There’s a cartoon by Ben Sargent, called “Still Two Americas,” that achieved internet fame a couple of years ago. It has two panels. Both depict boys at their front door, and both boys are are saying, “I’m goin’ out, Mom.” One of the boys is white and the other is black. The white boy’s mother says, “Put on your jacket.” The black boy’s mother says, “Put on your jacket, keep your hands in sight at all times, don’t make any sudden moves, keep your mouth shut around police, don’t run, don’t wear a hoodie …” and so on, until the text disappears in a blur at the bottom of the panel. This pretty much sums up the theme of The Fire This Time: if you’re a black male in America, there’s nothing more hazardous than stepping out your front door.
The title of this 2017 collection of essays and poetry is a riff on James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Baldwin is a hard act to follow. He was a voice of wisdom and poise, a consummate prose stylist, and a secular saint for black intellectuals. He probably sits behind only Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X in the Civil Rights pantheon, never mind that he spent most of the Sixties and Seventies in bucolic France rather than riot-flamed U.S. cities.
This collection, edited by the novelist and memoirist Jesmyn Ward, is divided into three sections: Legacy, Reckoning, and Jubilee. The common theme, as with Baldwin’s masterpiece, is how to navigate your way through the racial swamp of the United States.
There are some heavy hitters here: besides Ward, Claudia Rankine, Jericho Brown, Edwidge Danticat, and Isabel Wilkerson contribute. But some of the strongest pieces are by less heralded authors. Garnette Cadogan writes beautifully about the dangers of walking while black. He describes the act as “a pantomime undertaken to avoid the choreography of criminality.”
Wendy S. Walters writes about a burial site for slaves that has been paved and built over. The essay meanders along and then it does something startling. It begins listing the body parts of the dead slaves discovered during an excavation. Pieces of bone. Teeth. A broken hip. The fractured skull of a child. As a prose gambit, this won’t be taught in any MFA classes, but somehow it turns the piece into something incredibly moving. The reader realizes that beneath the forensics there were people with dreams and families and personal histories. The essay finally reminded me of Holocaust literature, which in a sense it is.
Kevin Young’s piece on Rachel Dolezal is hilarious and wise at the same time. Dolezal is the white woman who passed as black. She got as far as heading the Oregon chapter of the NAACP until she was exposed. Literally. She wore bronzing cream and had her hair curled. In short vignettes and almost random asides, the author manages to say dozens of true things usually left unsaid:
Every black person has something “not black” about them … This one likes European classical music; that one likes a bit of country; this one is the first African American principal ballerina; this one can’t dance.
One of the best things about being black is that, barring some key exceptions, it’s not a volunteer position. You can’t just wish on a dark star and become black.
One idea runs through this collection like a seam of gold: white people simply cannot comprehend what it’s like to be black – to be a constant source of suspicion, to be casually demonized and brutalized. That’s why we still hear comments such as: “if they didn’t break the law, they’d be fine.” “Why did he run away from the police?” “Why was he wearing a hoodie?”
Baldwin’s original tome is unmatched and unmatchable, but these different voices harmonize to create something with enough power and panache to serve as both a wake-up call and a memorial of our times. A great book.