Race, Intermarriage and “The Fire Next Time” in California

Michael Bernick
Former California Employment Development Department Director & Milken Institute Fellow

God gave Noah the rainbow sign
No more water, the fire next time
African American spiritual, “Mary Don’t You Weep”

What is the relevance of an essay on race relations published 50 years ago for today’s California government and society?

A few weeks ago in Fox & Hounds, we noted that this August 2012 was the 47th anniversary of the Watts riots. Before the riots fade from memory in California, I suggested our current policymaking could learn much from studying the events of August 1965, and more importantly the edifice of government programs that arose in the aftermath of the riots.  Going forward, our California anti-poverty policies might be much different, approaching Watts and other income neighborhoods as communities of abilities and strengths (not only weaknesses) and far wider home and business ownership.

This year 2012 is the 50th anniversary of another important event in the Civil Rights movement. In November 1962, James Baldwin’s lengthy essay on race relations, “Down at the Cross” was published in The New Yorker. The essay attracted wide attention and was published in book form the following year (accompanied by a shorter essay, “My Dungeon Shook”) as The Fire Next Time.

The book’s title comes from the African American spiritual, “Mary Don’t You Weep” and its passage “God gave Noah the rainbow sign; No more water, the fire next time”. The essay is worth reading today as it helped shape the Civil Rights movement in California as elsewhere, and helped propel the movement against those who questioned why it was needed as well as those who supported the status quo.

More importantly, it is worth reading (or re-reading) as it is continues to speak with a fresh voice to race relations. Baldwin doesn’t propose specific policies or politics. Rather, the essay is a sermon about racial unity, about how blacks and whites “deeply need each other”. What distinguishes it from the many other racial sermons then and now is the depth of both its anger and its understanding of the history of race in America.

To read it today is also to see how race relations have changed in California for the better since 1962. Though this change has come about for a variety of reasons, it should be noted that a main factor has been one that Mr. Baldwin did not anticipate in 1962: the sharp increase in interracial marriage in California over the past five decades, and especially during the past twenty years.

Interracial marriage has done as much as anything in California to enable us to move beyond black and white, to end what Baldwin called “the racial nightmare” of American history. In the years ahead, intermarriage is likely to be even a greater factor in a post racial California and achieving Mr. Baldwin’s vision.

Thanks to technology, here is a clip of Mr. Baldwin at Cambridge University in 1965, following the publication of The Fire Next Time, in a debate with William F. Buckley, Jr.

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