The Fire This Time: A new generation of voices on race
Four writers tell us what it means to live James Baldwin’s words
A virtual roundtable conversation featuring Kima Jones, Kiese Laymon, Daniel José Older, and Emily Raboteau, four contributors to The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race edited by Jesmyn Ward.
“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.” — James Baldwin
James Baldwin’s seminal 1963 national bestseller The Fire Next Time includes “My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation.” In this letter, Baldwin tells his nephew that “the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon.” Now, 50-plus years later, National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward has brought together a group of 17 fellow writers to respond to the current state of affairs in our nation — extrajudicial killings by police and the protests that follow, and the fallacy that we’re living in a “post-racial” society.
In The Fire This Time, these writers’ essays, memoirs, and poems explore the concept of freedom and the past, present and future of black lives in America. The Undefeated recently convened a virtual roundtable among four of the collection’s contributors to discuss art as disruption and what it means to be “a child of Baldwin.”
The Undefeated: In the intro to The Fire This Time, Jesmyn Ward writes, ‘All these essays give me hope. I believe there is power in words, power in asserting our existence, our experience, our lives, through words. That sharing our stories confirms our humanity. That it creates community, both within our own community, and beyond it.’ Do you share Jesmyn’s sense of hope? Was this among your reasons for contributing to this collection? What do you hope your specific contribution will yield, as part of this collection?
Daniel José Older: In spite of all the tragedy around us, I really do feel an enduring sense of hope running beneath it all. The hope is because of the protest movement, both in the streets, online and in literature. I look at the young folks in particular and see a generation of deeply engaged, brilliant thinkers and artists who are re-creating the very meaning of subversion and survival with their words and creativity. That is inspiring. I never thought we’d see a day when thousands and thousands of people took to the streets in a raw, uncurated expression of collective grief and resistance against racism. When I’m feeling overwhelmed, I turn to Baldwin but also to the folks raising their voices today: fellow authors in this book and the folks being insightful and badass and hilarious and very human in the face of the ongoing barrage of dehumanizing, state-sanctioned anti-blackness day in and day out.
Emily Raboteau: Among my reasons for contributing to this collection was a sincere need to ruminate on how to talk to my black kids about how to move with grace through a hostile landscape. I wouldn’t have undertaken writing it, or writing in general, if I didn’t feel hope. The same impulse drove Baldwin to write The Fire Next Time — it’s structured as a love letter, cautionary tale, and lifeboat to his nephew James. It feels intimate and immediate because he’s writing directly to someone beloved. All the writers in this anthology would probably describe themselves as a child of Baldwin.
The Undefeated: What does it mean to you, as a writer, to be a ‘child of Baldwin’? What gifts and responsibilities have you inherited? Conversely, if you wouldn’t describe yourself as child of Baldwin, can you elaborate on this?
Kiese Laymon: [It] means a lot of things, but it mostly means — like Baldwin — we believe in the power of reckoning honestly with yesterday and doing everything we can with our art and our organizing to ensure more healthy choices and second chances for our folk tomorrow. When I read Daniel, Emily, and Kima, for example, I feel wholly loved and wholly inspired in these weird imaginative ways. Their work is more than hope. It’s love.
Kima Jones: This is a question I’ve turned over in my mind all of my life. I am a Harlem girl, born and raised, a queer writer, the granddaughter of a Southern Baptist preacher and the daughter of an imam. I grew up on 149th Street and Convent between Amsterdam and St. Nicholas, a neighborhood famously known as Sugar Hill. Perhaps Baldwin and I would have had some of the same hauntings: living in and away from a Harlem changing before our very eyes, living among and away from our family and peers, our queer, dark-skinned, gap-toothed lives, the constant reckoning of our motivations and our faith. I don’t want to say that I’m a daughter of Baldwin, but I am certainly a daughter of Harlem and I think that makes both Baldwin and me descendants of a very specific and glorious legacy.
I like to think that Baldwin and I are both writing about the Harlem we knew, a Harlem we want to preserve, one that we have desperately fought for and lost. The Harlem of Baldwin’s last years is the Harlem of my first years, and I’m sure he felt an irreversible loss even then. Our Harlem is never coming back, but I will never stop writing about that place as home and the many migrations and reverse migrations we make to and from it.
Older: Like Jesmyn talks about in her intro, I turn to Baldwin when I feel lost, when the world is too much, when I need words to make sense of all this sorrow and rage. He is the balm. I also go to him when I’m not sure how to write something. I had two challenging essays to write last year — the one for this book and another on feminism for a YA anthology called Here We Are, and I had no idea where to even begin. The Cross of Redemption, Baldwin’s recently released uncollected writings, lit the way. Immersing myself in all that truth-telling, all that fearlessness, all that tenacity and fire — I felt something stir and the words allowed me to give myself permission again to bridge heart and head, the past and the present, the personal and political. That’s the gift of Baldwin.
Raboteau: Another of Baldwin’s gifts is that he’s really talented at explaining black experience to white people. For those of us inclined to write about issues of social justice, he’s also the exemplar of how to attempt it with style so that it isn’t moralizing, but surprising. Here’s Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts (another of Baldwin’s children) in Harlem is Nowhere on his nonfiction technique: ‘In almost every essay, James Baldwin wrote about Harlem, there is a moment when he commits a literary sleight-of-hand so particular that, if he’d been an athlete, sportscasters would have codified the maneuver and named it “the Jimmy.” ‘
The Undefeated: Circling back to what Daniel said about artists ‘recreating the very meaning of subversion and survival with their words and creativity,’ I’m reminded of what Baldwin said in a 1961 interview: ‘Artists are here to disturb the peace.’ As an artist, what specific racial narratives or injustices do you seek to disturb with your work, in general, or with your contribution to TFTT collection in particular?
Older: I’ve always loved this quote because it is so direct and so huge. It forces us to reconsider this fragile, political notion of ‘peace’ that we so lazily traffic in. Peace for the powerful generally means never-ending war for everyone else, and that’s the peace that artists are here to disturb. Very often, as Baldwin was relentless in pointing out, the very mythmakers who are supposed to represent the people, be ‘voices for the voiceless’ and all that, end up toeing the party line as much as anyone else, and that’s one of the great tragedies of art and our time. Baldwin wasn’t here to make anybody comfortable except those whom literature has never bothered to even acknowledge, and therein lies the power of his presence.
Raboteau: Increasingly, I’m trying to disturb the narrative (including my own) that as a ‘black’ writer, race is my required subject and only area of expertise. As for disturbing the peace, Flannery O’Connor has a great quote in the same vein as Baldwin’s: ‘I am not afraid that the book will be controversial, I’m afraid it will not be controversial.’ In her collected letters, it’s evident that although she admired Baldwin’s work, he would never be welcome in her home. Differences aside, they agreed on this point: Literature should be unsettling. I agree.
Jones: When Jesmyn asked me to be a part of this anthology project, I knew right away that I’d submit a speculative poem. A realist poem didn’t work for me and doesn’t work for what’s happening in the world. This feels unreal. This feels like a dystopia. This feels helpless. It feels like a horror story. And I wrote my poem with that feeling. The subversion is in technique: how to use speculative literature and how to use the poem, and here, specifically, the prose poem in such a way that the reader can feel like they have both left this space but are in this space, that they are of this time but timeless in order to experience and escape the inherent dangers of this world and the one I’ve created. In my world, the family in the poem lives and that is the trick of black life: the insistence on wholeness and the insistence on love and to make babies and cut up. That’s the disruption.
The Undefeated: It’s 2066, and a new generation of writers are speaking on race in a follow-up collection to The Fire This Time. What do you think (hope?) these writers will be saying about race? What ideas and genres do you imagine populating that collection?
Laymon: I’d tell [these writers this]: Your generation is smarter, way more politically savvy, imaginative, compassionate and organized than mine. Y’all are talking about and literally preparing for liberation, equitable back pay and critical utopias. Like us, y’all are unafraid of saying you want to be free, but unlike us, y’all told the country and your communities that the lies and abuses that hold both together must be undone only after they’re named, historicized, reckoned with. That undoing, you argued, necessitates better jobs, and better treatment at those jobs, quality housing for poor survivors of domestic and sexual violence, productive food co-ops in the poorest parts of our country. Y’all did that. At the core, you told yourselves and your political leaders that liberation of any kind cannot be born of lies and deception. You told American presidents to stop lying. You understood that you don’t need to be perfect. You understood that you don’t need to be strong or magical or resilient or twice as good as some mediocre white person. You refused to mythologize the so-called struggle. I’m not at all sure what you need, but I want you to figure out the kind of lover of black women, black men and black gender nonconforming folks you want to be. I want you to articulate and write into whether you’re capable of being that kind of lover. If you are not, please don’t say you are. That’s what I want from you as an artist and a human being. And I know that’s a lot.
Raboteau: I wonder what that anthology would be titled? The Fire’s Still Burning, Y’all. This Fire is Red Hot. Let’s Douse These Damn Flames. I hope that writers 50 years from now concerned about social justice will have expanded the conversation about civil and human rights beyond the U.S. borders and the black/white divide to take on international concerns. I hope they will be making surprising and important connections between and among struggles for freedom the whole world over.