A Feature Review of
The Fire This Time:
A New Generation Speaks about Race
Jesmyn Ward, Ed.
Reviewed by Amy Neftzger
The Fire This Time is a collection of essays compiled by National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward, who received that award in 2011 for her novel Salvage the Bones. Both the contents and title of The Fire This Time are a response to James Baldwin’s book The Fire Next Time, but this response is one that has been a long time coming. One need only turn on the evening news to see that not much has changed since Baldwin published his book in 1962. This new collection of literary work has taken up the baton in the relay marathon for racial equality. It seems that each generation has hoped for progress, and perhaps sometimes it feels as if we’re getting somewhere, but as soon as we turn around we see that we’ve taken very few steps from the starting line and there are still miles to go.
Many of the pieces in The Fire This Time are reflecting on the past, attempting to shed light on the present. While some may argue that the past should be left behind, it’s the crucible in which the present is created. The point in time in which we exist is the product of all that has come before, the good and the bad, and we have no hope of understanding who we are if we ignore how we got here. Amnesia doesn’t change what happened, it only prevents us from understanding our connections to where we’ve been and our relationships with one another. Wendy Walters’s essay “Lonely in America” emphasizes this point, as she writes about visiting New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Walters talks about walking through Holt cemetery where many of the gravestones were missing and wondering about the location of her ancestors’ graves. When she later returns to New England she heard about a grave site discovered beneath a New Hampshire street which contained the remains of Africans, so she decides to visit. She comes to realize that the gravesite is not set apart by anything more than a plaque stating that in 1705 the land was designated as “a negro burial ground.” The more Walters learned about the past, the lonelier she feels in the present.
Honoree Jeffers wrote a piece on the poet Phillis Wheatley that explores Wheatley’s relationship with her husband. As part of this, Jeffers also examines racial stereotypes and how poorly recorded history can perpetuate these. Too often the source of historical information is not first hand, but rather written by a third party who more often than not happened to be white. Because published sources weren’t abundant a few hundred years ago one source repeatedly referenced is concluded as fact, mostly because we have little else. If it’s the only information we have, we assume it to be true. However, after extensive research Jeffers has turned up evidence that the original source may not have been objective or accurate, and I couldn’t help but wonder what Phillis would think about her husband being portrayed as abusive while the woman who purchased Phillis was viewed as a benefactor. Would Phillis agree with this assessment? Or would it make her sad to see the events of her life interpreted in this manner? Phillis was a literate and intelligent woman, so I find it difficult to believe that she would be easily duped by an obvious rogue. I find it very heartening that someone is searching for new evidence on her life and reviewing it carefully, even if it is several hundred years later. Phillis deserves that much.
One essay that speaks to the issues from the perspective of current events is a very well written piece called “Blacker Than Thou” by Kevin Young. He addresses the subject of racial imposters and eloquently explains that “Blackness too often veers between two poles in the public eye: opaqueness and invisibility.” His alternating use of humor and grace are very appropriate to the subject in the essay as he applies a quote by James Weldon Johnson to the situation and states that racial imposters can only end as either comic or tragic. Young’s writing is powerful and provides insight into race relations in America from a point of view I had not considered. We learn a lot about our culture when we look at the imposters and why a person might choose to misrepresent herself as being from another race or ethnicity. We learn that in America sometimes we want to be black, and sometimes we don’t. Most of us want the comedy and avoid the tragedy, but some of us don’t have a choice.
There are those of us who claim not to think about race, while others are acutely aware of it because it is a matter of survival. Garnette Cadogan mentions in his essay “Black and Blue” that he’s learned to be constantly attentive when walking through the city, and he makes it a point to walk with purpose, less he come under suspicion of the police. Observation and people-watching are a luxury when a cruising patrol car might mistake your lack of purpose for criminal intent. He explains that it is important to appear as part of the general flow and not to stand apart. The title of the piece conveys both the tension between blacks and the men in blue as well as the results of that tension. He also describes how constant vigilance and attention to appearances makes it difficult to be oneself, and it reminds himself of learning to walk as a child. Those first steps where we gain our footing in life are often coupled with bruises, and if we never find our footing we continue to suffer injuries. We’re black and blue.
Our culture is broken, and while there’s hope for healing it will take effort and we can’t fix something if we don’t admit that there’s a defect needing repair. Emily Raboteau’s piece called “Know Your Rights” talks about the different murals in New York City that paraphrase the Miranda rights and provide simple legal advice for residents. Although the murals are beautiful, they’re more than art. The paintings serve as billboards placed in communities where knowing your rights is important to survival. The fact that they’re necessary in some neighborhoods in America and not in others tells us that the dream of all men being created equal still has a long way to go.
We can’t and shouldn’t erase the past, because that would be a disservice to all of us. We need to stare into the fire without looking away or running for safety. If we ignore the fire it may eventually consume us all, and if that happens it will be too late for us to figure out that we’re all connected. In the end this is not simply about equal rights for one specific group. When we allow others to be treated as if they’re less than human we become less than human ourselves.
One of the things that makes The Fire This Time so powerful are its stories. Literature connects us all through the exploration of human experience, and while we may not look exactly alike, we’ve all experienced loss, pain, joy and happiness. We value relationships and family, and we love to laugh or to be held when we experience pain or loss. People share things in common and those experiences bind us together as a community and nation.
James Baldwin said that “A country is only as good… only as strong as the people who make it up and the country turns into what the people want it to become… I don’t believe any longer that we can afford to say that it is entirely out of our hands. We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over.”
The ability to make things over is within our reach if we want to grasp it. The Fire This Time helps us to understand the present in light of the past, and the hope we can have for the future.
Amy Neftzger is the author of fiction books for both adults and children. A few of her favorite things include traveling, books, movies, art, the Oxford comma, and gargoyles. You can find her online at: amyneftzger.com