The Fire This Time Themes
by Jesmyn Ward

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The Fire This Time Themes

The main themes in The Fire This Time are the complexity of Black identity; Black humanity and personhood; and legacy, memory, and ownership.

  • The complexity of Black identity: Representing a diverse range of geographic and cultural identities, the authors explore what it means to be Black in the contemporary United States.
  • Black humanity and personhood: With particular reference to recent police brutality, the authors trace the origins and consequences of the systemic dehumanization of Black Americans.
  • Legacy, memory, and ownership: The book investigates and reclaims personal and historical memory and narrative, reflecting on legacies of both injustice and activism.

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The Complexity of Black Identity

With the exception of Daniel José Older, who is Latino, all of the writers collected in The Fire This Time recognize African origins and identify as Black Americans, while some like Raboteau, Ward, and Trethewey also recognize mixed racial heritage. A plurality of voices in the collection are Southern in origin, while a number of contributors represent the Midwest, Northeast, and California, with Edwidge Danticat born in Haiti and Garnette Cadogan and Claudia Rankine being Jamaican émigrés. The collection then reflects an expanded geographic sample of perspectives on matters of Black identity, history, and community that construes a more comprehensive understanding of the concept of “Blackness.”

Nearly all of the works in the collection consider the elements that construct Black identity, like genetics, local environment, generational influence, and a borderless community of shared experience and common cultural affinities. Kevin Young, raised in Kansas, writes that “Blackness too often veers between two poles in the public eye: opaqueness and invisibility,” which is a good way to understand one of this book’s overarching purposes. Just as many of the essays intend to reclaim Black stories, images, and legacies from history’s hegemonic bias, they also seek to define just what it means to be Black “in private.”

The American concept of Blackness as a defining racial characteristic is a product of the nation’s earliest racist political and social institutions. These oppressive conditions that continued through the construction of the Black Codes and formal segregation dictated the identities of countless African descendants as an extension of ownership over their lives and bodies. The essays consider variables like skin tone, hair quality, and the phenomenon of “passing,” reflecting on the complicated racial politics of the Deep South, where Mississippi native Jesmyn Ward emphasizes that “the one drop rule is real.” Yet, external characteristics that have come to signify Blackness for white people are too subjective to define the substance of Black identity. Blackness is, according to Kevin Young, “a way of being.”

Black Bodies, Humanity, and Personhood

Beginning with the book’s dedication, the names and nameless specters of dead Black men, women, and children hover over the collection as a whole and echo throughout nearly every individual work. In her introduction, Jesmyn Ward relates her shock and incomprehension at how a teenage boy like Trayvon Martin, with a bag of candy and a soft drink, could be perceived as such a threat as to be profiled, stalked, and shot dead: “How could anyone look at Trayvon’s baby face and not see a child? And not feel an innate desire to protect, to cherish? How?”

For Ward, Trayvon Martin’s death drove home an old truth about the way Black people are commonly perceived by non-Black citizens as invariably a kind of “menace.” This misperception of threat is based in centuries-old anxieties about Black physicality, sexuality, and intellect that underpin the systems of authority’s ongoing diminishment of Black personhood and disregard for Black humanity. This process of dehumanization was essential in order to justify the cruelty and excesses of the...

(The entire section is 1,291 words.)