Preview a new book that pairs Steve Schapiro’s photographs with James Baldwin’s writings
Photographer Steve Schapiro recalls the moment he arrived in Memphis after the shooting of Martin Luther King on 8 April, 1968. “I went into the grooming house where the shots had been fired from and the assassin had stood in the second-floor bathtub. One dirty black handprint remained from the attacker and I knew that I had to photograph that image.” That bleak, provocative image – and more than 100 others – can be found in The Fire Next Time, which pairs Schapiro’s poignant images with the book of the same name by celebrated black writer, the inimitable James Baldwin, first published 1963.
Baldwin’s prose (part treatise, part journal) remains an incisive commentary on the brutal, often malignant endemic racism in the United States and a valuable account of the black American experience: “I know you didn’t own a plantation or rape my grandmother,” reads a Baldwin quotation, “but I wasn’t bought at auction either and you still treat me as if I had been.”
Schapiro, a prolific photographer who picked up the camera aged only nine, quickly became one of America’s pre-eminent photojournalists and found himself travelling around the South with Baldwin around the time of the 1965 Selma March. Arriving in Selma some time before the actual march, he observed how the “first two march attempts ended with state troopers battering the peaceful demonstrators with tear gas and clubs.” The images he took reveal the stoic bravery, hope and determination of the marchers respectfully and captivatingly.
The essays in The Fire Next Time – covering everything from the role of the Christian church subjugating African-Americans to the racist foundations that built America – came a decade after his first novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, a semi-autobiographical work adapted from his own life in Harlem. But Baldwin wasn’t as universally lauded now back then and he struggled to get his work published. His less militant stance on race issues in the civil rights era were unique among his peers: he drew some criticism from black intellectuals for favouring integration and was subject to homophobic abuse.
Yet, in the era of Black Lives Matter, when it seems like little has changed, Baldwin’s writing is being deservedly rediscovered, strangely and infinitely more relevant in the present day than in 1963. Together with Schapiro’s involving photographs, this new edition of The Fire Next Time comes imbued with the dissident spirit of those African-Americans protesting for civil rights justice; their faces, their signs and their cause transcend the page. Limited to only 1,963 copies in honour of the year the original book was published, a special set of 100 copies will feature a photographic print signed by Schapiro.
James Baldwin. The Fire Next Time. Photographs by Steve Schapiro will be published by Taschen this month