Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Fire This Time by Jesmyn Ward

In the Introduction to this collection of essays by an impressive roster of writers known for thoughtful and articulate discussion of their experience with race in America, Jesmyn Ward explains that she wanted something more than newspaper accounts or editorials when faced with the events of the past eighteen months in the USA. Her own book on the death of five young men of her acquaintance in her own short life, Men We Reaped, meant that hearing of and seeing via public media further deaths of black men by white men was traumatic enough to want to gather friends, neighbors, and most of all, those she admires for their clarity of voice, to ask “How do we deal with this?” “How do we think about this?” “How can we stop this?”

This collection references James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time which is a work that addresses the future in a letter to Baldwin’s nephew, and the past and present in an essay about religion. Ward mentions that she intended to gather the commissioned essays in three parts - Past, Present, and Future—but found that most of the essays dealt with the past because the past explains the present and impacts the future. Unless the past is acknowledged and consciously dealt with in the present, the future will always be a question mark. The essays gave Ward hope because words matter. Words help us to cope. I agree with her.

The names of the writers in this collection you will recognize, and if you don’t at first, you will in the future. One name I’d never seen before wrote my favorite essay in the collection, called “Black and Blue.” Garnette Cadogan quotes Fats Waller at the start
"My skin is only my skin.
What did I do, to be so black and blue?"
Cadogan relates his experience as a Jamaican man in the United States—how he had to learn how to dress (cop-proof and IV league), how to speak, how not to run, or make sudden movements, or wait on the streets for friends…you get the picture. His personality and behaviors had to be twisted to fit the circumstances. In a sense, this happens to all of us, wherever we move, if we want to fit in, but not like that. Not like that. And he said something I’d never heard before when considering a black man’s experience:
"I always felt safer being stopped in front of white witnesses than black witnesses."
Apparently the cops have greater regard for the concern and entreaties of white witnesses than they do for black witnesses. I recall the old chant "White Silence is Violence." Cadogan also said that “my woman friends are those who best understand my plight,” due to the fact that women are often targeted on the street by men simply because of their sex. And he said that having to be hyperaware of one’s environment before speaking, moving, acting is what children do when they are learning, returning adult males (and females) to childhood status, even in cities where they live. My brain fizzes.

Claudia Rankine, poet and author of Citizen, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry in 2015, has an essay which begins
"A friend recently told me that when she gave birth to her son, before naming him, before even nursing him, her first thought was, I have to get him out of this country."
I totally see where that friend of Rankine’s is coming from, and have had that same thought while reading Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside. Black men in the United States do not have enough of a childhood and they can grow, if they live long enough, gnarly and twisted by society’s expectations. This can’t be right. I’d get my son out also.

All the essays were ravishing and brought me something important, like Wendy Walters’ description of the slave graves discovered under a street intersection in Portsmouth, NH. My excitement quickened to see an essay by Mitchell S. Jackson, whose first novel The Residue Years was a finalist for the Hemingway/PEN Award, the Center for Fiction’s Flaherty-Duncan First Novel Prize, and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. In his essay called “Composite Pops”, Jackson talks about male role models in a way that recalled to me Iceberg Slim. Slim was a con-man, a pimp, and a miscreant, but he had self-confidence, the push to succeed, wisdom, and love and he spread all of these around generously. I can think of a far worse father figure than he.

You will recognize the names Natasha Trethewey, Poet Laureate, Isabel Wilkerson, Pulitzer winner in Journalism, Edwidge Danticat, Haitian novelist and MacArthur Fellow, all of whom have essays in this collection. But there will be names new to you in this remarkable collection which will open worlds you have not yet dreamed of. Once again we recognize that the work and thoughts—the words—of Jesmyn Ward bring us along, sometimes kicking and screaming in horror, to a new place of understanding. Many thanks.

Thanks to Netgalley and Simon & Schuster/Scribner for a chance to read the advance galley of this title which is due in bookstores August 2, 2016. Order it early and often.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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