The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race. Ed. by Jesmyn Ward. New York: Scribner, 2016. 228 pp. $25 (cloth).
Jesmyn Ward introduces The Fire This Time, an anthology of essays and poems of witness and dissent, by expressing her own commingled dismay and hope regarding race relations in America. This book, she says, gathers “the great thinkers and extraordinary voices” of her generation to consider racism, both subtle and egregious. She hopes their words speak directly to the current generation of African-Americans, who may need to hear what Baldwin once wrote to inspirit an earlier generation: they can only be destroyed if they believe the supremacist rhetoric the white world offers them. “I tell you this,” Baldwin added, “because I love you, and please don’t you ever forget it.”
The testimonies here are, undoubtably, horrifying. Within the first ten pages, Ward narrates her experience as a young teen in high school who was invited to participate in Presidential Classroom in Washington, DC, where she and five of her classmates met Senator Trent Lott. Lott lifted a whip from his office table, where it just happened to be resting, “coiled and shiny brown,” then said to Ward’s only white male schoolmate: Let’s show ’em how us good old boys do it. He swung the whip through the air and cracked it above their heads, again and again. “I remember [it] in my bones,” Ward writes.
If such illustrations no longer trigger the shock they warrant, that does not lessen the atrocity but rather magnifies it. Because—as every artist in the book points out, and this is one of the most powerful threads—our familiarity with racism, our intentional or unintentional acclimatization to it, is how black people lose all hope and how white people perpetuate bigotry.
In her essay, “Lonely in America,” Wendy Walters notices how a museum docent in New England repeatedly skirts the word slave, using servant instead. Similarly, the region maintains the myth that Africans who lived in the north were somehow “treated better than those in the South.” Such tactics help us forget, or bury, our country’s history of slavery—a complacency the essay warns us against. The bulk of Walters’s story ponders the discovered remains of an undetermined number of slaves, buried and forgotten in Portsmouth, their bodies and coffins run through with gas and sewer lines, and streets and buildings erected on top of them. In the last sentence, Walters stuffs the excavation team’s report in her backpack, and eventually grows accustomed to and stops noticing its weight on her shoulders.
Though it wears a comical tone, Kevin Young’s “Blacker Than Thou” ties Rachel Dolezal’s appropriation of black identity to our country’s habit of seeing “blackness” as a definable state, a costume one wears. In all likelihood, Dolezal did not fool the black people around her: “I have a strange feeling,” Young writes, “that many simply humored her. You have to do this with white people, from time to time.” By the end of the essay, Young’s short clips each warrant a mic drop. Dolezal’s blackface does not symbolize the harmless desire to feel black but rather the impulse to generate more condescending stereotypes that restrict “blackness.” More pointedly, Young unmasks white society’s criminalization of “blackness,” a charge we aim directly at young men of color right before we shoot and kill them: “I came out as black as a teenager. Before then, I was simply a boy.”
In Mitchell S. Jackson’s “Composite Pops,” Jackson grapples with the myth of the fatherless boy in at-risk neighborhoods. Defying that myth—resurrecting the black father—Jackson honors the men in his life who, together, served as a “composite”: his mother’s boyfriend, his maternal grandfather, two uncles, and eventually his biological father. Most razor-sharp is Jackson’s point that these men did not fit “traditional”—insert white here—definitions of paternal. Some of these men were parolees, bank robbers, drug dealers who, regardless, taught him what a young boy needs to know in order to grow into a good man. That white people, or sometimes even people of color, declare young men like Jackson “fatherless” is a gross proprietary assumption. It preaches that black fathers are not fathers; it convinces black children they are bastards.
In her introduction, Ward lists the people she compiled this book for; she hopes they hear her—and Jericho Brown, Edwidge Danticat, Kaadzi Ghansah, Honoree Fanonne Jeffers, Emily Raboteau, Claudia Rankine, Clint Smith, and and and—saying, You matter. We love you. Please don’t forget it. I hope, perhaps naively, that this book will incite change among our most conservative citizens, the people who answer #BlackLivesMatter with #AllLivesMatter or #BlueLivesMatter. Let them pick up this book, or any essay, poem, or story, written by the brilliant and extraordinary African-American voices singing today. Let them start reading; let them start here.
Footage and Stills from Elvert Barnes, Cameron Carr, Jason Lander, John O’Dyer, Pexel, Pixabay, the public domain, TeleSur, Ryan Vaarsi, Wikimedia, Wikipedia, and designers Robert Trujillo and Dignidad Rebelde. Music: “We Shall Overcome,” arrangement for violin, by OfGreatLakes via YouTube.
Leslie Jill Patterson teaches at Texas Tech University, where she edits Iron Horse Literary Review. She has recently published stories and essays in Grist, Barrelhouse, Baltimore Review, Smokelong Quarterly, and other venues. Her recent awards include the Time and Place Prize in France, The Everett Southwest Literary Award, and an Embrey Human Right Fellowship. As a Soros Justice Fellow, she has developed the field of narrative law to assist public defense attorneys fighting the death penalty in the state of Texas.