Friday, December 30, 2016

Nonfiction: The Fire This Time by Jesmyn Ward

It felt appropriate to close out 2016 with a post about race. The full title of this collection of essays and poems is The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race. Jesmyn Ward is not the only author, as there are contributions from the likes of Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat, and poet Claudia Rankine. With the help of her editor, Ward worked on the collection as a response to the recent police and civilian violence against African-American men and women in the United States.

Genre, Themes, History: Naturally, I categorized this collection as nonfiction, though it includes essays, poems, and some creative nonfiction. Many of the entries deal with recent events such as the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, while others talk about race in the United States in general. My personal favorite is the entry by poet Kevin Young, "Blacker Than Thou," which discusses Rachel Dolezal, the woman who was recently found out to not be black, though she had been pretending to be, and was even the leader of her local Oregon NAACP. His essay is not only refreshing and humorous because of the acknowledged ridiculousness of the subject matter he chose to write about, but also because of the way he approached it. Somehow, Young manages to make jokes while being completely serious; laughing along while also pointing out that this stuff really isn't supposed to be funny. But I also enjoyed "Know Your Rights!" by author Emily Raboteau, where she walks the streets of New York City, taking pictures of the various murals that had been painted throughout the city by a Chilean artist who goes by the tag name of Cekis. Throughout her entry, Raboteau includes pictures of the murals, which offer tips and observations that are helpful when dealing with the police, and also interprets those murals as well as the surroundings they are placed in. Even though the pictures of the murals that are included are in black and white, they are still somehow made bright and vibrant through Raboteau's descriptions. Overall, the collection does more than just reiterate that black lives matter and make a general call to action. The authors approach this always delicate subject of race in America and pick it apart, sometimes slowly and painfully. The title, The Fire This Time, is a response to the 1963 book by James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, which in turn comes from the slave hymn that states, "God gave Noah the rainbow sign/No more water, the fire next time."

My Verdict: Of course not every essay was funny like Young's, or as fascinating and engaging as Raboteau's. In fact, many of them were uncomfortable or a little hard to read, but for many people, so is the news that another unarmed black person has been shot down by police, or by an armed civilian who rushed to judgment. Even Young's look at the Rachel Dolezal situation asks questions such as what does it mean to be black, and can someone "feel black" when they don't look the part? It is a short collection, coming in just over 200 pages, and while parts of it may be difficult to stomach, any mature adult should be able to make it through just fine. For me, what makes it the most engaging is that the topics vary, as do their approach. Ultimately, the point is made, many times, that violence against blacks by those in power is not a new thing, but with social media and camera phones, we can see a lot more of it, and see it quickly. And with every small step forward we make, there is a wave of backlash waiting to either take away what little we have for fear that one day we will have more than the majority, or to somehow make said majority the center of the story and shift the focus away from black people.

Favorite Quotes: "I believe there is power in words, power in asserting our existence, our experience, our lives, through words. That sharing our stories confirms our humanity." - Jesmyn Ward

"One of the best things about being black is that, barring some key exceptions, it's not a volunteer position. You can't just wish on a dark star and become black. It's not paid either. It's more like a long internship with a chance of advancement." - Kevin Young

"Of course you can see why anyone would want to be black: being black is fun. Don't tell nobody." - Kevin Young

Recommended Reading: If you wish to explore Ward's fiction, then I recommend Salvage the Bones, which won the 2011 National Book Award. But I also recommend How to Be Black by Baratunde Thurston, as well as The Sellout by Paul Beatty, and of course, The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin.

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