An unarmed black teenager is shot twice in the head by a white police officer named Darren Wilson. An unarmed black child playing the park dies after being shot by white police officers. An unarmed black father is wrestled to the ground, handcuffed, and put in a fatal chokehold. We live in a world that is burning — the embers of racial tension barely have time to cool before they are sparked to life again by yet another incidence of violence. The questions posed in James Baldwin’s seminal book on race in America, The Fire Next Time, have yet to be fully answered, but the conversation is expanded in a collection edited by Jesmyn Ward, The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks Out On Race.
The Fire This Time hopes to serve as both a proof of collective memory and a healing salve. The collection, which includes essays, poems, and letters by contributors such as Kima Jones, Kiese Laymon, Edwidge Danticat, and Claudia Rankine, attempts to make sense of the contradictions of a country that seems to deny the sins of the past while simultaneously repeating them. In her introduction, Ward demands, “We must acknowledge the plantation, must unfold white sheets, must recall the black diaspora to understand what is happening now.” Racism thrives on silence as much as it thrives on fear. Racism is a quick study and it knows how to evolve like a virus that has outwitted an antibiotic.
Racism thrives on silence as much as it needs fear.
We are taught in school that history is generous to those in power, namely the beneficiaries of the institution of whiteness. The idea that we live in a “post-racial” society is a lie, one crafted out of stubborn ignorance and/or comfortable denial. Abuse of power may come as no surprise, as Jenny Holzer warned, but racism will not be defeated through passive acceptance. Speaking to NPR, Ward said, “I do think that people will claim a certain fatigue about talking about race. But I think that even though they do, it's still necessary — completely necessary.” Fires like these are temporary disabled by water; they are reborn again and again.
The rise of social media has made it easier to capture evidence of injustice and propel grassroots campaigns into national discourse. Ward writes that after learning about the shooting of Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman, she found refuge in Twitter. It was comforting, in a way, to be able to exercise the power of her voice, a power that white supremacy vigilantly seeks to thwart. Thus, we condone societal conditions that turn such self-evident statements like #BlackLivesMatter into radical declarations of protest, where sit-ins at “Whites Only” lunch counters have been traded for die-ins on major highways.
It was comforting, in a way, to be able to exercise the power of her voice, a power that white supremacy vigilantly seeks to thwart.
Anti-black racism turns the black body into a threat. Walking while black becomes a crime punishable by death. Other crimes include, but are not limited to: playing loud music in a friend’s car, knocking on a white person’s front door when in need of help after a car accident, and reaching for your wallet. In one of Baldwin's later interviews with the media, he evokes Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. He said, “To be a Negro in this country is really… never to be looked at. What white people see when they look at you is not visible. What they do see when they do look at you is what they have invested you with. What they have invested you with is all the agony, and pain, and the danger, and the passion, and the torment — you know, sin, death, and hell — of which everyone in this country is terrified.”
To be black means that you are both visible and hyper-visible. Garnette Cadogan’s essay, “Black and Blue,” explicitly deals with this tension. The author loved walking through his streets of Kingston, Jamaica. When Cadogan left Jamaica to attend college in the states, he soon discovered that walking while black presented brutal consequences he’d never considered. In an interview with Vice, Cadogan said, “I wanted to write something that revealed what is it like to live in contemporary America as a black person, not merely as a black man. One of the things that I admire about Baldwin is the ways in which he had a handle on our common humanity and showed ways how we can't degrade others without degrading ourselves.”
As a woman, I know my silence will not protect me. As the daughter of two non-white parents, I am the Other. As a minority who is black and Asian-American without the flimsy protection of white-passing features, I know that my blackness can be used against me. I also know that recognizing injustice doesn’t mean that I have to accept it. Blackness is not defined by suffering. In the collection’s final essay, “Message to My Daughters,” Edwidge Danticat uses Baldwin’s “My Dungeon Shook” as a guide. Danticat’s letter is equal parts hope and despair. She doesn’t want her daughters to grow into self-hating cynics or feel that their blackness is a weakness. She wants her daughters, as Baldwin said, “To decide who you are, and force the world to deal with you, not with its idea of you.”
I also know that recognizing injustice doesn’t mean that I have to accept it. Blackness is not defined by suffering.
There is comfort in community and in being alone together. There is power in finally seeing yourself, not through the distorted lens of whiteness, but in the faces and voices that look like you. The Fire This Time shows that Baldwin’s wisdom still resonates because racism, despite a change in aesthetics, hasn’t changed the way it operates. Racism transcends time, even though its victims can never “transcend” the color of their skin. Baldwin’s book and Ward’s anthology compliment one another because they are a part of the same conversation. To read both is to understand, to cite Ward’s introduction, “how inextricably interwoven the past is in the present, how heavily that past bears on the future.”
We cannot bury the past in order to sanctify the present. We cannot live in the future if the present pantomimes the past.