Book Review: The Fire This Time
“I believe there is power in words, power in asserting our existence, our experience, our lives, through words”Jesmyn Ward
In an effort to read more works by black authors, I picked up a collection of texts compiled and edited by Jesmyn Ward called The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race. Ward based the concept for the book on a 1963 collection by James Baldwin, where Baldwin gathered some of the great black writers/thinkers of his day to comment on race in America. The Fire This Time follows a similar format, providing a diverse and engaging group of traditional essays, photo essays, memoirs, and poems that are, unfortunately, just as relevant now as Baldwin’s book was in the 60s. I wonder, if you combined the two books and removed the dates, if people could even tell which essay was written when. It’s sad, damning, and powerful.
SUMMARY: National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward takes James Baldwin’s 1963 examination of race in America, The Fire Next Time, as a jumping off point for this groundbreaking collection of essays and poems about race from the most important voices of her generation and our time. Jesmyn Ward knows that Baldwin’s words ring as true as ever today. In response, she has gathered short essays, memoir, and a few essential poems to engage the question of race in the United States. And she has turned to some of her generation’s most original thinkers and writers to give voice to their concerns. The Fire This Time is divided into three parts that shine a light on the darkest corners of our history, wrestle with our current predicament, and envision a better future. Of the eighteen pieces, ten were written specifically for this volume.
I took so many notes while reading this that I could almost write a review on each individual “chapter” or text. What I will do instead is give a brief rundown of what you can expect to read about in each of the eighteen pieces, without giving too much away. Then I will summarize my thoughts at the end.
PART 1: LEGACY
“The Tradition” by Jericho Brown – a cosmic poem about ancestry
Homegoing, AD by Kima Jones – a very short piece dealing with the death of a grandparent and untold stories of the south
The Weight by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah – a coming of age story about the author, including thoughts on Baldwin and comparisons between him and her grandfather
Lonely in America by Wendy S. Walters – a brief memoir about the author researching recently discovered African American graves in Portsmouth. Deals with her own feelings on slavery and self, and explores revisionist history. I particularly like this one and the ideas it brought up about how society, in restoring old homes and buildings, puts prominence on things than rather people (implying historic houses are more valuable than people, or at least black people)
Where Do We Go From Here? by Isabel Wilkerson – a look back at certain moments in history, focusing on the fact that black history is one of spectacular achievement followed by violent white backlash (over and over again)
“The Dear Pledges of Our Love”: A Defense of Phillis Wheatley’s Husband by Honoree Fanonne Jeffers – an account by the author of how the first and most widely regarded biography on Phyllis Wheatley was written by a white woman with no known connections. Jeffers posits that all the condemnation of Wheatley’s husband could just be falsified because of racial prejudice
White Rage by Carol Anderson – a examination of how “black rage” only happens because of “white rage” (which is almost always cloaked in the niceties of law and order)
Cracking the Code by Jesmyn Ward – the author uses 23andMe to research genetic code in an attempt to make sense of, acknowledge, and appreciate her diverse ethnic heritage
PART II: RECKONING
“Queries of Unrest” by Clint Smith – a poem about identity and where we come from
Black Than Thou by Kevin Young – snapshots of somewhat random musings on black identity (blackface, “looking black,” black trying to be white and vice versa, etc). I don’t fully understand all the points being made, but they are intriguing nonetheless
Da Art of Storytellin’ (a Prequel) by Kiese Laymon – an ode to the author’s grandmother, OutKast, and black storytellers in all mediums
Black and Blue by Garnette Cadogan – the author’s experience growing up in Jamaica contrasted with his life when he moved to the US. Featuring lots of personal accounts of prejudice and police mishandling, I found this memoir very engaging and troubling. A motif of walking, and an emphasis on how even such a simple act can cause trouble for a black man in America
The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning by Claudia Rankine – an exploration of famous police shootings and how black tragedy can cause mourning on a national scale
Know Your Rights! by Emily Raboteau – somewhat of a photo essay that explains and analyzes multiple activist murals in different states
Composite Pops by Mitchell S. Jackson – a touching account of all the male role models in the author’s life that fill the void left by his biological father
PART III: JUBILEE
“Theories of Time and Space” by Natasha Trethewey – a poem about travel and memory
This Far: Notes on Love and Revolution by Daniel Jose Older – a letter written by the author that examines cultural revolutions in America and also specifically the author’s own experience surrounding the shooting of Michael Brown and the subsequent rioting in Ferguson
Message to My Daughters by Edwidge Danticat – a heartbreaking look at police brutality in America, with an emphasis on shootings of young men and women. Danticat wrestles with trying to find the positivity in life while also figuring out how to explain the potential horrors for black life in America to her young daughters
A couple of things stand out to me as I close the book. Some of them may seem obvious, but I will repeat them all the same. First, though there have been victories along the way, we clearly haven’t won the war. There is so much work still to be done for racial justice, and our black neighbors need us (here I’m speaking to anyone not black) to fight with them as allies. Second, each of these eighteen authors are very different people with different personalities, but the collective pain and yearning they share exudes from the pages. There are many overarching themes and ideas, tethered and connected by individual experience and opinion. This was not planned in any way, and it speaks to the shared trauma, resilience, and desires of the black community at large.
This book may have been compiled back in 2016, but it is just as timely and important in 2020, and does a great job of placing current issues in a historical context. I highly recommend this book to all!