A Tapestry of Black Lives

We’re on winter break until January 22. Meanwhile, please enjoy 10 staff favorites from last year. Today’s choice was originally published on February 6, 2017.
James Baldwin’s legacy looms powerfully in this current moment. This may be all the more true for black writers. Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, one of the contributors to Jesmyn Ward’s timely new anthology ...

James Baldwin’s legacy looms powerfully in this current moment. This may be all the more true for black writers. Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, one of the contributors to Jesmyn Ward’s timely new anthology of essays about race in the United States, admits that she has often “found time to pray intensely at the altar of Baldwin.” Her religious metaphor is apt. Baldwin was both a secular master of the American essay and novel, and a spiritual seer on race matters. At the same time, his writing often hummed in the registers of the Afro-Protestant churches where he first heard the Word call him by name.

In her introduction, Ward explains that she found herself turning to Baldwin’s essays in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s murder in 2012 and, subsequently, of George Zimmerman’s acquittal in 2013. Winner of the National Book Award for her 2011 novel, Salvage the Bones, Ward sketches a direct line to Baldwin by adapting the title of his 1963 classic, The Fire Next Time. Her title, The Fire This Time, shifts from the future to the present tense, from prophecy to confirmation. However, in contrast to Baldwin’s singular epistle, Ward’s book is an anthology. As such, it gathers a range of perspectives that don’t always align. This is not a criticism; it is simply an acknowledgement of the constraints and possibilities of genre. Ward’s The Fire This Time provides a rich and varied portrait of the work that race does in the making of black lives and literature today. There’s less critique, more nuanced considerations and layered contexts, befitting the complexity of black life in 2016.

Anthologies rely upon dialogue more than argument. In this regard The Fire This Time succeeds, and stands firmly within a tradition of black anthology-making. Two older volumes come immediately to mind. Fire!! was published in 1926 by an upstart group of New Negro writers including Wallace Thurman, Aaron Douglas, Arthur Huff Fauset, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Richard Bruce Nugent. Decades later, with Black Fire (1968), Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal published work by nearly a hundred writers to give a growing Black Arts Movement its definitive text.

Both of these collections provided readers with multiple angles on a shared context and set of concerns, including the differences—along lines of class, gender, and sexuality—that define our social worlds. Each text captured the complexity of black literary visions at a specific moment in time. These earlier anthologies also suggested generational shifts. In the ’20s, Fire!! challenged the racial orthodoxies of its day, foregrounding sexual bodies that were an affront to what is now commonly derided as middle-class “respectability politics.”1 Near the end of the ’60s, Black Fire countered integrationist visions by attempting to forge a new nationalist orthodoxy and aesthetic aligned with the ideology of “Black Power.”

Even today, there is no literary prize, academic post, or economic privilege that can fully inoculate one against the deadly whims of an anti-black social order.

Similarly, the 18 authors in The Fire This Time cover a range of subjects that help to illuminate our 21st-century racial context. Each chapter addresses one person’s struggle with the burden and blessing of the birthright that is blackness. Some chase down the ghosts of history. Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, for instance, digs into archives with the aim of undoing unsupported claims about the poet Phyllis Wheatley and her husband. Wendy Walters finds herself in New Hampshire hoping to unearth (and publicly acknowledge) the previously unmarked graves of black slaves. A selection from Carol Anderson’s best-selling book White Rage locates the rise of Donald Trump in a long tradition of white backlash to black progress dating back to the Reconstruction era. In this view, it only makes too much sense that Trump’s election, energized by a fervor of white nationalist sentiment (among other things), would follow the tenure of the nation’s first black president.

Bringing past and present together, other essays address the freedom struggle as the simple search for unfettered mobility, a pursuit evident even before Emancipation. Essays by Garnette Cadogan, on the present dangers of walking the streets of New York City while black, and Isabel Wilkerson, on the Great Migration, both remind us of this. Kima Jones, in her account of her grandfather’s Southern funeral, clarifies that bonds of kinship ensure that the road north remained a two-way street. In turn, in his ode to the iconic hip-hop act OutKast, Kiese Laymon reminds readers that “the South got something to say” (and always had).

More than grand statements, these essays detail the messy and mundane, the unexceptional and the ordinary. Jesmyn Ward captures well how novel DNA technologies connect family lineages even as they frustrate the racial fictions that hold up our identities. Despite scientists’ ability to isolate genomes, many of us proudly maintain familial ties that bypass biology, as Mitchell Jackson’s essay on the five men who fathered him powerfully illustrates. Identities and affiliations, at times, resist the claims of science and reason. And humor often helps us move forward when evidence doesn’t settle a dispute. Kevin Young’s essay on Rachel Dolezal accomplishes this well, inviting readers to “laugh to keep from crying”—as the familiar refrain goes.

One concern that unites several essays in The Fire This Time is the anxieties of raising black children today. While pondering what, if anything, to say about the 2015 Charleston church massacre to her young daughter and son, Emily Raboteau finds herself inspired by a series of New York City murals that educate citizens about their rights when confronted by police. Thinking of her daughters, Edwidge Danticat seeks advice from an old friend, Abner Louima, who bears the physical scars of police violence. Daniel José Older composes a letter to his spouse in lieu of heeding her prompt to write to their children. Claudia Rankine sums up these sentiments well with an excerpt from her award-winning book, Citizen, which recounts a friend’s simple response to a question of what it’s like to mother black sons. “The condition of black life is one of mourning,” she relays to the reader.

James Baldwin in Hyde Park, London, 1969. Photograph by Allan Warren / Wikimedia Commons

Instead of making allusions to “The Talk,”2 each of these essays struggles with if, when, and how to talk with the children for whom we care about the deadly powers of their black and brown skin. In doing so, they invite readers to share their vulnerability: their anger, fear, despair, but also their hopes and dreams. The image of Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, looms large (and Rankine mentions her by name). But unlike Mobley, the contributors who write here and now, as black parents, are highly successful writers who came of age years after the end of Jim Crow. Their words call attention to the fact that, even today, there is no literary prize, academic post, or measure of economic privilege that can fully inoculate one’s loved ones against the deadly whims of an anti-black social order.

If not an obvious heir to The Fire Next Time, Jesmyn Ward’s book has done readers no less a service by staging a conversation that illumines the complexities and contradictions of 2016. This book was written in the age of a black president, Barack Obama, and of public black death: Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Keith Lamont Scott … It takes no cynicism to wonder what names will be added to this partial list by the time this essay is published. This fact weighs heavily on the minds of Ward and her contributing writers. What exactly does one do in the face of all this death?

Each chapter poses a unique and provisional response to the question. Fittingly, it is difficult to offer a single reading of The Fire This Time—and that is the book’s strength. As a collective, The Fire This Time captures a central irony of the Obama era: a statistically small measure of incredible black achievement and privilege coexisting with an overwhelming and hypervisible degree of black suffering.

Though mostly a collection of essays, The First This Time includes three beautiful poems (by Jericho Brown, Clint Smith, and Natasha Trethewey) that offer well-placed changes to the book’s pace. Yet together these scatterings of verse highlight how the book’s prose, more generally, gestures toward a poetics. Instead of a single voice of clarity, à la James Baldwin, The Fire This Time presents a compelling tapestry of a small group of black and brown folk, who also happen to be celebrated writers, doing their best to find faith in the here and now—for themselves, for us all, and for the future. icon

  1. Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, interview by Kimberly Foster, “Wrestling with Respectability in the Age of #BlackLivesMatter: A Dialogue,” For Harriet, October 13, 2015. Higginbotham first advanced her analysis of “The Politics of Respectability” in Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920 (Harvard University Press, 1993).
  2.  KJ Dell’Antonia, “Trayvon Martin and ‘the Talk’ Black Parents Have With Their Teenage Sons,” Motherload blog, New York Times, March 26, 2012.
Featured image: New York City protest in solidarity with protests in Ferguson, 2014. Photograph courtesy of the All-Nite Images / Flickr