The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race
Reviewed by Greg Williams
Edited by Jesmyn Ward. Scribner, 2016. 240 pages. $25/hardcover; $16/paperback; $12.99/eBook.
In his book The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin writes, “I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.”
There is a destructive reality that needs to be faced. Baldwin, long gone, speaks to us as an ancient prophet, as if touching us with headlines that will invade our lives for at least the next four years. In The Fire This Time, editor Jesmyn Ward and her crew of writers help us to envision a land of both horror and survival. Baldwin knew—as did I, encountering his book at 14—that there would be a “next time.” I am also aware that I understand Ward’s title and its focus on “this time” as a never-ending cycle. I am not sure if all Quakers understand and appreciate the shift in wording.
Ward awakens us with the heartbreaking assassination of Trayvon Martin. We understand that he was a child stalked as though he were less than human. Over the years, the loss of Trayvon’s life has been followed by many others: men, women, and children, who have lost not only their lives. Along with life, they have lost their humanity in the eyes of others—racism dehumanizes people. Folks of color murdered over and over and over again dehumanizes them death after death. If Friends have not yet spoken up, the reading of both Fire books may help you find your beginning.
The essay “The Condition of Black Life Is One of Mourning” presented a landscape that touched me personally, alive with love and hope, as my son screeched his first sounds of life. When Claudia Rankine, author of this piece, asked a friend, “What is it like being the mother of a black son?” the title of this chapter was born. “For her, mourning lived in real time inside her and her son’s reality: At any moment she might lose her reason for living.” Both of my children are young adults. I still harbor that fear! Do white parents share that fear for their newborn babies?
Rankine tells her readers, “We live in a country where Americans assimilate corpses in their daily comings and goings. Dead blacks are a part of normal life here. Dying in ship hulls, tossed into the Atlantic, hanging from trees, beaten, shot in churches, gunned down by police, or warehoused in prisons.”
The Fire This Time can be viewed in different ways depending on how one relates to the varied pieces.Rankine’s essay moved me; I have a sense that other readers will discover what moves them. The Fire This Time, like its predecessor, The Fire Next Time, offers us a rich view of what is past, and what is today. Both volumes deserve your attention. This book could well take you on a number of varied journeys if you are open.