Book Review: The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race, Jesmyn Ward (2016)

August 19th, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

You need to read this book.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley.)

[W]e are writing an epic wherein black lives carry worth, wherein black boys can walk to the store and buy candy without thinking they will die, wherein black girls can have a bad day and be mouthy without being physically assaulted by a police officer, wherein cops see twelve-year-old black boys playing with fake guns as silly kids and not homicidal maniacs, wherein black women can stop to ask for directions without being shot in the face by paranoid white homeowners. I burn, and I hope.

– Jesmyn Ward, Introduction

A friend recently told me that when she gave birth to her son, before naming him, before even nursing him, her first thought was, I have to get him out of this country.

– Claudia Rankine, “The Condition of Black Life Is One of Mourning”

Anthologies tend to be pretty hit or miss with me, but the eighteen pieces in The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race are uniformly excellent. There wasn’t a single poem or essay that I didn’t love. I devoured the whole thing in most of an afternoon, and was left hungering for more.

Inspired by James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time – “A Letter to My Nephew” in particular – Jesmyn Ward compiled a collection of essays on race by and for a new generation. The result is eclectic and surprising and just straight-up breathtaking.

I wasn’t sure what to expect – a more academic bent, perhaps? – but in this case, I think my preconceptions were a positive, because The Fire This Time upended them in the best way possible. Through a mix of poems, personal essays, letters, and creative nonfiction, the contributors explore a wide range of topics, both expected and not: the black immigrant experience; police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement; walking while black; reassessing one’s long held identity in the wake of contemporary DNA testing; the legacy of slavery in New England; depression and loneliness as a consequence of cultural disconnectedness; constructing composite fathers; metafiction in hip hop; and “artistic rituals of labor,” from grandmamas to Outkast.

It’s hard to pick a favorite, but if pressed I’d have to go with Garnette Cadogan’s “Black and Blue.” As a child growing up in Kingston, Jamaica in the 1980s, Cadogan walked the streets well into the night. At first his wanderings were a means of escape: from the abusive stepfather who awaited him at home. But, over time, they morphed into something much deeper: a way to find adventure, serenity, and self-reflection. Picking mangoes and sneaking into street parties, he imagines himself to be a modern-day Tom Sawyer. He quotes Kierkegaard: “I have walked myself into my best thoughts.”

When Cadogan moved to New Orleans to attend college, university staff cautioned him away from certain areas, all less dangerous than the neighborhoods he walked in Jamaica: “These American criminals are nothing on Kingston’s, I thought. They’re no real threat to me. What no one had told me was that I was the one who would be considered a threat.” And so begins his journey of “walking while black”: of walking slowly, never running; wearing khakis and dress shirts and items emblazoned with his university logo, while avoiding hoodies altogether; leaving shiny items at home; crossing the street to put white people at ease. Including white women who, ironically, practice the same “vigilance in an environment where they are constantly treated as targets of sexual attention.” And so an activity in which Cadogan once lost himself becomes one in which he must cultivate constant awareness of his surroundings.

In his interactions with the police, Cadogan observes that: “The cops had less regard for the witness and entreaties of black onlookers, whereas the concern of white witnesses usually registered on them. A black witness asking a question or politely raising an objection could quickly become a fellow detainee.” This is one of many points that, while not emphasized, I hope registers with white readers specifically (of which I am one). The practical implication being that, if you see a police interaction, stick around. Bear witness. Film it if you can do so safely. Someone’s life might depend on it.

Also wonderful is “The Dear Pledges of Our Love”: A Defense of Phillis Wheatley’s Husband by Honorée Jeffers. While researching Wheatley’s life in order to write a series of poems about “the mother of African American literature,” Jeffers comes to question the dominant narrative about her husband, John Peters. Much of what we know about Wheatley’s life in America comes from Margaretta Matilda Odell, who claimed to be a “collateral descendant” of Susannah Wheatley, Phillis’s former mistress. Even though this claim has never been substantiated, historians continue to rely on her biography of Wheatley – which, despite its “good intentions,” is steeped in the racism of the time, and ultimately “continues the disturbing historical trend of African Americans, and black women in particular, needing white benefactors to justify their lives and history.”

Jeffers ends with a hope – a plea – for historians to revisit and reshape this biography, crafting one that both explores Wheatley’s life prior to her enslavement – and affirms the humanity of black people.

Kevin Young’s “Blacker Than Thou” – in which he identifies Rachel Dolezal as a hoaxer and imposter – is thoughtful, measured, and surprisingly funny; well worth the price of admission on its own. (To wit: “Did Dolezal really fool those black folks around her? I have a strange feeling she didn’t, that many simply humored her. You have to do this with white people, from time to time.”)

I also loved editor Jesmyn Ward’s “Cracking the Code,” in which she recounts her and her parents’ experiences having their DNA analyzed by 23andMe. For $99 a pop, they had their ancestry either confirmed, as in her father’s case (“who always believed himself to have Native American heritage, and who had a strong affinity for Native American history and culture, found that he is 51 percent Native American”) or shaken to its core (“it was discomfiting to find that my ancestry was 40 percent European […] For a few days after I received my results, I looked into the mirror and didn’t know how to understand myself.”).

Shortly after receiving the results, Ward’s father registered with the Choctaw tribe of Slidell, Louisiana – which immediately brought to mind the upcoming “All the Real Indians Died Off”: And 20 Other Myths About Native Americans by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker. The titular myth, “All the Real Indians Died Off,” is done in part through erasure and with the purpose of stripping Native Americans of their tribal lands. After all, if there are no “Indians” left, what need do they have of reservations? This is accomplished in a variety of ways, including through restrictive blood quantum requirements that bar many people from rightfully claiming their Native descent; by policies that encourage intermarriage and migration to urban centers; and through transracial adoption.

Ward’s story adds another dimension to this: “It’s impossible for most black Americans to construct full family trees. Official census records, used by so many genealogy enthusiasts to piece together their families’ pasts, don’t include our non-European ancestors.” New technology such as home DNA testing kits allow African Americans and Native peoples the chance to reclaim heritage – and possibly, hopefully, power – that had long since been denied to them, to paraphrase Ward. What a remarkable thing.

I could go on and on but suffice it to say that you need to read this book. It’s raw and urgent, timely and necessary, and smart and heartfelt AF. Buy it for yourself, give it to your friends, get copies in your local libraries.

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

“The Tradition” by Jericho Brown

Introduction by Jesmyn Ward

Part One: Legacy
Homegoing, AD by Kima Jones
The Weight by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah
Lonely in America by Wendy S. Walters
Where Do We Go From Here? by Isabel Wilkerson
“The Dear Pledges of Our Love”: A Defense of Phillis Wheatley’s Husband by Honorée Jeffers
White Rage by Carol Anderson
Cracking the Code by Jesmyn Ward

Part Two: Reckoning
“Queries of Unrest” by Clint Smith
Blacker Than Thou by Kevin Young
Da Art of Storytellin’ (a prequel) by Kiese Laymon
Black and Blue by Garnette Cadogan
The Condition of Black Life Is One of Mourning by Claudia Rankine
Know Your Rights! by Emily Raboteau
Composite Pops by Mitchell S. Jackson

Part Three: Jubilee
“Theories of Time and Space” by Natasha Trethewey
This Far: Notes on Love and Revolution by Daniel José Older
Message to My Daughters by Edwidge Danticat

Contributors

Permissions

About the Editor

 

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Obviously!

Animal-friendly elements: Not really. In “Da Art of Storytellin’ (a prequel),” Kiese Laymon recalls his grandmama’s daily preparations for her job at a chicken processing plant. While the piece is about her style (“stank”) in relation to Outkast, Laymon does allude to some of the labor issues in animal agriculture – “She went into that plant every day, knowing it was a laboratory for racial and gendered terror.” – but does not elaborate beyond this.

 

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