Loyola University Maryland

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Common Text Study Guide

James Baldwin The Fire Next Time Book Cover

Each year, Loyola chooses a Common Text for all first-year students to read before arriving on campus. During Fall Welcome Week, the entire Class of 2022 will convene and you will discuss this text with your academic advisor and your fellow students in your Messina group. It is important that you read the text with care and come prepared to discuss the ideas presented in this study guide. The Common Text is considered “common reading” and may be included in Messina course discussions, tests, or assignments. We will also sponsor lectures and events throughout the year to address themes raised in the text.  

Download a PDF copy of the study guide and questions for the Common Text Essay Contest 

Introduction

America is built upon a tradition of storytelling. From bedtime stories to scriptures and Facebook posts to Tweets, we have used the power of our words to contribute our voices to this shared lived experience. At the same time, stories from the Holy Bible, the Torah, or the Koran, for example, have been used to help define the moral character and fiber of different religious groups throughout history. Stories have also been used to facilitate conversations that have led to major changes in our society. They form the foundation for the principles and practices of our social change tradition—and they are essential to building the bridge to our envisioned future of a better world for all people. Telling a story opens up a person’s world to new possibilities and to that hopeful feeling that another world is possible, feelings and beliefs that then motivate an ongoing journey of change. The purpose of the Common Text is to provide you and your classmates with an opportunity to have a shared experience of reading and engaging with the same text.

During your time on campus—as you work to build community, make lifelong friends, and discover the questions that you want to spend your life answering—you will also spend some time meditating, exploring, and thinking about the Jesuit Values and about what it means to be a part of a Jesuit Ignatian community.  At the same time, with everything that has been happening around the country with the wave of student activism and involvement with the Black Lives Matter and the March For Our Lives Movements and the current administration, we fully expect you to be actively engaged in working to find ways where you can use your talents and skills to make the world (and our campus) a better and safer place. In an effort to help you to begin (or continue) to grapple with some of the issues that we are dealing with as a society, we have selected James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time as our 2018 Common Text.  Our hope is that as you open  the book and engage with the text, you will begin to think about where you stand on the issues of race, gender, inclusion, diversity, religion, and sexuality—and about who you want to be on this campus and ultimately, in this world.  

James Baldwin & The Fire Next Time

In 1963, during the Civil Rights Movement, writer and social critic James Baldwin wrote that “the black man has functioned in the white man’s star, an immovable pillar: and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to the core.”  When you think of this period in American history, his comment makes sense as America, as both a country and an idea, was struggling through what some have called the Second Great American Experiment, which was the work to end Jim Crow.  It was a tumultuous year with both great highs (as in The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and the Birmingham Children’s Campaign) and of great lows (as in Dr. King’s time in the Birmingham Jail, the bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church, and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy).  1963 also marked the centennial of the release of Abraham Lincoln’s 
Emancipation Proclamation and discussions were taking place around the country about this document. It is within this highly charged environment that Baldwin chose to release The Fire Next Time.  Described as part sermon, part ultimatum, part confession and deposition, part testament and part chronicle, this book consists of two letters—the first was written to his nephew and describes what it means (in Baldwin’s eyes) to be black and male in America and the second (the longer of the two) details Baldwin’s struggle to both reconcile the struggles and oppression of black people in America with Christianity and to reconcile his struggles with Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. Difficult topics but timely.

Loyola faculty members, administrators, and students chose this book precisely because it forces the reader to think deeply about the type of country that they want to live in. What does it mean to be an American? How do we work to help to fashion the type of society that we want to live in? How do we take the lessons of the past and use them to shape the direction of this country? To whom are we ultimately responsible: the ones who came before us or the ones who will come after us? We encourage you not to shy away from the difficult and uncomfortable questions that you might struggle with, rather we strongly encourage you to lean in, to ask the difficult questions, to seek solutions, and to become the student who you have (perhaps) always wanted to be. This is your opportunity to craft a new narrative and to join us in a conversation that will shape your Loyola experience.

Questions and Issues to Consider

  1. What is the significance of the book’s title and its connection to the story of Noah; the titles of the two sections; and the short epigraphs that appear before each letter?
  2. What are some of the religious themes that are present in both "My Dungeon Shook" and "Down at the Cross"?
  3. In his letter to his nephew, how does Baldwin use the issues of poverty, blackness, and oppression to personalize his story so that his nephew gets a clear understanding of many of the challenges that he will face as a black man in America?
  4. Describe some of the challenges that Baldwin faced at the age of fourteen that made him turn to religion for answers and solace. What happened to him three years later that made him reject both his religious calling and Christianity as a whole?
  5. The letters tap into the themes of racial oppression, Baldwin’s sexual awakening and discovery, crime and the criminalization of the black body, religion, and self-realization—how did these themes shape Baldwin, personally and professionally? 
  6. Describe Baldwin’s writing technique (his use of persuasive text) and explain whether or not it was successful in drawing the reader in to the text. 
  7. Many of the issues that Baldwin writes about in “My Dungeon Shook” are being talked about today within the Black Lives Matter Movement.  Do you think that American race relations have gotten better? Why or why not?
  8. In “Down at the Cross,” why do you think Baldwin was so adamant about not joining the Nation of Islam, particularly given the influence of both Malcom X and Elijah Muhammad and the organization’s work to help the black community?


Further Resources 

Videos about or featuring James Baldwin

Texts written by James Baldwin

Further Context to Understand The Fire Next Time

Additional Resources

Questions? 

Contact the Messina Office at 410-617-2669 or by e-mail at messina@loyola.edu or visit www.loyola.edu/messina for a list of academic and support services available to Loyola students, including helping you make the transition to campus and college life.

Study Guide written by Karsonya Wise Whitehead, Ph.D.
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