The Fire This Time

An accompaniment to our statement of solidarity

By Cerlyn Cantave, Engagement, Equity & Inclusion Associate of Children’s HealthWatch

Written in 1963 at the height of segregation and the Civil Rights Movement, James Baldwin’s seminal work, The Fire Next Time, delves into both the mistreatment of Black men (with a call to channel their anger into activism), and the role that Christianity and religion has played in perpetuating racism and inhumanity. Taken from an old Black spiritual, “Mary Don’t You Weep”, the title references God’s promise to Noah to not end civilization with water, but with “fire next time” if people did not turn away from their sins. Baldwin modernized the edict, warning that if the country did not contend with and rectify its sin of racial inequity, it would be beset by “sterility and decay” and give rise to a marked resistance by the oppressed to their oppressors.

Now, 57 years later, we are witnessing the transmogrification of Baldwin’s prescient words in the form of protests around the country and the world. The marchers’ anguished pleas for justice, racial reconciliation, and systemic change join the cries from the spilled blood of First Nations peoples when their lands were violently stolen and of the first African slaves forcibly brought here, both in the name of white supremacy and manifest destiny. They rightfully demand that America fulfills its promise of equity and equality for all—and they are not backing down.

America, the reckoning is here. The fire has arrived. The question now is how do we put it out?

For far too long, the embers of inequity and marginalization have been fanned by indifference and “whataboutism”, despite some hard-won progress. When they burst into flame, those least affected by racism speak in platitudes of togetherness, call for change and hashtag their feelings, temporarily quelling the fire. But underneath the pretty words, the embers continue to simmer and burn. Meanwhile, those who are most affected by racism keep a wary, weary and watchful eye on the telltale signs of smoke, sounding the alarm that all is still not well. But it is ignored until the fire, in the morbid shape of a Black man struggling and begging to breathe for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, explodes into our consciousness and we can’t look away.

And we shouldn’t.

We need to see, without blinders or excuses, what racism has wrought and confront it, all of it, especially its negative outcomes for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) – particularly children –  including:

To be marked from birth as criminal and less than worthy of respect–indeed, humanity–weighs heavily on the minds and hearts of BIPOC, particularly Black parents who are compelled to give their children “the talk” so that they can avoid death as they go about their everyday lives: not just the physical deaths  from preventable health conditions driven by structural inequities and state-sanctioned violence, but the death of the dreams and wishes they have for their children to thrive in a hostile world, just like the parents of Tamir Rice. Breonna Taylor. Elijah McClain. Ahmaud Arbery. Rekia Boyd. They poured their love and aspirations into them, only to bury them along with their broken bodies.

We each need to decide if the fire this time will be the kind that consumes and destroys, or will it cleanse, purify and make way for meaningful, sustained, permanent and real change? Will the ashes allow for growth, or, as Baldwin cautioned, sterility and decay?

We all benefit from an equitable society where everyone’s needs are met and all are able to reach their fullest potential without barriers. However, making this a reality will first require an acknowledgement that this is sadly not the case, and more importantly, that racism and discrimination are the reasons why. A call to change and action means nothing if people do not heed it, or worse yet, hear it and are still unmoved.

Just ‘trying’ is no longer enough and previous half-hearted attempts have proven ineffective. Eliminating racism is not a zero-sum game or someone else’s problem. It is your problem. My problem. Our problem. There must be a genuine commitment to ‘snuff’ it out completely —and the complacency that stems from benefiting from it—because the psychic loss and damage to its victims and society overall is too great to bear anymore.

‘Next time’ is here, America.

For the Black children who live in fear that they or their loved ones may not get to see another day, let’s resolve to ensure that it is the last. The resources below are a first step:

Cerlyn Cantave, Engagement, Equity & Inclusion Associate of Children’s HealthWatch