The Fire This Time “The Weight” by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah Summary
by Jesmyn Ward

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“The Weight” by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah Summary

“The Weight” by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah

Ghansah is in London for family reasons when she’s invited by an acquaintance of hers to visit James Baldwin’s former estate in a medieval town on the French Riviera. While living in Paris, her acquaintance had learned the exact location of the house, and he assures Ghansah that the place’s charms warrant seeing for themselves. They decide to take a day trip to the house and to cap it off with drinks at the hotel bar that Baldwin used to frequent. Ghansah has just recently started to make decent money from her writing after years of low-paying assignments, so she sees the visit to Baldwin’s expatriate home as a worthy expenditure. Despite her first four-digit payment being deposited in her bank account while she is in London, however, Ghansah is still “apprehensive” about splurging on her trip.

After becoming accustomed to having no disposable income and anxiously obsessing over the unlikelihood of ever paying off her student loans, she used to regret even going to college at all, certain that her selfish decision to be a writer would destroy the progress her family had made and ultimately ruin them. Her dread and uncertainty feel justified by the lessons she’s learned about Black American history, in which “nothing was guaranteed, you couldn’t count on a thing.”

The only thing that most African Americans could be certain of, Ghansah believed, was a “black death”: slow and resulting from the stresses caused by structural inequalities and generational poverty and trauma. When she was younger, teaching during the day and writing at night, she was poor but happy and loved what she was doing—writing as a means of “remembering” and “staving off death.”

For Ghansah, James Baldwin was a godlike figure who had inspired her as a young Black woman wanting to pursue a life of reading and writing. Her personal connection to Baldwin extends years back to when she had an editorial internship at the New York headquarters of one of the oldest magazines in the US. For a week she was assigned the tedious task of organizing archival records from 1870 to 2005 in a storage room, and drew strength by thinking of Baldwin and his relationship to the same magazine. Because Baldwin “set the stage for every American essayist who came after him,” Ghansah’s now more nuanced relationship with Baldwin’s life and work shows her that one need not “emulate” or “worship” the man to respect his status and character.

Having moved past her youthful idolization of Baldwin, Ghansah admits there is much about his persona and life choices that she takes issue with. She doesn’t like the way “every article on race” still references Baldwin as a singular authority, and she disagrees with Baldwin’s “escape” to France from his “birth-righted fate.” Unlike Baldwin, contemporaries like Ghansah’s grandfather had to suffer life under the racist conditions in the United States that gave rise to the protests Baldwin flew in to join. Ghansah reflects on her increasingly conflicted feelings about Baldwin as her train speeds through the French countryside.

Despite Ghansah’s merit-based acceptance to the internship at the famous magazine years earlier, she still felt nervous and inadequate among the other similarly high-caliber, mostly white interns. The only other person of color in the group was a “Southeast Asian and Jewish” Princeton graduate who joked with her that they should be careful helping themselves to food lest anyone think they were looting, a reference to the images of Hurricane Katrina–stricken New Orleans. Ghansah had been so preoccupied that she’d forgotten about the big news story that week, and the magazine staff suddenly appears to her as white as the office decor. She’s amazed at how freely the staff admits that there had never been a Black intern before Ghansah and that in the magazine’s 150-plus year history, there has never been a Black...

(The entire section is 1,313 words.)