The Fire This Time

by Jesmyn Ward

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The Fire This Time Summary

The Fire This Time is a 2016 collection of essays and poems on the topic of race, edited by Jesmyn Ward.

  • In “The Weight,” Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah reflects on James Baldwin’s legacy while recalling a visit to Baldwin’s house in France and her internship at a well-known American magazine.
  • In “Lonely in America,” Wendy S. Walters describes how she began to research slavery in New England, focusing on the African Burying Ground in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
  • In “Where Do We Go From Here?” Isabel Wilkerson examines the historical pattern of advancements in civil rights for Black Americans being followed by racist backlash.


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Last Updated November 3, 2023.

The Fire This Time is a 2016 essay collection edited by Jesmyn Ward and divided into three main sections—“Legacy,” “Reckoning,” and “Jubilee”—intended to represent a variety of perspectives on the past, present, and future of the Black American experience. The main body of the collection is preceded by an introductory section that opens with Ward’s dedication:

To Trayvon Martin and the many other black men, women, and children who have died and been denied justice for these last four hundred years.

Between the dedication and Ward’s introduction is Jericho Brown’s short poem “The Tradition,” which intertwines images of earth and flowers with Black bodies and souls and which concludes with the names of three unarmed Black men killed by police in the summer of 2014. Ward’s introduction then explains the impetus for the idea behind the book both as a response to recent, high-profile cases of violent injustice and as a generational reexamination of the existential conditions of Black humanity that James Baldwin surveyed in his work more than fifty years earlier.

The book’s first main section, “Legacy,” opens with Kima Jones’s “Homegoing, AD,” an impressionistic, prose-poetry hybrid tale of a Northern family returning to their ancestral Southern home for a relative’s funeral.

In the next essay, “The Weight,” journalist Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah explores her personal connection with James Baldwin as an influence and intellectual icon by visiting his expatriate compound in the South of France, which has been abandoned, stripped, and slated for demolition and erasure from memory.

Wendy S. Walters’s “Lonely in America” finds the author feeling depressed and disillusioned amid the ongoing impact of current events like Hurricane Katrina. They essay also traces her increasingly immersive investigation into the truth about slavery in her adopted home of New England, which gives her the purpose and coherence she was missing.

Isabel Wilkerson’s “Where Do We Go From Here?” reflects on the fifty years of American history from the Voting Rights Act of 1964 to the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown in the summer of 2014 and considers the “erosion” of the gains of the civil rights movement.

Next, in “ ‘The Dear Pledges of Our Love’: A Defense of Phillis Wheatley’s Husband,” author Honorée Fanonne Jeffers sets out to reclaim the history and reaffirm the agency of the first American woman of African descent to be a published writer, while also rehabilitating the reputation of her historically-maligned freedman husband.

Carol Anderson’s “White Rage” contextualizes the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after Michael Brown’s killing as more than simply expressions of Black anger and frustration, instead considering them the latest product of the racism institutionalized in American systems of authority deployed throughout recent history to oppose Black social progress.

In the final essay of the first section, “Cracking the Code,” Jesmyn Ward meditates on the nature of race and identity as factors both genetically dictated and environmentally constructed as she and her parents receive results from a home DNA test that validate her parents’ expectations while challenging her own.

The collection’s second section, “Reckoning,” opens with Clint Smith’s poem “Queries of Unrest,” in which the ruminative narrator imagines his origins through fragments of memory and considers the relationship between “darkness” and “joy.”

The next essay, Kevin Young’s “Blacker Than Thou,” uses the 2015 Rachel Dolezal scandal as a jumping-off point for consideration of the historical legacy of blackface and the phenomenon of racial “passing” while attempting to define what it means to be Black.

In “Da Art of Storytellin’ (A Prequel),” Kiese Laymon remembers his grandmother as an embodiment of certain essentially Black Southern virtues that also pervade...

(This entire section contains 1004 words.)

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the sensibility of the Atlanta hip-hop group Outkast, whose music was a beacon for the author’s identity formation and sense of spiritual community away from home.

In “Black and Blue,” Garnette Cadogan contrasts his experiences as a young Black man walking the streets of his Jamaican hometown with his experiences walking in New Orleans and New York, where he is racially profiled by the police and has other revealing experiences of racism.

Claudia Rankine’s “The Condition of Black Life Is One of Mourning” looks back to the murder of Emmett Till in 1955 for a critical analysis of how the depiction and treatment of Black bodies by the police and in the media has been used to uphold a racist power dynamic that has systematically sought to dehumanize and terrorize Black people.

The next essay is Emily Raboteau’s “Know Your Rights!” in which the occasion of an old bridge’s reopening in Upper Manhattan leads to Raboteau’s discovery of a city-wide mural campaign offering bilingual legal advice, which she documents in six featured photographs.

The second section’s final essay is Mitchell S. Jackson’s “Composite Pops.” In it, Jackson uses his own experience growing up with multiple “fatherish” influences during the early absence of his biological father to construct a personal understanding of the issue of paternal legacy as he faces the challenge of raising his own children in a way that honors and improves on his influences.

“Jubilee,” the third section, consists of three works. The first is Natasha Trethewey’s poem “Theories of Time and Space,” a journey through personal memory down Route 49 to the poet’s hometown of Gulfport, Mississippi, with its shrimp boats and artificial beaches.

Framed as a letter to his Jamaican soon-to-be-wife and their future children, Daniel José Older’s “This Far: Notes on Love and Revolution” explains the author’s purpose for his work and activism since the Ferguson uprising convinced him of the urgent relevance of James Baldwin’s injunction to declare “This far and no further.”

The final essay in the book, Edwidge Danticat’s “Message to My Daughters,” describes a trip the author made to her native Haiti with her young daughters to witness a humanitarian crisis on the Dominican border, an experience which leads her to contextualize the Black American experience in the concept of the refugee.


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