The murder last year of nine people at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., epitomizes the subject of “The Fire This Time.” These African-American churchgoers, including an 87-year-old woman, were murdered by a white racist simply because they were black.
Novelist Jesmyn Ward edited this collection of essays and a few poems, which describes the sorrow and unease of being black in America in the time of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown and Sandra Bland, making it a natural companion to “Men We Reaped,” Ward’s memoir of five men close to her who died violent, untimely deaths.
The new book’s title, of course, pays homage to James Baldwin’s 1963 classic “The Fire Next Time.” Ward and her fellow writers treat Baldwin as a revered old uncle: a voice of experience, a link to history and, occasionally, an elder to be argued with. In “The Weight,” Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah recounts the questioning pilgrimage she made to the site of the house where Baldwin lived in France: “My connection to him was an unspoken hoodoo-ish belief that he had been the high priest in charge of my prayer of being a black person who wanted to exist on books and words alone.”
Many contributors articulate the distress of being unvalued, diminished and continually on guard because of their blackness. In “Lonely in America,” Wendy S. Walters digs deeply into the American reluctance to discuss slavery by investigating the discovery of human remains of African ancestry in Portsmouth, N.H., likely slaves buried in the 1700s. The docent on a historical tour Walters takes euphemistically refers to the African workers who helped establish Portsmouth as servants rather than slaves.
“When a story is unpleasant,” Walters writes, “it is hard to focus on details that allow you to put yourself in the place of the subject, because the pain of distortion starts to feel familiar. … Empathy requires us to dig way down into the murk, deeper than our own feelings go, to a place where the boundaries between experience and everyone else’s no longer exist.”
In the jaunty while also dead serious “Black and Blue,” Garnette Cadogan explores being profiled for walking while black in New York. In Kingston, Jamaica, where he grew up, Cadogan would walk the streets for hours to get away from his stepfather, or simply to roam. To his dismay, he learned first in New Orleans and then in New York that he was often viewed as a threat when out walking – especially if he happened to be running at night:
“I’d never received what many of my African-American friends call ‘The Talk’: No parents had told me how to behave when I was stopped by police, how to be as polite and cooperative as possible, no matter what they said or did to me.” The necessity of having The Talk and discouragement about having to give it to the next generation is a recurring subject in “The Fire This Time.”
Several essays consider complexities of blackness in unexpected ways. Kevin Young probes the spectacle of Rachel Dolezal, the activist who served as president of the Spokane NAACP chapter until outed by her parents as white. “Every black person has something ‘not black’ about them,” Young writes with a touch of humor. But he goes on to a more serious point: “Any solidarity with each other is about something shared, a secret joy, a song, not about some stereotypical qualities that may be reproducible, imitable, even marketable.”
Ward, looking for confirmation of family stories about her ancestry, has her DNA analyzed by 23andMe.com. Raised in a black community in Mississippi, with “the stories and experiences to go with it,” Ward learns her ancestry is 40 percent European, 32 percent sub-Saharan African, a quarter Native American and less than 1 percent North African. “For a few days after I received my results, I looked into the mirror and didn’t know how to understand myself.”
In the short essay “Where Do We Go From Here?,” Isabel Wilkerson articulates the fear that black Americans are experiencing another nadir like the years following Reconstruction, signaled by the way that “the loss of black life at the hands of authorities does not so much as merit further inquiry … ” Claudia Rankine’s essay “The Condition of Black Life Is One of Mourning” links the Black Lives Matter movement to Mamie Till’s decision to show the body of her murdered son Emmett and to allow photographs of his disfigured corpse. “Unlike earlier black-power movements that tried to fight or segregate for self-preservation, Black Lives Matter aligns with the dead, continues the mourning, and refuses the forgetting in front of all of us.”
Jim Higgins reviewed this book for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.