In 1963, James Baldwin published The Fire Next Time, a book about race in America. More than half a century later, Jesmyn Ward soberly reflects in her introduction, “It is as if we have reentered the past and are living in a second Nadir: It seems the rate of police killings now surpasses the rate of lynchings during the worst decades of the Jim Crow era. There was a lynching every four days in the early decades of the twentieth century. It’s been estimated that an African American is now killed by police every two to three days.”
In The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race, contributors including Edwidge Danticat, Kiese Laymon, Daniel José Older, Claudia Rankine, and Isabel Wilkerson pick up where Baldwin’s book left off. Most of the essays look to the past, several consider the present, and a couple look to the future. Considering we’re living in a period where it’s still considered radical to insist that black lives matter, the publication of this collection couldn’t be more timely.
This is a powerful collection that I promptly devoured mostly on the days-long return trip home from my vacation abroad a couple of weeks ago. Perhaps it was all the traveling I’d been doing, but Garnette Cadogan’s “Black and Blue” was one of the essays that stood out to me. In it, he describes his lifelong love for walking, first as a child trying to get out of the house, then as an adult. He’d read many a white author’s ode to walking, but of course, the rules for a black man are different:
Walking while black restricts the experience of walking, renders inaccessible the classic Romantic experience of walking alone. It forces me to be in constant relationship with others, unable to join the New York flaneurs I had read about and hoped to join.
In “‘The Dear Pledges of Our Love’: A Defense of Phillis Wheatley’s Husband”, Honorée Jeffers makes a fortuitous discovery about Phillis Wheatley‘s biographer. Though Wheatley was the first African American poet, a surprising amount of research about her has been based off one woman’s account; that account paints Wheatley’s husband as a abusive, manipulative, lazy failure who brought about his wife’s demise. Jeffers proposes a radically different account:
Why couldn’t they love each other? American people of African did fall in love back then…They did this in the midst of war, slavery, economic chaos, and/or posttraumatic stress over being torn from their homelands and sent over the horrific Middle Passage. I think it’s logical to assume that many, many black folk fell in love with many, many other black folk. This assumption is a rational consequence of acknowledging black humanity.
A couple of the other essays that looked to the past were just as compelling. In “The Weight”, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah writes about having read Baldwin during formative years. When she finally gets to visit Baldwin’s house in France, she finds it in ruins and on the verge of demolition. In “Lonely in America”, Wendy S. Walters writes about the experience of trying to visit her relatives’ burial plots in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — the markers had been washed away — and later of trying to visit a slave burial ground in a quaint New England town; a lot of it had been paved over and several of the remains had been destroyed when construction crews accidentally discovered it.
And, of course, several of the writers address the violence by police officers that continues to go unchecked. A few write about the fear and uncertainty raising a family in such a climate. More than anything, the collection as a whole is a call to stop looking the other way.
The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race was released today by Scribner.