The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race, edited by Jesmyn Ward

The Fire This Time is brilliant. Read it. The end.

Oookay, so I can’t really stop there. It was my book group’s read for June, and we all were impressed by it. Let me tell you about it.

71aOha7tq9LIt’s an essay and poetry anthology edited by the amazing Jesmyn Ward, author of Salvage the Bones, Men We Reaped, and most recently, the National Book Award-winner Sing, Unburied, Sing (which I haven’t yet read.) In her introduction, after trying to process the unjustified killing of Trayvon Martin and seeking wisdom from James Baldwin’s classic The Fire Next Time, she writes,

It was then that I wanted to call on some of the great thinkers and extraordinary voices of my generation to help me puzzle this out. I knew that a black boy who lives in the hilly deserts of California, who likes to get high with his friends on the weekend and who freezes in a prickly sweat whenever he sees blue lights in his rearview, would need a book like this. A book that would reckon with the fire of rage and despair and fierce, protective love currently sweeping through the streets and campuses of America. A book that would gather new voices in one place, in a lasting, physical form, and provide a forum for those writers to dissent, to call to account, to witness, to reckon. A book that a girl in rural Missouri could pick up at her local library and, while reading, encounter a voice that hushed her fears. In the pages she would find a wise aunt, a more present mother, who saw her terror and despair threading their fingers through her hair, and would comfort her. We want to tell her this: You matter. I love you. Please don’t forget it.

Writers I have read before like Carol Anderson (White Rage,) Kiese Laymon (Long Division,) and Claudia Rankine (Citizen: An American Lyric) contribute essays while poets Natasha Tretheway and Clint Smith offer moving poems. I was introduced to quite a few writers I’d never read before, like Garnette Cadogan, who wrote what might be my favorite essay of the bunch, “Black and Blue.” In it Cadogan contrasts his experiences walking all over his Kingston, Jamaica home as a teenager to his experiences walking in New Orleans and New York City as an adult. As a college student in New Orleans, university staff told him to restrict his walking to certain touristy, “safe” areas of town. He scoffed, thinking, come on, I’ve already been through every rough neighborhood of Kingston, these New Orleans criminals have nothing on them.

What no one had told me was that I was the one who would be considered a threat.

He describes incidents with white pedestrians and police, detailing how he would formulate the outfits he wore to appear as non-threatening and scholarly as possible.

Light-colored oxford shirt. V-neck sweater. Khaki pants. Chukkas. Sweatshirt of t-shirt with my university insignia…The sidewalk was  a minefield, and every hesitation and self-censored compensation reduced my dignity. Despite my best efforts, the streets never felt comfortably safe. Even a simple salutation was suspect.

His adoptive aunt persuades him to move to New York City, and he dreams of following in the footsteps of writers who had “wandered that  great city before me.” He spent the first few months exploring with friends and lovers, but it wasn’t long before “reality reminded me I wasn’t invulnerable, especially when I walked alone.” When running to dinner one night, a white man turned and punched him in the ribs, assuming he was a criminal, then blamed him for the assault because he ran up behind him. Another night he was jogging to the subway because he was late to meet a friend, and suddenly a police officer has pointed his gun at him and orders him against the police car. More cops surround him, each badgering him about why he was running, where was he going, where was he coming from. He couldn’t answer them all at once, trying to be calm and explain that he’d just left one group of friends to meet another, they could go find the friends down the street, look at his phone and see the texts. It turned out that a black man had stabbed someone earlier a few blocks away and they were looking for him. When a police captain puts his hand on Cadogan’s back and feels no sweat, he tells them to let him go because, “If he was running for a long time he would have been sweating.” The captain offers Cadogan a ride to the subway station, and when thanked for his help, the captain said, “It’s because you were polite that we let you go. If you were acting up it would have been different.”

I returned to the old rules I’d set for myself in New Orleans, with elaboration. No running, especially at night; no sudden movements; no hoodies; no objects – especially shiny ones – in hand; no waiting for friends on a street corner, lest I be mistaken for a drug dealer; no standing near a corner on the cell phone (same reason.)

This collection of essays and poems blew my mind. Sometimes I begin to think I am aware of my privilege and then I read more and more and I am shaken by all that I don’t know, all that I can’t truly know, because of the color of my skin. I am profoundly grateful that this anthology exists and that reading books like this enables me to question the status quo, empathize, and learn.

(This is book 8 of my 20 Books of Summer challenge.)

29 thoughts on “The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race, edited by Jesmyn Ward

  1. Great review, Laila. This is a book that i’d like to read. I can’t imagine what its like to live in an environment where you constantly have to think about ‘how to appear non-threatening’. Each of those stories sound so heartbreaking and terrifying. Sad that a person can’t wear ‘whatever’ or even jog without being profiled as a criminal.

    Adding this one to my TBR.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, I’m glad you added it to your TBR! It was illuminating and made me sad and angry all at once. But there is hope, and I do think that things are slowly slowly getting better (maybe?) The more people read books like this one the better!

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  2. I haven’t read Ward yet but have two of her books waiting on my shelf. This sounds like something I’d love to read. Last year I read Between the World and Me and I literally was choked up because I thought of so many things, the gross injustices world wide. I’ll add this to my TBR. Your review was excellent

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  3. I’ve read James Baldwin’s book on which this one is based. If you liked this book, you REALLY need to see the documentary film about Baldwin called I Am Not Your Negro. When people use the word “woke,” I think about James Baldwin and his ideas and their complexity and remember that simply believing police are racist isn’t really the full extent of “woke.” I’m not saying that to you in particular, but more so to people who learn from social media and see forgetting to study the masters of race awareness.

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    1. I agree – both The Fire Next Time and I Am Not Your Negro are amazing. I just finished his novel Giovanni’s Room and was blown away by it. Baldwin is becoming one of my favorite people the more I learn about him and read him.

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  4. “The Fire This Time is brilliant. Read it. The end.” XD XD XD Yes, ma’am! I just requested it from the library. Based 100% on this line.

    And then these: “Sometimes I begin to think I am aware of my privilege and then I read more and more and I am shaken by all that I don’t know, all that I can’t truly know, because of the color of my skin. I am profoundly grateful that this anthology exists and that reading books like this enables me to question the status quo, empathize, and learn.”

    I have nothing new to add you haven’t mentioned in this paragraph. This is why we continue to read works like this. I need to learn to keep my privilege in check. That said, did this text help you at all with how you can be a force for the better in this whole mess? I always wonder how I can help…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s the question, isn’t it? Well, being aware of these injustices has certainly made me more politically active, in terms of voting even in the “small” elections. That’s one way we can help. Also, I am trying to have age-appropriate conversations about race with my son, which is another way white people can help. I think buying and writing about books by authors of color is another way we can help. These things feel small but if enough people did them on a regular basis things would start to change just a little bit. At least I hope they would. I hope you enjoy the book and I suspect you’ll get a lot out of it.

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      1. You’re right. We don’t need to be big change, just change. The Butterfly Effect, and all that. I love the idea of buying and writing about books by authors of color as a way to be part of the solution. I read so many book club books, I don’t often think about the race or ethnicity of the author— well, unless it’s relevant to the book. I should take care to also be more aware of these traits. Thank you for the advice!

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  5. This is one that I am looking forward to reading in small bits and I’m so glad to hear that you found it a powerful reading experience. On a not-entirely-unrelated note, I have resumed listening to the podcast you recommended (A Tiny Accomplishment) and am renewedly loving it, including the layers of privilege exposed there too, so often about class which is another dimension oft-overlooked. It’s one of the few podcasts that I have set to “not delete” upon finishing, because I want to keep them around for relistening. Thanks for that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re welcome! I haven’t listened to them again, but that’s an idea. Although I have conflicted feelings now about Sherman Alexie what with all the allegations that came out about him a few months ago. That really sucked. I mean, it sucks a lot more for the women he took advantage of, of course. Anyway, I’m glad you’re still enjoying them!

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      1. There is a long history of native writers who have made complaints against Alexie over the years because they believed that he did not do enough to support young and emerging native writers, that he did not share the power he gained via fame and popularity as they believed that he should have. Even this podcast could be cited as an example of this, in that he could have chosen to present it with a native writer. Some recent allegations made against cultural figures have changed my habits, even with figures I had greatly respected, but in this instance I think the history of other grievances raises more questions about the recent bout of allegations.

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  6. This sounds like such an important book-and badly needed right now. Sounds like it should be in every classroom, just think of the amazing discussions it would prompt! I’m glad books like this are being published and getting attention-great review Laila!

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  7. I loved Sing, Unburied, Sing so know that I would like this as well. Although ‘like’ is probably the wrong word for work like this. I imagine it will leave me angry and uncomfortable about racism in our country. I just read There There which had a non-fiction prologue about the real history of Native Americans and it was very difficult reading. I’m going to add this to my TBR, but may wait for fall.

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    1. You know, for such heavy material, this collection didn’t leave me hopeless. There is hope here, and strength, and the variety of subjects and experiences meant that the essays stood out and didn’t all blend together. But it is heavy stuff. I have There There on my TBR list – making my way up the library holds list for it!

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