This month in Paris, the novelist Zadie Smith sounded a note of our troubled era in a talk at Shakespeare & Company Bookshop, which James Baldwin frequented when he lived in exile from America.
“There are times when literature needs to intervene in culture, and this is certainly one of them,’’ she said.
In the past two years, as the names of African-American men and women killed by police has become too long to say in one breath, literature has not disappointed.
Months after Americans watched Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes, Claudia Rankine published “Citizen,” a book-length poem that interrogates the evidence that all Americans are not created equal.
The following year, Ta-Nehisi Coates published his extraordinary lament, “Between the World and Me,” written as a letter to his teenage son. In it he described how important it is today to come to terms with the dangers of being black and the necessity of struggle.
This month, National Book Award winning novelist Jesmyn Ward has assembled a collection as vital to living in our times as Coates’s letter and Rankine’s poem.
Like Coates’s book, “The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race” takes its cue from Baldwin’s 1963 two-part essay, turning up the heat on its title. “God gave Noah the rainbow sign,’’ reads the biblical verse. “No more water, the fire next time.”
Here are 19 dispatches from the fire. They sing, and they mourn; they instruct, and they yearn; they chronicle as they remember, and together they build a portrait of how terribly enduring — and central even — racism is to American life.
In her introduction, describing how she came to Baldwin, Ward relays an anecdote from her childhood. As a teenager, she traveled with five white classmates to Washington, D.C., to meet the senator of her home state, Mississippi.
“Trent Lott took a whip as long as a car off his office table, where it lay coiled and shiny brown, and said to my one male schoolmate . . . Let’s show ’em how us good old boys do it. And then he swung that whip through the air and cracked it over our heads, again and again.”
To read “The Fire This Time” is to feel what it is like to live through a terrible resurgence of our central never-dormant idea about race. Namely, that a black or brown life is of less value than a white one.
“White rage recurs in American history,” Emory professor Carol Anderson explains in her piece. “It exploded after the Civil War, erupted again to undermine the Supreme Court’s Brown v Board of Education decision, and took on its latest incarnation with Barack Obama’s ascent to the White House. For every action of African American advancement, there’s a reaction, a backlash.”
Moving from poems and essays on the past to riffs on the present and notes on the future, Ward’s writers wrestle to avoid being defined by the optics, which reduce them, while looking back at the origin of those lenses.
This gaze takes Ward’s anthology back to the beginning of America. In Jericho Brown’s opening poem, “The Tradition,” a description of planting flowers in a garden recalls slaves picking cotton in rows. “We thought/ Fingers in dirt meant it was our dirt,” he writes.
The past is buried, almost literally so. In her essay, Wendy S. Walters attempts to ascertain the identities of 13 African Americans whose remains were discovered by city workers in Portsmouth, N.H., as they attempted to dig a manhole.
Walters reminds herself of what life in early America was like for slaves. “[T]hey worked their entire lives without just compensation; they were beaten into submission and terrorized or killed if they chose not to submit; when they died they were buried in the ground at the far edge of town; and as the town grew, roads and houses were built on top of them as if they had never existed.”
Literature as it narrativizes pain, however, can only do so much. “The American imagination has never been able to fully recover from its white-supremacist beginnings,” Rankine writes in her essay on mourning. “Consequently, our laws and attitudes have been straining against the devaluation of the black body.”
Piece by piece, in ways large and small, “The Fire This Time” creates or reinforces a new vocabulary for the struggle as it clocks the failures of law, of justice. Slaves were not brought to America; individuals were “kidnapped,” Honoree Jeffers’s prose reminds. Mitchell S. Jackson sidesteps the cul-de-sac debates on black fatherhood by describing how he had about nine “pops” in his life, from his biological father to friends of his family.
“The Fire This Time” is an extraordinary anthology. From the pieces mentioned, to Emily Raboteau’s vivid depiction of “Know Your Rights!” murals across New York neighborhoods, to Edwidge Danticat’s anguished memoir, “Message to My Daughters,” Ward’s book deepens and enlarges with each piece.
“The Fire This Time” is a book we all need to differing degrees, truly, but we all need it. Danticat opens her missive to her girls with an apology: “I’ve put off writing this letter to you as long as I can, but I don’t think I can put it off any longer.” To borrow from Danticat’s example, I don’t think we can put off reading a book like this any longer.
THE FIRE THIS TIME:
A New Generation Speaks About Race
Edited by Jesmyn Ward
Scribner, 288 pp., $26
John Freeman is the editor of Freeman’s, a biannual literary journal published by Grove, the latest issue of which is themed to family.