The Fire This Time Analysis
by Jesmyn Ward

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The Fire This Time Analysis

In her introduction, Jesmyn Ward describes how the idea for this book was inspired by her rereading James Baldwin’s 1963 essays published as The Fire Next Time—an inspiration extending to the collection’s title, which riffs on Baldwin’s. Baldwin’s reference comes from an old Black gospel song about the Old Testament story of the flood and how Noah was rescued by God’s showing him a rainbow that led the way to dry land. According to the song, the next time God decides to punish mankind and destroy the world, it won’t be with water, but with fire.

For Baldwin, this destructive fire was also a cleansing force necessary to purify and purge the world of its corruption and wickedness, such as the kind embodied in the persistence of American anti-Black racism. Baldwin knew, and was proven correct with widespread urban riots in the following years, that unless America honestly confronted its white supremacist origins and reconciled its hypocrisy with its founding principles and cherished beliefs, then the country would be torn apart. While Martin Luther King Jr. was preaching nonviolent resistance as a means to social justice, Baldwin was convinced that America was a “house on fire” that couldn’t be saved without bloodshed. Growing up in Harlem, New York, Baldwin experienced race-based harassment and aggression from the police, and he was intimately aware of the deep-rooted white anxiety and antipathy toward Black manhood, especially around issues of sexuality and masculinity.

More than fifty years later, these same themes are of urgent contemporary relevance, and in this collection, their implications are surveyed and mined by a wide range of minds and voices reflecting an American critical consciousness that Baldwin helped define. Many of these pieces were written in direct response to the bloody, turbulent summer of 2014, and others to similar injustice the following year. The Fire This Time is unified in its witness to the “fire” that Baldwin predicted, made manifest in the public reaction to the violent excess and lack of accountability on the part of the police and public authorities.

Another important Baldwin influence on this work as a whole, as well as on its individual contributors, is a formal one, the structuring of the essay as a letter to a loved one. Much like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, published at the same time these essays were written, there is a deeply searching confessional tone to most of the works that admits pain, despair, confusion, rage, and also the hope that always brims in the promise of new generations. As Baldwin’s archetypal letter is addressed to his namesake nephew as he enters adulthood in a society that largely fears and detests him, Coates’s memoir to his teenage son popularized in American culture the concept of “The Talk,” the inevitable discussion in which Black parents pass on wisdom to their children about the commonplace nature of racism and the best methods to safely navigate its arbitrary threats while maintaining one’s dignity and claiming one’s rights. Some of the works, like Ward’s, Older’s, and Danticat’s, are specifically written as messages to their children and future children, and others, like Raboteau’s and Cadogan’s, reference the idea of “The Talk” directly, but all convey the same spirit of loving benediction for individual Black lives and the larger community of Black humanity.

The events to which the authors in the collection are responding are by no means unprecedented and are in fact, as many of the writers here demonstrate, a defining feature of American social and cultural history that can be traced back to the earliest European settlements in the Americas. What makes this current historical moment unique in the historical echo chamber of anti-Black violence is the way that smartphone technology has allowed incidents of deadly force against unarmed citizens to be documented and shared in real time, creating a...

(The entire section is 2,192 words.)