RHC 2018: The Fire This Time edited by Jesmyn Ward

Read Harder Challenge 2018

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2018 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read an essay anthology.

This is a really great collection of essays and poetry about race in the United States. It was published in 2017, and many of these pieces are responses to the epidemic of police violence against black Americans during the Obama administration. It was a tough read here in 2018, knowing that shortly after the events that spurred this collection, which is dedicated to Trayvon Martin, white supremacism has only become more visible and more confident. It’s not a very physically heavy book, but man does it have some serious intellectual and emotional weight.

The book consists of fifteen essays and three poems, divided into three sections: Legacy, Reckoning, and Jubilee. In the Legacy section, writers reflect on the past through all kinds of lenses – family history, a visit to James Baldwin’s Paris residence, an aching search for information on slave burials in New England (“Lonely in America” by Wendy S. Walters, one of my favorites in the collection), genetic testing (“Cracking the Code,” by Jesmyn Ward, another favorite), a reexamination of the historical record regarding Phillis Wheatley’s husband, and Carol Anderson’s article “White Rage,” which was expanded into a book.

The Reckoning section squares up with the present. Kevin Young’s “Blacker Than Thou” organizes itself around Rachel Dolezal and discusses signifiers of blackness in America. If I had to pick a number one favorite, it would be “Black and Blue” from Garnette Cadogan, which concerns his observations walking the streets of Kingston in Jamaica where he grew up compared with those of New York City, where his skin marks him as an automatic threat. Taking the freedom to walk through the world without fear away from someone is a hideous violation, and Cadogan explains it brilliantly.

And then there’s “Composite Pops,” by Mitchell S. Jackson, which gives us a sketch of the men who, together, formed a composite father figure for the author. It’s a great piece, but I had to read a footnote multiple times to try to figure out if it was flagrantly transphobic or honest about the fact that being transgender would further complicate masculinity in ways he doesn’t have the personal background to address. I still don’t know what’s up with that footnote. But it is a really great essay apart from my confusion there.

Reckoning consists of a poem and two letters – one from Daniel José Older to his wife and one from Edwidge Danticat (quick plug for Claire of the Sea Light, which is wonderful) to her daughters. They close out the anthology with a passionate call to action to build the future their children deserve. We have a long way to go, but there’s so much hope amid all the realism here, even in the face of basically the entirety of American history. If you live in the United States, you should read this. If you don’t and you want to understand the U.S., this needs to be on your shelf.

Side note: I remain astonished by the Amazon reviewer who left a one star review, complaining that the book was “too political.” What exactly did this person think s/he was reading?

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