Tag: Claudia Rankine

The Fire This Time

Cover image for The Fire This Time, Edited by Jesamyn WardEdited by Jesmyn Ward

ISBN 978-1-5011-2634-5

“To Trayvon Martin and the many other black men, women, and children who have died and been denied justice these last four hundred years.”

Following the death of Trayvon Martin, only the latest in a long history of black deaths excused by the state, Jesmyn Ward turned to Twitter to raise her voice. She “needed words” in the face of this tragedy, but “the ephemera of Twitter, the way the voices of the outraged public rose and sank so quickly,” left her disappointed, and looking for more. The medium’s immediacy, so powerful and important in the heat of the moment, lacked permanency. So she turned to the work of James Baldwin, and from there reached out to gather the voices of a new generation of writers on race in America today. The result is this collection of seventeen essays and poems by writers as various as Kevin Young, Claudia Rankine, Garnette Cadogan, Daniel José Older, Edwidge Danticat, and Honorée Fannon Jeffers.

Ward divides The Fire This Time into three sections: Legacy, Reckoning, and Jubilee. But as she admits in the introduction, the pieces she received resisted the tidy structure she had envisioned. In some respects, this speaks to the complexity of the pieces, which refuse to be confined to past events or present reactions, but delve into the nuanced relationship between history and current events. Most of the pieces are essays, but each of the three sections begins with a more stylized piece or poem, such as Clint Smith’s striking “Queries of Unrest” in which he makes a metaphor of the fact that in school, he was taught never to write in the margins, even though he was marginalized.

Many of the essays resurrect events that have long since slipped out of the news cycle. Those events are also names. Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland. The blackface of Rachel Dolezal, sent up by poet Kevin Young. Some writers name the man who murdered nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston on June 17, 2015. Others choose to excise his name in favour of remembering his victims. They are immortalized here in black and white, even as Claudia Rankine reflects on how hard that must be for the mothers and families of the fallen, who see their children transformed from individuals to evidence in “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning.”

In a collection of seventeen, everyone will have different pieces that speak to them most strongly. I made six pages of notes while I was reading, and in addition to Claudia Rankine’s essay, another whole page is given over to “Black and Blue” by Garnette Cadogan. You can read it on LitHub as “Walking While Black.” An inveterate nighttime walker in his native Jamaica, he discovered on arriving in New Orleans for college that his black body, no longer unremarked among many others like it, drew unwelcome attention from police, and fear from fellow pedestrians. The magic is diminished, because walking while black in America “renders inaccessible the classic Romantic experience of walking alone.” I was suddenly put in mind of Charlotte Smith’s poem “On Being Cautioned against Walking on an Headland Overlooking the Sea, Because it Was Frequented by a Lunatic,” which addresses how women are also stripped of that freedom. It is a connection Cadogan has already clearly made, not to the poem itself, but the general concept: “it is not lost on me that my woman friends are those who best understand my plight; they have developed their own vigilance in an environment where they are constantly treated as targets of sexual attention.”

Still others call out to be described. Daniel José Older writes to his new wife about her decision to come live in America with him despite current events. Edwidge Danticat addresses her daughters on the smothered hope of Barack Obama’s election to president while still holding onto hope for their future. Honorée Fannon Jeffers calls for a reconsideration of the use of Margaretta Matilda Odell as a primary source on the life of black poet Phillis Wheatley because the biographer’s claim to connections with the white Wheatley family that freed Phillis cannot verified. Jesmyn Ward’s own essay about discovering that the largest part of her genetic heritage is European. But the purpose of a review is not to summarize the book in whole, so I will leave off here.

This is the part where I admit I still haven’t read The Fire Next Time. I meant to read it after I finished Between the World and Me, but didn’t get around to it. Having just finished this one, and with Between the World and Me on the horizon again for discussion with my book club next month, I decided it was time, and placed a library hold that hasn’t come in yet. So I can’t speak to this collection in relationship to its predecessor and inspiration. But The Fire This Time stands powerfully all on its own.


More Books on Race in America:

Cover image for Citizen by Claudia RankineCitizen by Claudia Rankine

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

Citizen: An American Lyric

Cover image for Citizen by Claudia Rankineby Claudia Rankine

ISBN 978-1-55597-690-3

“I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”

Visually, poet Claudia Rankine’s fifth book, Citizen, is a striking volume, designed by John Lucas and featuring cover art by David Hammons. It is this 1993 piece, entitled “In the Hood,” that made Rankine’s book so instantly recognizable when Johari Osayi Idusuyi read it on camera while sitting in the stands at a Donald Trump rally in Springfield, Illinois. Already a hit in the world of American poetry, Idusuyi’s actions brought the collection to popular attention. This is what prompted me to pick it up when I spotted it on a display at my local library. Though Citizen is only about 170 pages, it has surprising heft, as it is printed on 80# matte coated paper. The stark juxtaposition of the black and white design echoes one of the most haunting lines of the collection: “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”

The contents of Citizen are a combination of essays, poetry, and scripts for video projects Rankine made with her husband, John Lucas. Though it is nice to have the scripts included in the collection for reference, those pieces are really better watched in their visual form, accompanied by Rankine’s smooth, rhythmic reading. All of the poems attempt to capture the experience of race in America today, in various forms. Two of the pieces are poetic essays about race in sports, which Rankine finds interesting because “It’s documented. You have both commentary and action simultaneously and instantaneously. So it’s not just about watching what’s happening, you’re also hearing how it’s being interpreted at the moment that it’s happening.” The shorter pieces are often small, quotidian moments that make a person suddenly aware of race. These poems chronicle an accumulation of small wounds from awkward moments and thoughtlessly spoken words, as Rankine tries to track how these small acts can lead to larger atrocities. To do so, she documented not only her own experiences with race, but stories gathered from twenty-five friends, both black and white. She uses the second person “you” to put the reader right in the middle of these moments as they unfold.

In Citizen, Rankine skillfully captures the racial violence that can appear in language. One of the most memorable lines from the collection is “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” Beyond the basic idea it conveys, what captures me here—and brings me back to this line again and again as the essence of the collection—is the choice of two words, “thrown,” and “sharp,” which denote contrast in this context, but also have violent connotations. However, the idea of physical violence is never far away, either. One two page spread hit me like a punch in the gut. On the right-hand page, a haiku on Ferguson reads only “because white men can’t/police their imagination/black men are dying.” It sits opposite a piece that is also a list, which evolves with each new printing of the book. The first line reads “In Memory of Jordan Russell Davis.” In my edition, the tenth printing, the final complete line reads “In Memory of Sandra Bland.” Below it, the words “In Memory” appear ten more times, slowly fading as they approach the bottom of the page, ominously awaiting completion.

Although it is short, it would be a mistake to read Citizen too quickly; you could zip right through it without absorbing it, missing the subtleties. Not being much for more abstract modern poetry, I found the greatest strengths to be in the more concrete pieces, though I could always appreciate Rankine’s play with rhythm and repetition. I also suspect it would amply reward a second reading, as there is undoubtedly much here I have missed.


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