Now a group of prominent writers, all part of a new generation of the Black literati, have channeled their energies and contributed to a collection of essays, memoirs and poetry that pays homage to Baldwin while reflecting on the issue of race today.
The result is “The Fire This Time,” edited by writer Jesmyn Ward whose novel “Salvage the Bones” garnered her the 2011 National Book Award.
About the anthology, she says that just as Baldwin’s words ring as true today as they ever did, she wanted to provide the opportunity for some of today’s thinkers to shine a light on the darkest corners of our history, wrestle with our current predicament and attempt to envision a better future.
“In the fifty-odd years since Baldwin’s essay ‘My Dungeon Shook’ was published [included in his 1963 collection], entire generations have dared everything and made significant progress,” Ward writes. “But the idea that we are living in the post-civil rights era – that we are a ‘post-racial’ society – is a callous corruption of a truth that our nation must confront. Baldwin’s ‘fire next time’ is now upon us, and it needs to be talked about.”
Contributors include: Carol Anderson, Jericho Brown, Edwidge Danticat, Emily Raboteau, Isabel Wilkerson and Kevin Young.
Ward recently spoke with NPR’s Audie Cornish during an on-air interview where she discussed how she persuaded writers to be part of this new publication, the challenges of looking toward the future for Blacks in America and the importance of continuing to channel Baldwin’s urgency toward reflecting on Black life in the U.S.
“It’s hard for us to look to the future because this moment can feel so overwhelming. Having that conversation about what it means to be a Black person in America, means, as Claudia Rankine says, to be in a perpetual state of mourning.”
“Sure, some people will claim a certain fatigue about talking about race. But I think that even though they do, it’s still necessary – completely necessary. Because if we don’t [and] if it’s a conversation that we walk away from because we’re too tired of having it, then nothing really changes. Sometimes you get tired of fighting. I think you just sort of come to this realization that yes, that you will get tired, but that doesn’t mean that you can give up the fight.”
“There’s a certain sense of mobilization now. People are not afraid to be activists, to be vocal. I was in college in the late ‘90s, early 2000s and it didn’t feel like now. It was muffled. It didn’t feel like we had any sort of voice, or even a part in the conversation. And that’s very different now. I think it’s a wonderful thing. And it’s part of what I wanted to tap into with the book.”
James Baldwin (1924-1987) has long been recognized as an American literary icon. He explored issues of race and racism in America, class distinction and sexual difference in works that are now part of the canon, such as “Go Tell it On the Mountain,” “Giovanni’s Room,” “Another Country” and “The Evidence of Things Not Seen.” A gay African-American writer who was born in Harlem, he found the freedom to express himself living in exile in Paris. When he returned to America to cover the civil rights movement, he became an activist and controversial spokesperson for the movement, writing books that became bestsellers and made him a celebrity, landing him on the cover of “Time.” He maintained a passionate, if not often overwhelming battle, to discover ways to “end the racial nightmare and achieve our country.”