By Imani Sumbi
In 1963, two of James Baldwin’s most influential essays were fused to form a bestselling book titled “The Fire Next Time,” cementing him as a central voice in America’s reckoning on race relations during the civil rights movement. Nearly 60 years later, Baldwin’s words on Black resilience, White ignorance, and false social progress ring as true as ever.
Two years ago, in recognition of the continued relevance of those words, Taschen published a glossy, gorgeous new edition of “The Fire Next Time,” interspersing between its paragraphs over 100 images taken by photojournalist Steve Schapiro.
From the ashen remains of a bombed building, to a crowd of Black worshipers kneeling with Dr. King on the steps of a church, to a smiling James Baldwin attending the March on Washington, Schapiro’s photographs span not just the duration of the civil rights movement, but a great range of people and emotions associated with it. The pictures show people both well-known and unknown, and document hope and unity just as much as violence and persecution.
Like Baldwin’s writing, these photographs are both documentary and instructive, providing a clear record of a tumultuous time in American history while showing the next generation the power of imagery to effect change. The fact that Baldwin’s extraordinary essays pair so well with equally striking visuals by a White photographer proves his belief that “we, the Black and the White, deeply need each other here” in order to make America practice the ideals of freedom and equality it preaches.
The 2019 edition builds on the intimacy and emotional depth of the original with a foreword by renowned civil rights leader John Lewis, a short essay by Steve Schapiro on his experience photographing the civil rights movement, and an afterword by Baldwin’s sister Gloria Karefa-Smart. These additions illuminate the paths Baldwin and Schapiro took to become two of the most important recordkeepers of the civil rights movement and bring to their work a sense of current importance as this country continues to struggle with widespread racial inequality.
At a time when racism is less overt but no less prevalent, we would do well to learn the lessons they left behind as we take up their fight.
This article originally appeared in The Los Angeles Sentinel.