The Fire This Time “Where Do We Go from Here?” by Isabel Wilkerson Summary
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 by recalling a visit to Baldwin’s expatriate estate in France and her own internship at a well-known American magazine.
  • In “Lonely in America,” Wendy S. Walters describes her research into slavery in New England, focusing in particular on the African Burying Ground in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
  • In “Where Do We Go From Here?” historian Isabel Wilkerson proposes that advancements in civil rights have always been followed by anti-Black backlash.

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“Where Do We Go from Here?” by Isabel Wilkerson Summary

Wilkerson opens by proposing the idea that in the fifty years between the hard-fought gains of the mid-twentieth-century civil rights movement and the killing of Eric Garner and Michael Brown in the summer of 2014, the idea that Black Americans’ basic human rights had been established began to be taken for granted—that “the civil rights movement had defined a bar beneath which we could not fall.” It is clear to her now, however, that the United States has not learned the lessons of history and seems doomed to relive its bloody racist past.

The trend in American history has been for “spectacular” gains for Black people to be met by racist backlash, and Wilkerson views the current moment in that context, as a reaction to the momentous progress represented by the Obama presidency. As was the case in the short-lived Reconstruction period following the Civil War, anti-Black resentment threatens to undo this progress and force another struggle to reclaim them, a cycle that Wilkerson calls a “feedback loop.”

During Reconstruction, “newly freed people built businesses and schools and ascended to high office,” but after little more than a decade, the conservative reaction was so severe that it initiated a period referred to as the “Nadir,” or low point, of Black advancement. Progressive legislation was reversed, and overtly racist Jim Crow laws created a new racial hierarchy in the South that institutionalized the terrorization and disenfranchisement of African Americans and was enforced by the public authorities and upheld by citizen vigilantes. Black people could be arbitrarily harassed, beaten, or lynched—murdered by a mob—for violations like minor theft or other perceived infractions.

Lynching was a persistent threat to Black Southern life until the 1940s, and these were the social conditions that six million Black people fled during the Great Migration to the industrial Northeast and Midwest between World War I and II. Because they were denied the right to vote, Southern Blacks “voted with their bodies” and “defected” to the North for a better chance at self-determination.

What they encountered, however, was familiar hostility that prevented access to financial and real estate opportunities, essentially restricting Blacks to less affluent neighborhoods and subjecting them to over-policing. This Northern variety of administrative segregation, known as redlining, created the conditions of concentrated poverty without mobility and victimization by a constant police presence whose effects can still be felt today.

Wilkerson points out that in the nativist attacks against Obama’s citizenship, and the way the conservative majority Supreme Court has been ruling unfavorably against the 1964 Voting Rights Act, it seems as if the United States has entered a “second Nadir” of Black history. In the early twentieth century, with lynching at its most rampant, a Black person was murdered every four days; now, however, some estimates hold that a Black person is killed by police every two or three days.

Recent events have demonstrated that Black lives are valued no more today than they were during the Jim Crow era, that the most basic rights to Black life and liberty can’t be assumed, and that the segregationist race-based social hierarchy hasn’t disappeared...

(The entire section is 957 words.)