Sales Tax Institute Book Club: The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

Last month, the Sales Tax Institute made a commitment to dismantle our internal biases and become active in creating change by eliminating injustices in our country. Each member of our team remains accountable for this promise.

After reflecting as a staff and hearing every voice, we made our first step toward bettering ourselves for the good of others. Our team re-established our company book club, and first on the list is The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin.

James Baldwin (1924-1987) was a Black writer who explored the topics of race, sexuality, and religion throughout his lifetime. His writing quickly took the form of activism when he so eloquently expressed the state of affairs in the United States, and the country’s false sense of progress towards social equity.

The Fire Next Time is a book made up of two essays. The first is a letter to Baldwin’s 14 year old nephew. This letter serves as both a warning and encouragement that as a Black American, he will face hatred that he can respond to by spreading love, even though it is undeserved. This letter represents the conversation that many Black American families must have with their children to explain the injustices imposed upon their race as a result of institutionalized racism.

The second essay is an autobiographical account of institutional racism, religion, and oppression in the United States throughout James Baldwin’s life. Beginning as a coming of age story, this essay represents a young man searching for his purpose in life.

The options visible to Baldwin in his neighborhood were either involvement with gangs or commitment to the church. He saw many people before him attempt the college route only to be placed back into society as they would be without a degree. Baldwin committed to the church early on in life but later left after being disenchanted. After leaving Christianity, Baldwin was intrigued by Islam, but didn’t find it to be the right fit.

Baldwin goes on to illustrate white people’s failure to repair the decades of hurt placed upon Black Americans. He calls for white people to learn to look at themselves in the mirror, recognize themselves and their histories for what they are, and act to make up for the injustices they have ignored.

Baldwin ends the book with the quote, “No more water, the fire next time.” One way to interpret this quote is that if white people won’t make the effort to change and accept Black people for their beauty and inherent worth and work alongside them, racial turmoil will never end and our society will suffer for it.

 

As individuals and as a company, what will we take away from this book?

  1. Relearn history from different perspectives. Reading and hearing stories from other perspectives can create urgency in the minds of people who are not aware of racial inequities. Research and rethink American history to take other peoples’ perspectives into account.
  2. Right now is the time for change, we are centuries late. Baldwin’s concerns and experiences from the 1950’s and 1960’s are identical to concerns and activities right now, and it is up to each individual to act: “If one cannot risk oneself, then one is simply incapable of giving. And, after all, one can give freedom only by setting someone free.”
  3. Act with love, peace, and grace. Many Black Americans have responded to racist behavior with these qualities for centuries, use that as an example. “It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck.”
  4. Recognize opportunities for making amends in the workplace. Business leaders have a seat at some very important tables, and it is crucial that they take advantage of their position to speak up for social justice as well as institute equitable and nondiscriminatory hiring and employment practices. Employees have the opportunity to voice their opinions and encourage their leaders to improve not only their own workplace but society overall.  Our tax community is also involved in policy formulation which can profoundly impact racial and socioeconomic inequality. Life outcomes and tax are indeed linked.
  5. Question and critique your behavior, understand the hierarchy of privilege, and don’t be neutral because now is the time to change. “America will be forced to reexamine themselves and release themselves from many things that are now taken to be sacred, and to discard nearly all the assumptions that have been used to justify their lives and their anguish and their crimes so long.”

 

Reading The Fire Next Time was an enlightening opportunity to see racism from the perspective of a young black man struggling to find his place in the world.  It was also disheartening to see the similarities to what was happening in society then to today.  We can’t sit back and let future generations look back on 2020, wondering why we didn’t see what was happening and take actions to better our entire society.

If you’ve read The Fire Next Time and have other thoughts or insights, we’d love to hear them. Email us here.

What’s next? Our next book on the list is White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism. Join us in educating ourselves.

Posted on July 20, 2020