James Baldwin transcended literature to become a cultural icon in a world hostile to people who are Black, gay, and exponentially moreso to people who are both. He pioneered much of the conversation in America about race and identity, and his fierce fidelity for seeking and speaking the truth continues to inspire the work we do at BETTI ONO today. In honor of Black queerness this Oakland Pride Month, we celebrate our luminary TFNT initiative inspiration, and all who will continue to walk in similar legacies.
The Fire Next Time: A Call and Response is a retrospective of Baldwin’s revelatory 1962 writing of the same title. The book, originally published as two separate essays, gifted us a blueprint for Black resilience and success—and a roadmap to navigate gentrification and displacement in the places we call home. Baldwin reminds us that “this innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish…you have, and many of us have, defeated this intention.”
In the first essay, “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation,” Baldwin speaks affirmations into his younger kin, while also giving us the present-day affirmations that we need. He wants Black people in 1962 Harlem—and in 2019 Oakland—to know that the work we do to change the outside world begins with our sense of self. We belong because we simply do. Not only that, but we improve the spaces that we inhabit. The Oakland on real estate maps today wouldn’t be what it is without community-centered creative spaces, QTPOC day parties, Friday night sideshows and Sunday barbecues and drum circles at the Lake. Our culture is hella Black and hella queer because it is a reflection of people who are both. We know that watering it down with neighborhood names like “NoBe,” “Uptown,” and “Reservoir Hills” won’t erase our claim to home in the face of local displacement. We come from “a long line of great poets” and creatives who built this town, and Baldwin wants us to never forget it.
In the second and longer essay, “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region of My Mind” Baldwin wades through the story of his commitment to the church as a teenager, and then his interrogation of the impact of the Muslim Brotherhood as a sort of spiritual safety net in his native Harlem.
Like Baldwin, we are searching to ease the anxiety and pain that comes with living how historical oppression connects to the pushout happening in Oakland. It is not a coincidence that Oakland’s Black population has essentially been cut in half since the 80s, while the cultural institutions we have left are either closing down or doubling up in too-small commercial spaces. And we know displacement is already an outsized problem for LGBTQ community members. We know how systemic and institutional oppression looks in our own communities, and we know how it sounds at City Hall meetings. But what can we do?
This is the call. The call to understanding—first of ourselves as the fruit of creatively defiant ancestors, and then of the systems that perpetually threaten our well-being—and to action.
Our loving response is this multi-year initiative that will weave together the best of our creative community. This project is about designing creative responses to the most critical issues impacting Black life. It’s about continuing to queer the culture in ways that makes Oakland, Oakland. We want our paintings, our music, our poetry and any other artistic expression we breathe life into to bring us closer to the vision that Baldwin had for us—to enjoy an existence rooted in love and free of fear.
As we embark on this Black futurist project, he sends us traveling mercies in the form of reassurance:
“I know how black it looks today, for you. It looked bad that day, too, yes, we were trembling. We have not stopped trembling yet, but if we had not loved each other none of us would have survived. And now you must survive because we love you, and for the sake of your children and your children’s children.”
Learn more about The Fire Next Time: A Call and Response here.