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Jesmyn Ward - "The Collective Dark" - A Review of «The Fire This Time» - portions of this book review are excerpted from «Umpteen Essays in Search of a Novel (1983-2023)»

  • National Book Critics Circle


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. In light of recent tragedies and widespread protests across the nation, The Progressive magazine republished one of its most famous pieces: James Baldwin’s 1962 “Letter to My Nephew,” which was later published in his landmark book, The Fire Next Time. Addressing his fifteen-year-old namesake on the one hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, Baldwin wrote: “You know and I know, that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon.” Award-winning author 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. In the fifty-odd years since Baldwin’s essay was published, entire generations have dared everything and made significant progress. But the idea that we are living in the post-Civil Rights era, that we are a “post-racial” society is an inaccurate and harmful reflection of a truth the country must confront. Baldwin’s “fire next time” is now upon us, and it needs to be talked about. Contributors include Carol Anderson, Jericho Brown, Garnette Cadogan, Edwidge Danticat, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Mitchell S. Jackson, Honoree Jeffers, Kima Jones, Kiese Laymon, Daniel Jose Older, Emily Raboteau, Claudia Rankine, Clint Smith, Natasha Trethewey, Wendy S. Walters, Isabel Wilkerson, and Kevin Young.
e Fire is Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race. Jesmy n Ward,
editor. Scribner. 2016. 226 pp. $25.00 (hardcover).
In his 1963 call to arms, e Fire Next Time, Baldwin said that “the most
dangerous creation of any society” is someone “who has nothing to lose.”
Half a century later, beginning in 2012, from Louisiana, Missouri, Min-
nesota, New York, Maryland, North Carolina, Texas to Wisconsin, reports
of “the loss of life at the hands of authorities” (61) went viral on social me-
dia, as Isabel Wilkerson writes in e Fire is Time. Rioting from 2014
to 2016 seemed only to affirm Baldwin’s assertion that African Americans
“may never be able to rise to power, but they are very well placed indeed to
precipitate chaos.”
e Fire is Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race, an anthology
of essays and poems edited by National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward,
refracts an entire spectrum of emotions and ideas about race, regionalism,
gender identity, and American history through the prism of eighteen points
of view organized into three sections—past, present, and future. Ward says
that we “must recall the black diaspora to understand” (9) the roots of our
present predicament. Her anthology succeeds in doing just this.
During her mid-twenties, Ward discovered the creative nonfiction tech-
niques Baldwin employed in “Notes of a Native Son.” It was, she says, a
“revelation” (7). is anthology was specifically inspired by her reading—a
year after the death of Trayvon Martin, one of four-hundred years’ worth
of victims to whose memory the book is dedicated—of e Fire Next Time.
Kevin Brown
Kevin Brown
In “e Weight,” widely published essayist Rachel Kaadzi Ghansahs
ponders Baldwin’s legacy in a travel piece describing her visit to his former
house in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, where he spent more than a quarter-century
“writing himself into the canon” (27). Ghansah’s attitude toward Baldwin
is no more “full of naïve, empty admiration” (28) than was his own attitude
toward France or Europe, yet “his memory is carried,” she acknowledges,
“[o]n the scent of wild lavender like the kind in his yard, in the mouths of a
new generation” (32).
Ward’s use of the word “Legacy” also refers to the influence of female
forebears on African American literature as well as to historical forces,
rooted in the black diaspora, giving rise to the tensions manifested in the
Black Lives Matter movement protests. In “e Dear Pledges of Our Love,”
award-winning poet-critic Honorée Fanonne Jeffers pays tribute to “the first
of the firsts” (63), Phillis Wheatley. And Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist
Isabel Wilkerson’s “Where Do We Go from Here?” reminds us, also in the
context of Black Lives Matter protests, that during the decades between
1900 and 1970 six million “African Americans fled [a] caste system, seeking
asylum in the rest of the country during what would become the Great Mi-
gration” (60). It’s well documented historically that in many northern U.S.
cities anxious whites viewed this figurative invasion as a kind of black plague.
Wilkerson argues that controversial stop-and-frisk policies based on alleg-
edly reasonable suspicion of criminal activity—enacted upon an entrenched
underclass by increasingly militarized, nonresident police forces—have ex-
acerbated tensions long-simmering in a cauldron of “conservative counter
reaction” (60). “ere was a lynching every four days in the early decades
of the 20th century,” Wilkerson writes, and it has “been estimated that an
African-American is now killed by police every two or three days” (61).
Carol Anderson, citing the 2014 riots in Ferugson, Missouri, bolsters
these arguments in an almost legalistic tenor in “White Rage.” e pro-
tests and looting, she insists, were not the cause but the effect of systematic
repression in the form of redistricting and other government tactics that
cloak anger and hatred with “an aura of respectability and [have] access to
the courts, police, legislatures, and governors” (83). According to Anderson,
there is a clear and demonstrable trajectory from “the swelling resentment
that neutralized the irteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments,
and welcomed the Supreme Court’s 1876 U.S. v. Cruikshank decision, which
undercut a law aimed at stopping the terror of the Ku Klux Klan” (84).
From Brown v. Board of Education to the killing of unarmed black teenager
Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014,
Anderson skillfully urges that the pattern of white rage, covert or other-
wise, is clear.
In terms of political foresight, Baldwin’s legacy is mixed. He was quick
to distinguish between a “change of heart” and “progress,” but e Fire Next
Time’s derision of “Bobby Kennedy’s assurance that a Negro can become
President in forty years” has proved wrong. Barack Obama was elected for-
ty-five years after the book’s publication, although “it quickly became clear,”
Edwidge Danticat, a Haitian American who bears witness to the diaspora
of displaced Africans, Caribbean Hispanics, Creoles, and West Indians liv-
ing in cities like Miami and New York, writes in “Message to My Daugh-
ters,” that “this one man was not going to take all of us with him into the
post-racial promised land. Or that he even had full access to it” (212).
Baldwin’s influence on e Fire is Time is so pervasive that, even
when not directly quoted, his presence is clearly felt. His debt is indirectly
acknowledged, for instance, by the presence of such distinguished con-
tributors as Natasha Trethewey (2007 Pulitzer Prize winner, 2012 United
States Poet Laureate) and Kevin Young (National Book Award Finalist,
Los Angeles Times Book Award Finalist), both of whom emerged from
e Darkroom Collective, a black arts movement derived from that long-
running series of readings organized in Cambridge the year after Baldwin’s
death in 1987.
e Fire is Time does not screed in monotone. Nearly a dozen of these
nineteen pieces were written with this anthology specifically in mind, and
Ward has given careful thought both to unity and diversity. “ere’s lay-
ers,” as contributor Kiese Laymon’s grandmamma knew, “to this” (117). As
time allowed, I read the pieces out of sequence and so found the content
refreshingly varied. Clint Smith’s “Queries of Unrest” (after Hanif Willis-
Abdurraqib), for example, is more than just a depiction of a war zone “where
people,” he writes, “are afraid of dying all the time” (100).
In fact, some sections of “Reckoning” are laugh-out-loud funny, “Black-
er an ou,” for instance, by Kevin Young, who has a stand-up comic’s
sense of timing and shares his hero Berryman’s dark laughter. Young writes
that after the killings of Charleston African American churchgoers by a
white mass-murderer, “[f]lags flew at half-staff—except the Confederate
flag on South Carolina statehouse grounds. It took a black woman to climb
up and take that down. . . . ey gave the assignment to a black man to raise
the ‘rebel flag,’ the stars and bars, back up. Like Sally Hemings, he might not
have minded, but he certainly couldn’t have refused” (109–10).
Nor is e Fire is Time a mere assemblage of agitprop. On the con-
trary, several pieces aspire to the condition of literature, and Daniel José
Older’s “Notes on Love and Revolution” is just one example. “Journalism,” as
has been so often said since the 19th century, is “literature in a hurry.” Old-
er’s contribution is so valuable precisely because, as the movement, fanned
by social media, conflagrated throughout North America and the globe un-
til the number of protestors reached “hundreds of thousands” (200), to date
there’s been so much twitter and hurried journalism and so little deliberated
literature about Black Lives Matter.
Finally, “Reckoning” suggests not just a biblical calling to account
but also a tallying of accounts, as of debts owed. Baldwin’s work positively
strains against a tendency to see the African American either “as a symbol
or a victim,” as a figure of either prowess or of menace, as a witheringly
overprotective mother or an incarcerated absentee father. e father/son
relationship was a recurring theme in his work. Perhaps because it doesn’t
have to be, James Baldwin’s name is never mentioned in “Composite Pops,
Mitchell S. Jackson’s hybrid homage to “a group of men who provided a lov-
ing example of what it would,” he says, “mean to be a man” (180).
Jubilee suggests both a commemoration of the more than fifty years since
publication of James Baldwin’s e Fire Next Time and a celebration of the
achievement of e Fire is Time. Although the anthology’s subtitle refers
to a “New Generation,” some contributors are in fact mid-career writers in
their fifties. Claudia Rankine was born the same year e Fire Next Time
appeared. Others were born during the 1970s, and still others as recently
as the 1980s. More to the point, the proliferation from New England to
Southern California of the kind of MFA and doctoral writing programs so
many of these contributors are either products or faculty of means that there
Kevin Brown
are now more writers of color than ever, Jericho Brown and Kima Jones being
just two examples. Which is as it should be. Natasha Trethewey’s “eories
of Time and Space,” which Ward reads as a “poem about the many planes on
which time exists” (9), shares the broadly regional and specifically southern
concerns of other contributions but is otherwise notable for its very absence
of an overtly racial theme. Which is as it could be. ere are “so many voic-
es, so many audiences,” and not just “the kind,” says Kiese Laymon, “with its
legs crossed, reading e New York Times (121).
I’m grateful to e Fire is Time both for its impetus to reread Bald-
win and for introducing so many newer voices to a wider audience. Where,
asks Isabel Wilkerson, do we go from here? Each contributor has a clue;
none has a definitive answer. For Daniel José Older, “a Latino who isn’t
black” (202), an NYC paramedic who bears firsthand witness to the wounds
inflicted and self-inflicted upon black lives, the answer was to become a par-
ent anyway, “bringing black life into a world that doesn’t value it” (197).
Mothers like Edwidge Danticat continue to look hopefully toward the fu-
ture of her two dark princesses, whose “crowns have already been bought
and paid for” (214). “We must love ourselves,” Wilkerson pleads, “even if—
and perhaps especially if—others do not” (61). By the very nature of their
relation to organized society, writers are protestors, whether as creators of
archetypes or destroyers of stereotypes. We can only continue, in the collec-
tive dark, struggling with hard questions such as these.
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