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The Fire This Time?

With the arrival of autumn in the Northern Hemisphere, the world can look forward to a bumper crop of large-scale crises. The international community now must confront a series of disasters that those paying attention predicted with remarkable accuracy.

When James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time was first published, early in 1963, the United States was entering a period of vast social and political upheaval. Having just gone through the Cuban Missile Crisis, Americans would soon endure a presidential assassination and almost a decade of war in Vietnam.

Baldwin, of course, was concerned with a much deeper, slow-brewing crisis – one that had been covered up and left to rot in the attic of America’s soul. It had been a century since the Emancipation Proclamation, Baldwin observed, but African-Americans were still being “born under conditions not far removed from those described for us by Charles Dickens in the London of more than a hundred years ago.”

The book’s title comes from an old slave song: “God sent Noah the rainbow sign. No more water, the fire next time.” And as we enter the fall of 2017, such apocalyptic language seems fitting. In the US, white supremacists and neo-Nazis, encouraged by Donald Trump’s presidency, have slithered out of hiding to spew their hatred. Large portions of the American Southeast are now dealing with flooding of Biblical proportions. And the US government is engaged in another perilous nuclear standoff, this time on the Korean Peninsula.