“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:
Citizen by Claudia Rankine
Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander