The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race by Jesmyn Ward

Many thanks to Scribner/NetGalley for giving me the chance to read this and post my thoughts.

“No one need an eighty-year-old carpenter, no matter how clever he was: he’d worked hard but had made next to nothing. California had once been fertile ground for him, but in the end it, too, was bound to the country that had long seen him and us as subservient human beings. But my grandfather preferred not to focus on that sort of thing. What Baldwin understood is that to be black in America is to have the demand for dignity be at absolute odds with the national anthem.” – Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah in “The Weight”

This is a brilliant collection of essays collected by Jesmyn Ward about what it means to be black in America today, in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, and countless others whose lives have been treated as disposable – whether you’re old or young, born here or from afar, light or dark, man or woman.

I’m not necessarily the intended audience for this this book, but as a white person who thinks a lot about race and the issues in our country, I was eager to read it and learn from it, and it is just as haunting and thought-provoking as you would expect. I highly recommend it.

A few essays in particular stood out. There’s a really powerful essay written by Garnette Cadogen about the difference between being a black man walking in Jamaica versus walking in America that blew me away. I’m married to a black man, and there is a part of me that worries every time he walks out of the door, and this is precisely why. Because even walking while black is perceived as threatening. Cadogen’s perspective as someone who was born in a country that is mostly black and then comes to America and experiences this for the first time just struck me right through to the bone.

Emily Raboteau wrote about the struggle of raising black children, and trying to find that time when she should talk to them about the particular dangers they will face, the racism that will come their way if it hasn’t already, and how horrible it is to even have to have this conversation. But she also brings it around to a series of murals spread throughout the boroughs of New York City that are gorgeous but also serve to remind people of their rights when dealing with police – that they have the right to record police activity, to record an officer’s badge number if they are stopped-and-frisked, but to also remain calm and to not resist, even if they believe they are innocent… She seeks out each mural and photographs each one and writes in detail about the message being given.

“The past few months have forced us to confront our place in a country where we were enslaved for far longer than we have been free.” – Isabel Wilkerson in “Where Do We Go From Here?”

So many other essays included here are well worth the read and have so much to ponder. Other contributors to this collection include Daniel Jose Older, Kiese Laymon, Claudia Rankine, Kevin Young, and many others. If you have books like The World Between You and Me, Citizen, and The New Jim Crow on your shelf, this anthology will be a valuable addition. If you don’t, then this is as good a book as any for a starting point to learn about the current black experience in America. Go buy it, read it, encourage others to borrow it.

~Sarah

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