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.
It’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.)