The Fire This Time Characters
by Jesmyn Ward

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The Fire This Time Characters

The main characters in The Fire This Time include James Baldwin, Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown.

  • James Baldwin is the author of The Fire Next Time, the inspiration for the collection’s title. Baldwin was a leading Black writer and civil rights activist of the twentieth century, and many of the collected works reflect on his enduring legacy.
  • Trayvon Martin was a Black seventeen-year-old whose fatal shooting by a community watch officer in 2012 inspired Jesmyn Ward to reread Baldwin.
  • Michael Brown was a Black eighteen-year-old who was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, sparking mass demonstrations.

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James Baldwin

James Baldwin’s influence looms large over Jesmyn Ward’s project as a whole and on the authors of its seventeen included works. Baldwin was a master of the essay form and a ferocious critic of America’s moral hypocrisy on matters of race, culture, and history. It’s clear from the title of this collection being so close to Baldwin’s 1963 book that Ward intended this work to be an homage to the iconic writer, whom she describes as a “wise father, a kind, present uncle, who . . . told me I was worthy of love.”

It was Baldwin whom Ward “sought in desperation” in order to find comfort and strength after Trayvon Martin’s racially motivated killing, and it was Baldwin’s “My Dungeon Shook: A Letter to My Nephew” that inspired her to “call on some of the great thinkers and extraordinary voices of [her] generation to help [her] puzzle this out.”

The “puzzle” Ward refers to is the question of how and why Black people, especially young Black men, continue to be so vulnerable to arbitrary homicide by the police and disproportionately subject to degrading forces beyond their control. It is in Baldwin’s words that Ward finds a redemptive purpose: to spread Baldwin’s message of love, compassion, and acceptance to the current generations of far-flung Black American youth who might need to know they are loved and needed.

Trayvon Martin

Trayvon Martin was a seventeen-year-old high school junior from Miami who was shot and killed by a volunteer community watch officer following an altercation in Martin’s father’s fiancée’s gated community in Sanford, Florida. The man responsible for Martin’s death, George Zimmerman, was acquitted of murder charges after pleading self-defense under Florida’s so-called “stand your ground law.” Martin’s death, in the age of social media, led to a reawakening of social justice activism that would continue to coalesce around the increasing public spectacle of unarmed Black people being killed by unaccountable authorities. This was the event that led Jesmyn Ward back to James Baldwin, whose influence motivated Ward to conceive of this book. Martin’s killing and Zimmerman’s acquittal in 2012 are signal moments in recent American history that put the matter of Black lives at the center of the national conversation.

Michael Brown

Michael Brown, an eighteen-year-old high school graduate in Ferguson, Missouri, was two weeks away from starting a vocational program at a nearby community college when he was killed by local police officer Darren Wilson. Wilson had been in his patrol car following Brown and a friend down the street after responding to a report of a theft in progress, as Brown had strong-armed a clerk and stolen a package of cigars from a convenience store just minutes before. Wilson began shooting within ninety seconds of encountering Brown, including six shots to the chest that dropped him to the ground. Once the police had closed off the area, they left Brown’s body lying in the street for several hours in the summer heat, denying Brown’s mother access to her son before his body was transferred under police custody.

This disrespectful public spectacle, along with the police’s mishandled investigation and its alienation of the community, ignited long-simmering tensions between the Black citizens of...

(The entire section is 1,182 words.)