Legitimizing Reflections of Race


No. 8, January 2018, Global Studies Literature Review

Inspired by the 1963 essay “The Fire Next Time” by James Baldwin, Jesmyn Ward’s The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race (2016) delivers a snapshot of the black experience in the Western world in the twenty-first century. The voices of this new generation paint a poignant portrait of consistent but “re-masked” forms of institutional racism and systemic oppression that are deeply woven into the fabric of the United States, where chattel slavery has been replaced by police brutality, mass incarceration, and a lack of government action, ultimately symbolizing the devaluation of black lives and the deep sense of loneliness that inevitably follows. Ward categorizes the essays into three parts: Legacy, Reckoning, and Jubilee.

With this timely reflection on race, international educators are poised to encourage students to move beyond traditional Eurocentric paradigms for studies in the humanities and beyond. The first part of the book, titled “Legacy,” is a series of essays that display the percolation of racism from past to present. Notably, writer Honorée Fanonne Jeffers focuses on Margaretta Matilda Odell, an early biographer of famed African American poet Phyllis Wheatley and a self-proclaimed relative of Wheatley’s mistress. While Odell’s biography depicts Wheatley’s husband as a negligent man who stifled Wheatley’s potential, Jeffers points out that there is no definitive evidence that Odell’s claims are true—including the claim that she was related to the Wheatley family. Jeffers forces the reader to consider how present-day interpretations of the Wheatleys would differ had history been reproduced through the lenses of black biographers. More broadly, this piece illustrates the necessity of intentionally incorporating readings from minoritized authors, thereby creating crucial platforms for voices of oppressed groups to be legitimized.

The second part of Ward’s book, “Reckoning,” contains present-day commentaries ranging from discussion of the modern-day blackface of the Rachel Dolezal spectacle to the influence of hip-hop as a mechanism for storytelling of the black experience to the use of street murals to communicate legal and safety advice in urban communities of color. In the essay “Black and Blue,” author Garnette Cadogan discusses the “rules of engagement” for black men in public spaces, accommodating to white fear. Originally from Jamaica, Cadogan moved to New Orleans as a young adult and quickly learned that his dark skin had new meaning. Cadogan describes numerous experiences of racial profiling, including once being slammed against a police cruiser and handcuffed by an officer for waving to him. Cadogan’s anecdote illustrates that while the roots of racism are common, its manifestations can vary drastically from one culture to another. In the same vein, educators must urge students to consider the complexities of context when analyzing social inequalities between cultures.

The final part, “Jubilee,” compiles hopeful messages for future generations. While the loneliness that accompanies racism is a recurring motif throughout, Ward refuses to allow the reader to succumb to hopelessness: “The hope is that recognition will break a momentum that laws haven’t altered” (2016, 155). The “Jubilee” essays focus on how people of color can and will communicate with their children that their voices can create a platform for change. Similarly, it is crucial for international educators to consider how they may foster the talents of their students in ways that will also expose the voices of underrepresented people.

Ultimately, The Fire This Time is a call to action to recognize present-day systems of oppression in an attempt to “break the momentum” of the relentlessly disparaging consequences of racism. International educators who are prepared to engage in both deeply profound yet challenging dialogue and reflections about race should consider incorporating this book into required classroom readings.

Ward, Jesmyn, ed. 2016. The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race. New York, NY: Scribner Books.