National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward takes James Baldwin’s 1963 examination of race in America, The Fire Next Time, as a jumping off point for this groundbreaking collection of essays and poems about race from the most important voices of her generation and our time.
In light of recent tragedies and widespread protests across the nation, The Progressive magazine republished one of its most famous pieces: James Baldwin’s 1962 “Letter to My Nephew,” which was later published in his landmark book, The Fire Next Time. Addressing his fifteen-year-old namesake on the one hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, Baldwin wrote: “You know and I know, that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon.”
Award-winning author Jesmyn Ward knows that Baldwin’s words ring as true as ever today. In response, she has gathered short essays, memoir, and a few essential poems to engage the question of race in the United States. And she has turned to some of her generation’s most original thinkers and writers to give voice to their concerns.
The Fire This Time is divided into three parts that shine a light on the darkest corners of our history, wrestle with our current predicament, and envision a better future. Of the eighteen pieces, ten were written specifically for this volume.
In the fifty-odd years since Baldwin’s essay was published, entire generations have dared everything and made significant progress. But the idea that we are living in the post-Civil Rights era, that we are a “postracial” society, is an inaccurate and harmful reflection of a truth the country must confront. Baldwin’s “fire next time” is now upon us, and it needs to be talked about.
Potentially Sensitive Areas: Strong language; Violence; Mild sexual themes; Criminal culture; Racial epithets.
Booklist starred (July 2016 (Vol. 112, No. 21))
James Baldwin’s famous book of essays, The Fire Next Time (1963), brilliantly examines the interrelated roles of race, history, and religion in the U.S. Building on Baldwin’s title, editor Ward has assembled poetry, essays, and flash nonfiction to address the renewed racial tensions that continue to boil in America in the twenty-first century. The author of two award-winning novels and the critically acclaimed memoir Men We Reaped (2013), Ward divides the volume into three sections: “Legacy,“ “Reckoning,“ and “Jubilee.” The result is a powerfully striking collection, from Honorée Jeffers’ illuminating and exhaustive efforts to correct the legacy of Phillis Wheatley, the first African American woman to publish a book of poetry in the U.S., to poet Kevin Young’s insightful consideration of the humor and tragedy at the heart of the racial hoax perpetrated by the former president of a chapter of the NAACP, Rachel Dolezal. “White Rage,” a short piece by Carol Anderson, deftly reconfigures the outrage and violence of Ferguson, Missouri, as the result of calculated oppression, and poems by Jericho Brown, Natasha Tretheway, and Clint Smith punctuate the book. An absolutely indispensable anthology that should be read alongside other recent, equally transformative works, including Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (2015) and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen (2014).
Kirkus Reviews (May 15, 2016)
Poets, scholars, and essayists reflect on race in America.In this insightful collection, novelist and memoirist Ward (Creative Writing/Tulane Univ.; Men We Reaped: A Memoir, 2013, etc.) brings together 18 writers “to dissent, to call for account, to witness, to reckon.” Taking her title from James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963), Ward hopes this book will offer solace and hope to a new generation of readers, just as Baldwin’s work did for her. Many essays respond to racial violence, invoking the tragedies of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sarah Bland, worshipers at Charleston’s Emanuel Church, and Abner Louima, among many others. Edwidge Danticat reports that she asked Louima recently how it feels each time he hears that a black person was killed by police. “It reminds me that our lives mean nothing,” he told her. As other parents reveal in their essays, Danticat feels she must have two conversations with her daughters: “one about why we’re here and the other about why it’s not always a promised land for people who look like us.” She wishes, instead, to assure them “they can overcome everything, if they are courageous, resilient, and brave.” Poet Claudia Rankine was told by the mother of a black son, “the condition of black life is one of mourning.” Besides fear for their children’s futures, some writers focus on their black identity. As a result of genetic testing, Ward discovered that her ancestry was 40 percent European, a result that she found “discomfiting.” “For a few days after I received my results,” she writes, “I looked into the mirror and didn’t know how to understand myself.” Wendy Walters resisted thinking about slavery until the discovery of long-buried slaves in New Hampshire provoked her to research the past. Poet Kevin Young shrewdly probes NAACP leader Rachel Dolezal’s motives to pass as black. Carol Anderson, Emily Raboteau, Natasha Trethewey, and others also add useful essays to this important collection. Timely contributions to an urgent national conversation.
About the Author
Jesmyn Ward is the author of Where the Line Bleeds, Salvage the Bones, and Men We Reaped. She is a former Stegner Fellow (Stanford University) and Grisham Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi. She is an associate professor of Creative Writing at Tulane University.
Her work has appeared in BOMB, A Public Space and The Oxford American.
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