, race, and legacy of slavery and how they influence a current generation of students.
"I hope the conversations that come from this quickly engage students, and show how we are implicated in what's happening in the world," she says.
ABOUT MCKINLEY MELTON
McKinley E. Melton earned his Ph.D. from the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and earned B.A. degrees in English and in African & African American Studies from Duke University. Melton is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry at Emory University, and was also awarded a 2015-16 Junior Faculty Career Enhancement Fellowship by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. His research focuses primarily on the relationship between the spiritual traditions and the literary, artistic, and cultural expressions of the modern Black diaspora. Melton’s published works include essays on the writing of James Baldwin, Richard Wright, James Weldon Johnson, and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
A former member of the faculty at Hampshire College (2007-2012), Dr. Melton is now an assistant professor of English at Gettysburg College. His teaching interests are in literatures of Africa and the African Diaspora, most specifically 19th- and 20th-century African American literature, and his courses are designed to engage the intersections of social, political, and cultural movements as part of a critical approach to Africana literature.