Foot and Hand on the Gates: “The Fire This Time” and Carving the Canon
By Bryan WashingtonAugust 26, 2016
The Fire This Time by Jesmyn Ward
— James Baldwin
IT HAS BEEN AN interesting decade for the black body in prose. From Ta-Nehisi Coates’s receipt of the National Book Award, to the exposure of an otherwise unacknowledged United States in Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside, to the emergence of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, to the revelation of Mychal Denzel Smith’s Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching, publishers and readers are shining magnifying glasses on lives and thoughts once relegated to distant literary harbors.
This makes for a welcome change. But of course it’s a transformation in progress — because it is one thing to agree that these narratives exist, and something else to acknowledge that they are valid. While we are seeing more black narratives, and less of a (blatant) effort to segregate the conversation, it remains to be seen whether or not these accounts will be deemed as lasting by the entities in charge of anointment in American letters.
While diversity, for better or worse, has become a catch-all call to arms, whether or not it serves as a consistent catalyst for lighting the way to a new narrative remains to be seen.
Lucky for us, in The Fire This Time, Jesmyn Ward has picked up the torch. That she found a way to recruit Jericho Brown and Kima Jones, and Natasha Trethewey, and Clint Smith, and Daniel José Older, and Rankine, in tandem with a number of other standouts, all of them wildly accomplished, each deserving of their place on the syllabus or shelf, is cause for celebration. But it is one thing to assemble an entourage of musicians — and another matter entirely to feel out the room, catch the moment’s rhythm, and strike the exact right notes in order to deliver a shit-hot set.
In her introduction, Ward explains, “After George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin on February 26, 2012, I took to Twitter,” she writes. “I didn’t have anywhere else to go.”
Black Twitter, as an entity, hadn’t yet reached its final form. Contemporary venues for black expression definitely existed, but perhaps they weren’t ready for the question that death after uncontested death presented, in that exact moment, on that grand of a scale, with all of us watching at the same time. Ward couldn’t have been alone in searching for a place to go. Whatever she — whatever we were looking for simply wasn’t there. In its absence, she’s gone and filled the void herself.
But if The Fire This Time responds to a need — to alleviate an absence — then the anthology’s way of functioning must be called into question. The reader has to wonder whether the form is up to the task. As most reviews will undoubtedly continue to note there would never be a wrong time for this book. But it is possible that the right time is precisely now. Utilizing the collection as a tool for recording an era’s ailments, and as a means of chronicling grief and finding solidarity in that space, is neither shocking nor innovative: Dagoberto Gilb’s Mexican American Literature, Toni Cade Bambara’s The Black Woman, and Lambda Literary’s Emerge are a few of the many attempts to contextualize an infinitude of experiences for people of color in the States. However, the anthology as a tool is especially prescient this time. Each piece in this volume was born in a vacuum — they exist because they have to and they represent the gaps in the previous narrative.
Each of them is a spark. Kindling for the flame.
As a relic, the anthology has hardly been receptive to blackness. From its origins in the classical periods of Greek literature, to its role in modern-day American award-stacking, it has not, up until now, been conceived with the intention of relaying black strife, nor are our bookshelves inundated with literary narratives of black perseverance. Early examples were capsules as much as they were codifiers, constructed with aesthetics in mind, to preserve pretty things. As one of its first compilers, Meleager of Gadara, a first-century BCE dude, compared the reasoning behind his choices to the arrangement a garland of flowery — beauty was being consolidated for future generations. The anthology was a container to combat the erasure of art.
Therefore anthologies aren’t usually crafted with suffering in mind — let alone black suffering. Early on, in Claudia Rankine’s essay, she notes the burden of crafting the unspeakable:
I asked another friend what it’s like being the mother of a black son. “The condition of black life is one of mourning,” she said bluntly. For her, mourning lived in real time inside her and her son’s reality: At any moment she might lose her reason for living.
Still, no matter how you cut it, the anthology wasn’t a form built with fire in mind. It was not constructed to contain tears and injustice and kindling, or Carol Anderson’s prodding of white rage, or Isabel Wilkerson’s observation that “if the ancestors could survive the Middle Passage, we can survive anything.” But, in this volume, even this erasure doesn’t go unnoticed, and in an essay chronicling her pursuit of murals, Emily Raboteau touches on a brand of it herself: “If you are harassed by police,” the Long Island City mural advises, “take pictures of any injuries.” The Fire This Time is exactly what we need to bolster our grief. It’s a space no one should have to had create, a space nobody should need to inhabit, but wishful thinking has never deterred necessity. We need what we need.
We have our Nortons, of course. We have the Best American Short Fiction. There’s the New Stories from the South series, The Pushcart Prize, the Compact Anthology of World Literature, The O. Henry Prize Stories, The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, The Best American Mystery Stories, Literature: A Pocket Anthology, not to mention all those Oxford Americans and Paris Reviews; but the morning after watching a dying Philando Castile slump across Diamond Reynolds on Facebook, these weren’t the first things I reached for — these were not the relevant spaces.
However, Ward has created a vehicle for dark and darker voices. Some of them squinting. All of them ambivalent. Strains of ordinary perseverance in extraordinary times gain velocity here.
For example, there is the burden, as Edwidge Danticat describes it, of simply riding the bus:
In New York, the violence seemed a bit more subtle, though no less pervasive. When I started riding the city bus to high school, I observed that a muffled radio message from an annoyed bus driver — about someone talking too loud or not having the right fare — was all it took to make to make the police rush in, drag a young man off the bus, and beat him into submission on the sidewalk. There were no cell phone cameras back then to record such abuse, and most of us were too terrified to demand a badge number.
And there is the burden, noted by Wendy S. Walters, of looking for your history in a culture that insists you have none:
I resist thinking about slavery because I want to avoid the overwhelming feeling that comes from trying to conceive of the terror, violence, and indignity of it. I do not like to think of it happening in my hometown, where I work, in my neighborhood, or near any of the places where I construct my life.
And there is, as Garnette Cadogan notes, the impossibility of simply walking from one space to another:
I returned to the old rules I’d set for myself in New Orleans, with elaboration. No running, especially at night; no sudden movements; no hoodies; no objects — especially shiny ones — in hand; no waiting for friends on street corners, lest I be mistaken for a drug dealer; no standing near a corner on the cell phone (same reason).
“As comfort set in,” he goes on, “inevitably I began to break some of those rules, until a night encounter sent me zealously back to them, having learned that anything less than vigilance was carelessness.”
Here, in one volume, black life is being lived; here, a compendium of this life, and also its deaths. Perhaps it won’t make for conversation over dinner, but the names of the dead ring throughout this anthology. The text is as much of an assemblage of essays and poems as it is the other thing, the very black thing — the funeral song for the lost ones. The authors make a point to remind us that they are not, and cannot, be forgotten. They give us a place to go.
“It’s impossible,” Ward notes, “for most black Americans to construct full family trees.”
At the same time, these pieces weren’t assembled solely for mourning. Like any decent funeral (or maybe we’ll call this a second-line) there are digressions for other lines of investigation and remembering — and even humor.
In “Composite Pops,” an essay about his father(s) as honest as everything else he’s written, Mitchell S. Jackson gives us the fathers of black America, the ones acknowledged and the ones that aren’t, from Barack to Jefferson to Frank Marshall Davis, proving that it isn’t just genetics that play a role in one’s upbringing:
If you asked me to spell father, I could turn their names into one long-ass portmanteau.
Or I might just say “p-o-p-s.”
Pops was a group of men who provided a loving example of what it would soon enough mean to be a man. Pops nurtured me. Bestowed me with his wisdom. Pushed me to nuance the way I saw the world. He inspired me to dream. He tended my harms. He made sure I knew it was in me to surpass him.
And in “Queries of Unrest,” Clint Smith prods the question of the black body’s worth:
Maybe I was meant to understand that
darkness amplifies the sight of joy.
Maybe I come from where the sidewalk
ends, or maybe I just read that in a book once.
It can be hard to tell the difference sometimes.
Elsewhere, Kiese Laymon touches on the forces that make us — OutKast, in this particular case — and the debts that we owe them:
All my English teachers talked about the importance of “finding your voice.” It always confused me because I knew we all had so many voices, so many audiences, and my teachers seemed only to really want the kind of voice with its legs crossed, reading The New York Times. I didn’t have to work to find that cross-legged voice — it was the one education necessitated I lead with.
The inclusion of pieces like these in the anthology is a reminder that there’s life between the lines: yes, we have the struggle, but we’ve got actual living, too. We, too, grow up. We learn lessons and watch movies. We write poems and kill our darlings, trace our pasts and grow old, we make friends and give them up and bring them back and watch them go again. There is killing and dying but there’s also just more.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge the man who inspired the title — who lit this torch in the first place: James Baldwin’s shadow doesn’t just loom over every piece in this book — it moderates the conversation. Each one of these writers speaks with the man as if he were across the table, nodding and frowning and shrugging, occasionally laughing at a stray observation.
This give-and-take is occasionally fraught, as in “The Weight” by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, in which she explains,
I had once found time to pray intensely at the altar of Baldwin. I had asked him to grant me endurance and enough fight so that I could exit that storeroom with my confidence intact. I told him what all writers chant to keep on, that I had a story to tell. But later, away from all of that, I quietly felt repelled by him — as if he were a home I had to leave in order to become my own.
That said, Baldwin is the standard. He’s the original architect. Take Daniel Jose Older’s letter to his wife — not just homage to Baldwin’s epistolary strategy (one we’ve perhaps seen a lot of lately) but further verification that it works — in which he delivers a message in the way that he knows is the strongest: directly. The risk in this move is sentimentality, but the reward is a directness that would be otherwise unattainable:
Tell them, you said, about why their father does the work he does, what kind of world you hope to build for them.
And I will, love, I will. But this moment right now — the night is quiet, and I write while you sleep — this moment with all its weight and responsibility, this turning point in the world and our lives, is ours, and these words are for you.
If there is a quibble with the anthology, it could lie in its ambition. Occasionally, as with just about any other collection, jumping from one perspective to another can be jarring.
Kevin Young’s examination of Rachel Dolezal feels a little stilted beside Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’s excavation of Phillis Wheatley’s personal life, as if you were glancing at two different numbers on the same side of a die. The tone shifts so dramatically, so abruptly, that it takes a moment to recalibrate.
But this, too, could be the point: the multiplicity of black experience is neither seamless nor comfortable. Some of these works I enjoy more than others. Some of them I nod at, turning the pages. Others I know I will eventually tear from the binding and carry in my wallet, taking solace in the simple fact of their closeness. As noted, each piece is a heavyweight — that they should find themselves together in one place is all but a literary miracle. What I’m hoping against hope is that The Fire This Time becomes as turn-to-able as any of those Nortons and Best Americans and Non-Requireds lining the shelves of your favorite bookstore.
In her intro, Ward accepts the oldest call in history — the urge to find other voices to share the pain. “I imagine that my ancestors from Sierra Leone and Britain, from France and the Choctaw settlements on the Mississippi bayou, from Spain and Ghana — all those people whose genetic strands intertwined to produce mine,” she writes,
— felt that same longing, even as they found themselves making a new community here at the mouth of the Mississippi. Together, they would make new music, like blues and jazz and zydeco, and new dances, second lining through the streets. They would make a world that reflected back to them the richness of their heritage, and in doing so discover a new type of belonging.
With this gorgeous chorus — Ward has done the same: she has created a world, a space, the one she, herself, was seeking. A new type of belonging, a new place to belong, is exactly what she has given us. Against all odds, in spite of what history tells us, I’m going to hope that it stays; I am going to expect that it stays. It may be an impossible thing to ask for. But I’m going to stand here and ask for it nonetheless.
Bryan Washington divides his time between Houston and New Orleans.
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