Fresh out of college in the early 1970s, a naive and bright-eyed Jessica B. Harris began teaching French at Queens College in New York. A new wave of Black intelligentsia was forming, and though Harris was considered a little too young and bourgois for colleagues to fully embrace her, she did manage to develop a friendship with the undeniably cool Samuel Clemens Floyd III, an older, magnetic professor at the college.
That friendship turned into a years-long romance filled with food and travel and creativity, all made possible by Sam’s close friendship with “Jimmy” — James Baldwin. Harris was younger than Sam’s crowd of artists and literati, but as Sam’s girl, she was allowed entry into a world few ever got to see. In My Soul Looks Back, she recounts her years on this periphery of Black genius. Toni Morrison had written The Bluest Eye but was still an editor at Random House, Roots was about to be published, Nina Simone occasionally dropped in on Jimmy’s parties, and Dr. Angelou was still “Maya” (who also happened to be Sam’s former lover). Everyone was poised for greatness, and Harris was there on the outer edges. Just like at Queens College, she was the outsider, the young one, but there to witness everything nonetheless.
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.