Friday, February 24, 2017

A New Generation Vying to be Heard in The Fire This Time

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Literate readers can look just about anywhere today and find references to the work of James Baldwin. The thirtieth anniversary of his death has caused renewed interest in Baldwin's remarkable output of essays, novels, and short stories. The documentary film "I Am Not Your Negro," about Baldwin and his groundbreaking work, will be considered for an Academy Award on Sunday evening.

"The Fire This Time," is a collection of essays compiled by the estimable author and memoirist, Jesmyn Ward, whose devastating novel "Salvage the Bones," about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, earned her a National Book Award. The title is an homage to Baldwin but the essays are dedicated to Trayvon Martin and "the many other black men, women, and children who have died and been denied justice for these last four hundred years."

This work seems especially important as our country tries to move forward in the wake of Donald Trump's presidency and the strong presence of a white nationalist, Steve Bannon, at the president's right side. We should all be afraid, but unless we've seen inside the soul of a black man or woman, I don't think we can fully comprehend the constant drain that prejudice and distrust takes on the psyche. These essays will give readers some measure of insight. 

Divided into three parts, the book deals with the past, present, and future, or Legacy, Reckoning, and Jubilee. Ward has called on friends to weigh in and oh, do they ever. Professor of Creative Writing at the New School, Wendy Walters relays her experience in "Lonely in America," a story about her reckoning with her family's history of enslavement, a history she chalked up to her roots in Louisiana. But living in New England, she was taken by surprise to find that bodies discovered under the streets of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, were found to be those of African families long forgotten.

Isabel Wilkerson (The Warmth of Other Suns) asks "Where Do We Go From Here?" after the death of Eric Garner, and multi-award-winning poet and essayist Kevin Young weighs in on the very ironic case of Rachel Dolezal, the white woman, president of an NAACP chapter in Oregon, who passed as black for years in a very funny "Blacker Than Thou."

Perhaps two of the most difficult essays come from poet Claudia Rankine and memoirist Edwidge Danticat. Rankine looks back at the killing of four little girls in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, recounts the courage of Mamie Till Mobley who ordered an open casket for her murdered son Emmett's funeral, and moves forward to Dylann Storm Roof and the Black Lives Matter movement in "The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning." Danticat pens a "Message to my Daughters" harkening back to Baldwin's letter to his nephew in which he explained how to exist in a world that sees you as a worthless human being.

Harsh words? Yes, the are. But like Ta-Nehisi Coates' letter to his son, "Between the World and Me," these essays issue a warning of a legacy that has not died. Racism has been percolating under the surface for many years now. Some of us idealists thought it had gone away but we were wrong. This election has brought out the worst in human nature and it's imperative that we continue to read and understand and try to put ourselves in another man's shoes to fully grasp the fear and depression that the new administration is inflicting upon people of color and all people of good heart.

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