"If we don not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, recreated from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire nextime!"

"The Fire Next Time," 1963

JAMES BALDWIN, the avenging prophet of American letters, the novelist-essayist who warned of a racial Armageddon in the 1960s, is still foretelling famine and gloom in race relations.

Though civil rights laws are on the books and the black middle class continues to grow, Baldwin says really not all that much has changed.

"To be very honest about my experience in the last decade," he says, "a great deal has changed on the surface. But nothing has changed in the depths. A great deal has changed on the surface in Atlanta, but nothing has changed in Georgia. Maybe we're in worse trouble than before."

The trouble signs he sees:

the middle-class tax revolt and what he sees as racial implications;

the Bakke decision; and

campaigns against anti-discrimination measures in general.

He is sitting in the New York offices of his publisher, Dial Press, near the United Nations complex. He shifts his 5 foot 6, 135-pound frame within the narrow confines of a Danish-modern chair. His eyes, always big, look as if they're about to explode.

Baldwin is nearly as articulate in his speech as in his celebrated writing. And on this day his words have painted a paradox. All during the interview he has said he's an optimist. So why is he voicing such pessimism?"It's a contradiction," he concedes.

"When I say I'm not a pessimist, I mean that I don't consider that everything is lost even though I don't see how were going to have a future, or even a present. Except that in some ways so much of its is up to black people now. And we're in a terrible position. I know that.

"The responsibility can't be placed anywhere else. We have to save our children by whatever means come to hand, or they will attempt to save us, and those results will be cataclysmic.

"I'm not saying it's up to us," he says. "No one's going to clarify the situation for black people. They know that very well - the situation of the kids in the street who have no jobs and no future. We have to articulate that necessity because Mr Carter can't do it. He never sees those people. Those people are numbers in the bulk of the American population. I suppose that what I'm suggesting is that we're going to have to create the help."

In the political history of this country, groups have created help for themselves by forming coalitions, it is suggested.

"Yes," he nods, "but you can't form a coalition in Boston now between poor whites and blacks. And I doubt very much you can form a coalition between poor whites and blacks in this country, as of today.

"A coalition of rich whites and blacks is even more dubious. That leaves the great unwashed. That leaves us, the Puerto Ricans, the Mexicans, the handful of Africans that are here."

Baldwin has always seen his mission as that of spokesman for black Americans. Ever the moralist, he skillfully translates his personal experiences into group significanes.

The Christian Science Monitor once said, "Perhaps no other Negro writer is as successful as Mr. Baldwin in telling society just what it feels like to be a Negro in the United States."

Baldwin burst upon the American literary scene in 1952 with "Go Tell It on the Mountain," a partly autobiographical novel about his days as a boy preacher in Harlem.

It was followed in 1955 by "Notes of a Native Sons," a collection of graceful and biting personal essay.

And thereafter followed the novels, "Giovanni's Room," a study of homosexuality, and "Another Country," a nightmarish account of race and sex in Harlem and Greenwich Village and more essays, "Nobody Knows My Name" and "The Fire Next Time."

By 1963, when the civil rights movement was in high gear and people were marching and demonstrating against racial discrimination, Baldwin had become a literary force. His fiction and essays stamped him as the chief black literary spokesman of his generation.

After reading Baldwin's eloquent and prophesying book, "The Fire Next Time," the city editio of a metropolitan daily was heard to say, "I never knew Negroes felt that way (about whites)."

Robert Kennedy conferred with him on race relations, and Baldwin spoke to audiences of thousands, passionately arguing for black-white understanding to head off a race war.

"Few Americans have been called on as has James Baldwin in the last decade to function as the public voice of rage or frustration or denunciation of grief," said the Saturday Review. "The writer means to create an image of his people that will not only spell out what they have to teach, but that will sting all sane folk to jealousy."

Today, at age 54, Baldwin is no longer the lionized literary figure. The lines in his face are heavier now and his hair is filled with patches of gray.

The issues he's identified with no longer are displayed prominently in the daily paper. The civil rights movement, for which he polemicized and marched, has taken a turn from street confrontations to boardroom negotiations. Now there is talk - much of it controversial - of the idea that race has been superceded by class as an important factor in determining life chances among blacks.

Nevertheless, Baldwin still speaks with the old fire. His message, delivered in taut apocalyptic tones, is the same that whites had better recognize the "full weight and complexity" of black humanity before the world explodes over the issue of race, for the momentum of the civil rights movement has ground to a halt.

"Once Martin (Luther King) was dead, the situation had been irrevocably altered," he continues. "And I think, like a great many other people, I'm lucky. After all, I'm more or less coherent and still here."

He knocks on wood and goes on: "A great many friends of mine got completely wasted. I don't just mean turning into corpses, but people who're still walking around and talking and will never, never be the same again.

"I don't want to mention names. Some of the leaders I've worked with in the Deep South and the North. There've been nervours breakdowns, ulcers, divorces - madness. Some are literally starving. Their whole frame of reference and reason for being was shattered that day in Memphis when Martin was murdered,

"It was being confron with the brutality of the Maerican decision," he says quietly, almost in a whisper. "So they simply had had it. They were tired of it. And when you see that, you see how little, after all, has changed.

"You see what they want to tell. The history of school desegregation. You're confronted with an overwhelming record of bad faith. And there is no other word for it. Look at the situation in the cities, and you're confronted with American panic vis-a-vis black . . ."

Baldwin lights another cigarette. He's been chain-smoking for an hour. He smokes in New York, he says, more than anywhere else because of the pressure he feels in the city.

His home recently has been in the south of France, but he hasn't lived in this country since 1969. That's when he left, aggrieved over King's death and disappointed over Hollywood's rejection of his screenplay on the life of Malcolm X.

"I was shattered," he says recalling King's death. "I couldn't believe it. I had a small nervous breakdown. Like many other black people, I had to stop and think again. I didn't want to leave here, but on the other hand my family didn't want me to stay here. So I went back to Istabul.

"I didn't know for a long time whether I wanted to keep on writing or not. I didn't see what point there was to it. It (King's death didn't do anything. It didn't save anybody. You have to get over that, of course.

"What I said to myself was that Martin never stopped. So I can't either. It was as painful as that."

So Baldwin resumed writing. He's just completed a novel, "Just Above My Head," the story of a gospel singer, that's scheduled to be published this fall.

Dial Press has inaugurated a fiction prize in his name, and Raymond Andrews was recently named the first recipient ofr his novel, "Appalachee Red."

But though the prizes and association with American continue, and though he insists it's hard not to stay in touch with America ("More and more of Europe is becoming more American") Baldwin has been trying to leave American since he was a young man. He first left for Paris in 1948 when he was 24.

"I left America because I doubted my ability to survive the fury of the color problem here. (Sometime I still do.)," he has written. "I wanted to prevent myself from becoming merely a Negro; or even, merely a Negro writer . . . in my necessity to find the terms on which my experience could be related to that of non-writers I proved, to my astonishment, to be as American as any Texas G.I. . . ."

His first stay in Europe was critical. He lived in one of the poorest sections of Paris, one inhabited by transient workers from Algeria. For the first time he was brought face to face with who he was. In Harlem he had had the comforting surroundings of family, friends and his people.

"I know," he wrote in "Notes of a Native Son," in any case, that the most crucial time in my own development came when i was forced to recognized that I was a kind of bastard of the West; when I followed the line of my past I did not find myself in Europe but in Africa. And this meant that in some subtle way, in a really profound way, I brought to Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the stones of Paris, to the catherdral at Chartres, and to the cathedral at Charters, and to the Empire State Building, a special attitude . . ."

Nonethless, the lure of Europe has been so strong that he has lived there off and on since 1948. But his voice is still New York-sharp, and he always comes back to this city where he was born Aug. 2, 1924, the oldest of nine children.

Baldwin's interest in writing started early. As the eldest child, he had the responsibility of looking after his brothers and sister. He recalls holding a baby sith one hand a book with the other, reading and rereading "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and "A Tale of Two Cities."

". . . I began plotting novels at about the time I learned to read . . . my first professional triumph, in any case, the first professional triumph, in any case, the first effort of mine to be seen in print occured at the age of 12 or thereabouts, when a short story I had written about the Spanish Revolution won some sort of prize in an extremely short-lived church newspaper . . ."

But at age 14 he became a preacher in the Fireside Pentecostal Church in Harlem, a time recounted in his partly autobiographical first novel, "Go Tell It on the Mountain."

Three years later, he had decided to become a writer. He was editor of the literary magazine ad DeWitt Clinton High School. After graduation, he worked around New Yrok as a waiter, diswasher, factory worker and office boy, always writing when he could.

By the time he was 21, he had done enough of a novel to get a Saxton Fellowship. Another literary award, a Rosenwald Fellowship, allowed Baldwin to go to Europe in 1948. He has been a writer since.

Baldwin is about to begin a book of fresh essays. He says he's reading a lot of history now, even textbooks for a piee he's writing on the cause and effects of the 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing racial segregation in the public schools. He's also about to begin an essay on the meaning of the two television productions of Alex Haley's "Roots".

Though he's not lionized, or even read as widely, as he was 15 years ago, is he out of fashion?

"I guess I'm out of fashion in a way," he says. "It's really not one of my problems. The trick about being a writer is to last. In any case, the book hopefully will outlive fashion."

Could he galvanize readers in the 1980s as he did in the 1960s?

"I don't know," he says. "There are some things you can't afford to think of because you won't be able to write. Writing is still act of faith, a leap into the dark. Maybe 10 years from now - or maybe never. Waht I'm saying is that there are no guarantees.

"The value of writing is that possibility. The way you articulate it and how many people respond to it. Something happens. You don't know what it is that happens or what they will do with it. Or what they will do with you!"

Baldwin, who's written a novel about homosexuality and several short stories with a female point of view, is regarded as one of the few contemporary American writers who is truly sensitive to the psychic need of women today.

So he is a logical person to ask about the growing tension between black men and women, a tension reflected in the expanding body of black feminist literature.

Ntozake Shange's "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is enuf," a prickly negative view of black male-female relations, has drawn capacity audiences all over the country for two years.

And, more recently, Michele Wallace made a fiery debut as an author with "Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman."

He says, "I hazard that it [the sexual tension] is one of the symptoms of black middle-classdom. I doubt very much that the women I grew up with, my sisters, my mother, I doubt very much that that is their complaint. I think - and I'm talking about the women I knew - they had a very difficult time dealing with their men, their husband or lover, brother, nephew, son, because of the situation in whcih the men found themselves.

"But they understood that. And though the relationships were very stormy, they were also very real. I never felt the women I'm thinking of despise me or my father or my brother for the situation in whcih we found ourselves.

"The inevitable tension, fury always erupts against the one closest to you. But they understood that. That had nothing to do with our manhood as such. The antimale thing which is now beginning seems to me to be one of the offshoots of the American dream as ingested by blacks.

"It's impossible for black women to expect a black man to become Rockefeller or to be safe in this soiciety, or not to be in some way at war and some way divided. It's simply part of the price.

"All these movements - women's liberation, gay liberation - all these eruptions. Perhaps I'm old-fashioned, but I feel very dubious about all that. You don't have to prove you're a woman, and if you happen to be homosexual or whatever, you don't have to form a club in order to learn to live with yourself.

"I take it for granted that there's a profound difference between a man and a woman. And when I say difference, I don't mean divorce. The difference is the point. The difference is the possibility. The difference is the joy. A woman is a woman. That's not putting her down. And a man's man." CAPTION: Picture, James Baldwin, who is most often seen bareheaded, photographed here wearing his brother's hat. Photo by S. Karin Epstein for The Washington Post