Until I started reading it, I had no idea how much I needed this book. The Fire This Time is a collection of poems and essays dedicated to the topic of race the United States. I think that the editor, Jesmyn Ward, put it best in her introduction when she outlined what kind of book she was seeking to create by “call[ing] upon some of the great thinkers and extraordinary voices of [her] generation” (7) and why this book is so needed: “A book that would reckon with the fire and rage and despair and fierce, protective love currently sweeping through the streets and campuses of America. A book that would gather new voices in one place, in a lasting, physical form, and provide a forum for those writers to dissent, to call to account, to witness, to reckon. A book that a girl in rural Missouri could pick up at her local library and, while reading, encounter a voice that hushed her fears. In the pages she would find a wise aunt, a more present mother, who saw her terror and despair through threading their fingers through her hair, and would comfort her. We want to tell her this: You matter. I love you. Please don’t forget it.” (8)
I’ve been feeling so tense for what feels like forever, and while I often veer toward escapism when reading on vacation I cannot deny that it felt really good to instead submerge myself into literature that deals with complex issues in beautiful ways. The topics addressed throughout the poetry and prose of The Fire This Time are heavy, but there is a power to them that I found inspiring and comforting.
The anthology is primarily split into three parts: Legacy, Reckoning, and Jubilee. The first section, Legacy, contains a grouping of pieces that pertain to the Legacy left for us and how we can grapple with it as black folk in the United States. Among these exist a few different angles of examining the history of black folk from slavery to the modern United States and the relationship between various points on that timeline. “Where Do We Go from Here?” by Isabel Wilkerson draws particularly powerful connections between different reversals of black advancement, and in particular how “it seems the rate of police killings now surpasses the rate of lynchings during the worst decades of the Jim Crow era.” (61) For all that some pieces of these works are dark, however, there is also encouragement, for on that same page Wilkerson continues to say that “We must love ourselves even if — and perhaps especially if — others do not. We must keep our faith even as we work to make our country live up to its creed. And we must know deep in our hearts that if the ancestors could survive the Middle Passage, we can survive anything.” (61)
The Legacy section also includes a thoughtful and persuasive essay by Carol Anderson regarding the presence and consequences of “White Rage” in the United States. The essay that I most identified with is “Cracking the Code.” This piece, written by Jesmyn Ward herself, discusses her racial and familial background, including her mixed heritage, which as a mixed person myself I related to.
Part II: Reckoning is primarily a series of treatises on the modern black experience. Each contribution is unique, but each reckons with a different experience of being black, including perspectives such as Kevin Young’s reflection on what it means to be black and sharp yet slightly humorous criticism of Rachel Dolezal (“Blacker Than Thou”) and Garnette Cadogan’s reflection on the differences of something as simple as walking through the world as a black man when in his hometown of Kingston versus cities in the United States such as New York and New Orleans (“Black and Blue”). These essays and more lead up to Part III: Jubilee, which includes a breathtaking poem, and letters by Daniel José Older and Edwidge Danticat to their loved ones.
Each contributor to this anthology lends their own unique voice to it, and blended together they form a cohesive whole that alternately comforted me and nearly brought me to tears as I devoured it. I know I throw around the phrase “required reading” a great deal, but I’m confident that it applies in this case.