Friday, May 7, 2021

Freeform Friday - The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race - Jesmyn Ward

Summary: In response to recent tragedies and widespread protests across the nation, National Book Award-winning writer Jesmyn Ward looked to James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time for comfort and counsel.  In the essay "My Dungeon Shook," Baldwin addresses his fifteen-year-old namesake on the one hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.  He writes: "You know, and I know, that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon."

Jesmyn Ward knows that Baldwin's words ring as true as ever today, and she has turned to some of her generation's most original thinkers to write short essays, memoirs, and a few essential poems giving 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 attempt to 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 generation have dared everything and made significant progress.  But the idea that we are living in the post-civil rights era -- that we are a "postracial" society -- is a callous corruption of a truth that our nation must confront.  Baldwin's "fire next time" is now upon us, and it needs to be talked about. (Summary from book flap - Image from

DISCLAIMER:  As I write this review, I feel it's important for me to be up front.   As a 40-something white woman, living in a rural area with a population that is 0% Black, located just outside a town that is 1.56% Black, I don't have a lot of opportunities to interact with the Black community face-to-face.  During the increased racial tension of 2020, it has been very easy for me to see the 'police perspective.' because my husband is a detective and 18 year veteran of the local police department.  However, I fully acknowledge that the police perspective is only one side of an often complicated issue. I read books like this one to learn more about what it means to be Black in the U.S. and how I can help promote anti-racism in my home and community. 

My Review:  The Fire This Time is a collection of  essays and poems from a new generation of BIPOC authors.  Editor Jesmyn Ward was inspired by James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, which she turned to in her mid-twenties, longing for the acknowledgement of racial inequality in our nation.  Ward wanted to gather a new generation of voices and "provide a forum for writers to dissent, to call to account, to witness, to reckon."  The collection is divided into three parts which address the past, present, and future of the Black experience in America.

I learned a great deal while reading these essays and came away with a lot to mull over.  There were several essays in particular that felt incredibly powerful.  I'll talk about a few of them here:

In Lonely in America  author Wendy S. Walters talks about the emotional complexity of being Black in America, carrying the weight of history, and the enormity of racial/class disparities in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.  I was especially moved by her discussion of the lack of respect for Black places of rest in New England, specifically, graves that had been desecrated and paved over with city expansion.  

In The Dear Pledges of Our Love author Honoreé Fanonne Jeffers calls into question the validity of our historical record in regards to people of color, stressing the importance of verifying sources and considering the perspective of those sources, especially if they might have been influenced by racial stereotypes.  

Both Where Do We Go From Here and White Rage highlight an important topic -- the cyclical nature of Black progress closely followed by a white attempts at suppression. White Rage's Carol Anderson said it best, "For every action of African American advancement, there's a reaction, a backlash."  Anderson then supports this controversial (to some) statement with historical facts and further explains the concept of 'white rage.' <-----I am going to expound on that term in a minute...

The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning by Claudia Rankine discusses the incredible emotional toll taken on Black Lives that are forced to "exist in a state of precariousness" and near constant fear -- fear that a loved one may not make it home because someone might view them as a threat based solely on the color of their skin.  I admit, the daily strain of such an endeavor seems unfathomable.   

In This Far: Notes on Love and Resolution Daniel José Older's writes letter to his wife, as she worries about having children and bringing more Black lives into a country that doesn't seem to value them.  He also advocates for more reform and diversity whilst also calling out the hypocrisy of a nation that proclaims equality for all without ever actually having it.  

Edwidge Danticat's Message to My Daughters talks about being torn between the responsibility of preparing her daughters for the challenges they may face in this country and wanting to allow them to live unafraid a little longer.  She also makes a sobering point that felt like a *mic drop* in a silent auditorium -- If any immigrant group were subjected to the same treatment in their home countries that Black citizens receive daily, they would likely qualify for asylum in the US.    

Know Your Rights discusses the "talk" that most Black parents are compelled to have with their children (what to do when contacted by the police) and the difference between how white children and black children must "behave" in order to be safe.  (My thoughts on this are straightforward:  Parents should not need to talk to their children about how to 'protect themselves' from the police.  If they feel it is necessary to have that talk -- then the police have a problem that needs fixing.)  

One of the most powerful essays, for me, was Black and Blue. The author Garnette Cadogan writes about growing up in Kingston, Jamaica, roaming the streets till the wee hours to avoid going home to an abusive stepfather.  He never had to worry about sticking out; he was simply another Black face in the crowd.  When Cadogan attends college in New Orleans, he continues to roam the streets, only to find himself the subject of intense scrutiny from passersby.  In an effort to make complete strangers less fearful, he begins dressing a certain way, adopting specific behaviors and intentionally avoiding others in order to project a 'safe,' non-threatening image.  Even then, a friendly wave at a police car one night ends with Cadogan in cuffs, detained for his 'suspicious' behavior.  A few days later, a brief visit back to Jamaica offers a welcome break.  In the author's own words: 

I was astonished at how safe the streets felt to longer having to anticipate the many ways my presence might instill fear and how to offer some reassuring body language...In Jamaica, I felt once again as if the only identity that mattered was my own, not the constricted one that others had constructed for me.

Later, when the author moved to NYC, he had to employ the same behaviors to avoid being unfairly labeled.  The author calls his carefully constructed behavior a 'pantomime undertaken to avoid the choreography of criminality.' It may have had the desired effect on his audience, but Cadogan himself felt anything but safe.  One night Cadogan was running to the subway and had another interaction with the police, this time with their guns drawn.  The ensuing pat down and questioning was incredibly traumatic, but the author knew that "anything beyond passivity would be interpreted as aggression." Although Cadogan was eventually released, it was with a warning that if he had not been polite, things would have 'gone differently' -- an implied threat, indicative of a much bigger problem.  

Black and Blue was one of the most impactful essays for me because of the should-be-ridiculous ways that Cadogan had to moderate his behavior so that others felt more at ease in his presence.  So preoccupied was he in this endeavor that he could no longer enjoy walking in the manner to which he had become accustomed in Jamaica and was forced to 'tiptoe' around New Orleans and NYC, rather than fully experience them in the way a white person is able to experience them.  (This brings up a simple question -- why should Black people bear the responsibility for making white people feel safe?  Answer: They shouldn't.)

The Fire This Time brings up a lot of good points that I needed to hear.  Here are the ones that stood out most to me, in no particular order:.  

  • First, was the the very clear message that Black people feel their lives are not valued or safe in this country.  They are saying it in every way that they can and white people need to do a lot more listening to the reasons why they feel this way.  
  • Second, racism is often more subtle now than during the Civil War or the Civil Rights movement.  It frequently surfaces in a more passive aggressive way -- which brings me to the concept of 'white rage' and how that rage (and the racism behind it) is most often expressed.   Put simply, white people channel their rage differently than Black people, because they have more options and avenues to express that rage.  White rage is most often expressed by white leaders in positions of power enacting policies that adversely effect people of color, or abolishing practices that benefit them.  
  • Third, history is filled with accounts of conservative backlash to Black advancement.  It is important to acknowledge that history so that we might be able to avoid adding to it.  We also need to always consider how if any legislation is 'retaliatory' in nature or may disproportionately affects people of color
  • Fourth, we have a tendency to center whiteness in this country, meaning that white problems, white issues, and white solutions are given center stage and full consideration while BIPOC problems, issues, and solutions are brushed off. We need to surrender the limelight or, at the very least, learn to share it.  
  • Finally, the behaviors Black people have adopted to appear 'non-threatening' and avoid negative encounters with the police should be unnecessary.  The fact that they are common practice among Black people, and especially Black men, is a huge indicator that racism is still a problem in this country.  

If I'm being totally honest, this wasn't a particularly 'pleasant' read.  I can't speak to how a BIPOC person would feel while reading, but as a white reader, it brought up a lot of emotions -- especially shame, anger, and frustration -- and yet if there is one thing I have learned it is that I cannot deny or dismiss the accounts, feelings, and experiences of others simply because they make me uncomfortable or frustrated.  I believe understanding those feelings is essential if we are to confront racism in all its forms and move towards true equality.  I am not sure that I understood the full meaning of every essay or caught all the terms and references, but I loved hearing from such a vast array of experiences and voices.

My Rating: 4.25 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Some swearing.  At least one use of the "N" word.  A small amount of sexual innuendo.

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