Tuesday, September 8, 2020

The Fire This Time edited by Jesmyn Ward

The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race
edited by Jesmyn Ward
Read by Cherise Booth, Michael Early, Kevin R. Free, Korey Jackson, Susan Spain
Published August 2016 by Scribner
Source: audiobook checked out from my local library

Publisher’s Summary:
In light of recent tragedies and widespread protests across the nation, The Progressive magazine republished one of its most famous pieces: James Baldwin’s 1962 “Letter to My Nephew,” which was later published in his landmark book, The Fire Next Time. Addressing his fifteen-year-old namesake on the one hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, Baldwin wrote: “You know and I know, that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon.”

Award-winning author Jesmyn Ward knows that Baldwin’s words ring as true as ever today. In response, she has gathered short essays, memoir, and a few essential poems to engage the question of race in the United States. And she has turned to some of her generation’s most original thinkers and writers to give 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 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 generations have dared everything and made significant progress. But the idea that we are living in the post-Civil Rights era, that we are a “post-racial” society is an inaccurate and harmful reflection of a truth the country must confront. Baldwin’s “fire next time” is now upon us, and it needs to be talked about.

Contributors include Carol Anderson, Jericho Brown, Garnette Cadogan, Edwidge Danticat, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Mitchell S. Jackson, Honoree Jeffers, Kima Jones, Kiese Laymon, Daniel Jose Older, Emily Raboteau, Claudia Rankine, Clint Smith, Natasha Trethewey, Wendy S. Walters, Isabel Wilkerson, and Kevin Young.

My Thoughts:
Jesmyn Ward kicks off this book with a startling recollection from a visit she and some high school classmates made to the office of Trent Lott, then one of her state’s senators, in Washington.
“Trent Lott took a whip as long as a car off his office table, where it lay coiled and shiny brown, and said to my one male schoolmate who grinned at Lott enthusiastically: Let’s show ‘em how us good old boys do it. And then he swung that whip through the air and cracked it above our heads, again and again. I remember the experience in my bones.” 
Given Ward’s age, this must have been in the mid-1990’s. It is shocking to think that Lott found that behavior perfectly acceptable. James Baldwin wrote in The Fire Next Time that love would allow us to “end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country…” Sadly, more than 20 years after Wards encounter with Lott and almost 60 years since Baldwin’s book was published, Lott’s actions seem to speak to the way some white Americans still think about black people. Consider that this book was published four years ago, just as our first black president was finishing out his second term and just before we elected a president who has courted the kind of people who think like Trent Lott. Four years after it was published, this book feels even more timely.

Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah perhaps says it best, “If I knew anything about being black in America, it was that nothing was guaranteed.” Again and again, the names Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Abner Louima, and those killed at Charleston’s Emanuel Church are invoked as a reminder of this. But Ward also wants to remind us, “We are writing an epic, wherein black lives carry worth.” How sad that we need to be reminded.

The authors of these pieces want us to understand both points. Claudia Rankine writes about being the mother of black sons; Garnette Cadogan writes about how different walking as a black man was when he moved from Jamaica to New Orleans, where he suddenly was perceived by some as being a danger; Mitchell S. Jackson reflects on the father figures in his life, good and bad; Ghansah writes about being the first person of color working for an employer; and Edwidge Danticat writes about needing to have two conversations with her daughters to explain “why we’re here” and “why it’s not always a promised land for people who look like us.

The reading for this book is excellent; but, in listening to it, I did this book a disservice. If you were, say, sitting on your patio listening to a book while relaxing, sure, it would be great. But if you are listening to this book while you are doing other things (which I was), it will not have the impact it almost certainly would have had if you had picked it up and read it in print. I wish I had done that. I’ve had to go back and re-listen to a number of passages before I could write this review and it has made all the difference. This book deserved my full attention.


  1. I've been meaning to read this. Glad this is one you also enjoyed and recommend.

    1. Take your time with it and really allow each story to stand on its own!