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The Fire This Time shows how far we haven’t come since James Baldwin

The Fire This Time; James Baldwin Simon and Schuster left, Wikimedia Commons / Allan warren right.
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

In 1963, a century after the Emancipation Proclamation, James Baldwin wrote The Fire Next Time, a two-part essay about the experience of being black in America. It was published as a book, and was immediately celebrated as one of the great American essays — not just that, the critics of 1963 made a point of noting, but one of the great black American essays.

The Fire Next Time is so perfectly constructed you almost don’t want to talk about it: Anything you say might lessen the pure logic and power of Baldwin’s rhetoric. But The Fire This Time, a new anthology edited by Jesmyn Ward, manages the opposite. It continues the conversation Baldwin began, bringing it forward into 2016.

Baldwin’s essay champions a kind of radical love

“I am writing this letter to you,” Baldwin writes to his nephew as the essay opens, “to try to tell you something about how to handle them, for most of them do not yet really know that you exist.” The them in this sentence is Baldwin’s countrymen, white Americans. Over the course of the next 100 pages, Baldwin demonstrates that he and his nephew do, in fact, exist, and under what circumstances, and in what relationship to white Americans. He writes:

I am … both visibly and legally the descendant of slaves in a white, Protestant country, and this is what it means to be an American Negro, this is who he is — a kidnapped pagan, who was sold like an animal and treated like one, who was once defined by the American Constitution as “three-fifths” of a man, and who, according to the Dred Scott decision, had no rights that a white man was bound to respect.

Baldwin makes the fact and the circumstances of his existence unmistakably clear, and the moral outrage that ensues feels inevitable. There is no other sane response, when faced with the evidence Baldwin lays out, than to be outraged.

But Baldwin situates himself in opposition to the Nation of Islam and their militant calls to action. “I am very much concerned that American Negroes achieve their freedom here in the United States,” Baldwin writes. “But I am also concerned for their dignity, for the health of their souls, and must oppose any attempt that Negroes may make to do to others what has been done to them.” Instead, he writes, all Americans must seek to live with love — “not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace — not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”

Otherwise, he warns, we will find ourselves in the middle of violent turmoil, a “racial nightmare,” one that will destroy our world. “If we do not now dare everything,” he writes, “the fulfillment of that prophecy, recreated from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”

That time, The Fire This Time suggests, may be now.

The Fire This Time insists on the humanity and individuality of its subjects

The Fire This Time is an anthology edited by Jesmyn Ward, who won the National Book Award in 2011 for her Salvage the Bones. In essays, poems, and stories, The Fire This Time examines what it is like to be black in America in 2016. “We are writing an epic,” Ward writes, “wherein black lives carry worth.”

The book is not uncritical in its relationship to Baldwin. In her essay “The Weight,” Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah writes about her resentment of Baldwin’s status as the black American essayist, and how it is so often reduced to tokenism. “I didn’t like how many men who only cared about Ali, Coltrane, and Obama praised him as the black authorial exception,” she writes. “I didn’t like how every essay about race cited him.”

But when she visited Baldwin’s house in France, she writes, she fell in love with him as an individual, a black gay man who ate bitter oranges and listened to the Hollies on his deathbed.

In many ways, Ghansah’s work on Baldwin represents the objective of This Time: to take apart the hazy, abstract signifiers of black America and find the individual, embodied truth of them.

So Honorée Fanonne Jeffers echoes Ghansah when, researching the poet Phillis Wheatley, she falls in love with her. She falls in love with this woman who proved to white people “that we could read and think and write — and damn it, we could feel, no matter what the racists believed.”

Part of that love means recognizing that Wheatley’s life “did not begin in America or with slavery,” that she had “a free lineage that did not include the Wheatleys,” that she probably loved her oft-vilified husband. (The accepted story is that Wheatley’s husband seduced, ruined, and abandoned her, but Jeffers makes a convincing case that there’s little real evidence for that account.) Jeffers falls in love with Wheatley when she is able to make her a real, living, person, just as Ghansah falls in love with Baldwin when he becomes a real person to her.

Wendy S. Walters, searching for a historical connection to America, turns to the bodies archaeologists retrieved from an unmarked slave burial ground in Rhode Island. She catalogs their individualities in minute detail: Burial 1 was a man between the ages of 21 and 30 who had shin splints and was buried in a shroud; Burial 2 was a man in his early 20s whose limbs were inflamed from hard, repetitive work; Burial 3 participated in a West African puberty ritual; Burial 7 was a child.

These tiny biographical facts, archived and recorded, make the realities of slavery unavoidable: The people who endured slavery were real human beings with real human bodies. In the face of these facts, slavery moves from abstraction to reality.

And by refusing to accept abstractions, we come to know people as individuals, and can come to love them in Baldwin’s sense of the word. “Love,” he writes, “takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.”

It is that love that both Baldwin and the writers of The Fire This Time champion. And it is only through that love, they argue, that we can, in Baldwin’s words “end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.”

The Fire This Time shows that very little about our “racial nightmare” has changed since Baldwin made that optimistic prediction. But it continues to argue that radical love can transform the world.