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On Fires, Then and Now (Reflections on The Fire This Time)

“I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it. And I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.”

James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, published in 1963

“I know little. But I know what a good portion of Americans think of my worth. Their distain takes form. In my head, it is my dark twin. Sometimes I wonder which of us will be remembered if I die soon, if I suffocate in that closet….Replace ropes with bullets. Hound dogs with German shepherds. A gray uniform with a bulletproof vest. Nothing is new.”

—Jesmyn Ward, introduction to The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race, inspired by James Baldwin’s work and published in 2016

Widely regarded as an influential work of literature, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time gives voice to the personal nature of injustice while sounding an alarm about the intensity of race relations in the United States.

Although it has been 54 years since its publication, Baldwin’s work has particular urgency and resonance in the aftermath of the murders of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Mike Brown, Sandra Bland and so many others.  Given the current political climate in the United States, The Fire Next Time is especially relevant.

After the death of Trayvon Martin, author Jesmyn Ward (Salvage the Bones, Men We Reaped) “needed words” that would “satisfy [her] need for kinship in this struggle [and] commiserate with others trying to find a way out of that dark closet.” Turning to Twitter, the outrage on social media felt fleeting as Ms. Ward sought to “hold these words to my chest, take comfort in the fact that others were angry [and] agitating for justice.”

book cover of The Fire This Time, an essay collection edited by Jesmyn Ward

Knowing that others likely felt the same and understanding the power of stories, Ms. Ward—inspired by James Baldwin–commissioned essays and poems from others who also recognized the need for such a book.  This sparked The Fire This Time, a collection of essays and poems from Carol Anderson, Jericho Brown, Garnette Cadogan, Edwidge Danticat, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Mitchell S. Jackson, Honoreé Fanonne Jeffers, Kima Jones, Kiese Laymon, Daniel José Older, Emily Raboteau, Claudia Rankine, Clint Smith, Natasha Tretheway, Wendy S. Walters, Isabel Wilkerson and Kevin Young.  Divided into three sections—Legacy, Reckoning, and Jubilee—these are essays about fatherhood; slavery; heritage; current events such as the killings of Trayvon, Tamir, Mike, Sandra and others; the Rachel Dolezal controversy; visiting James Baldwin’s home in France; the impact of public art; and much more.

Sharing one’s story helps provide others with greater understanding through the insight of new perspectives and deeper compassion. The Fire This Time is a powerful collection, one where the individual voices become a collective chorus where each of us must “reckon with the fire of rage and despair and fierce, protective love currently sweeping through the streets and campuses of America.”

This flame is a flame of truth

Check out The Fire This Time

Melissa F. loves short stories (especially ones that are interconnected), literary fiction, memoirs, poetry and creative nonfiction. A native of Philadelphia, Melissa loves everything about Pittsburgh, especially working for the Library as Manager of Grants and Research.

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