Thursday, March 8, 2018

The Fire This Time, edited by Jesmyn Ward

Source of book: Borrowed from the library.

This was a random Black History Month selection - our library usually has a little display for whatever month it is, from the usual, recurring ones, to one-offs like Inventor’s Month. There were several books I could have chosen, but this one looked interesting and not too long. 

The title is a reference to James Baldwin’s pair of essays that helped spark the Civil Rights Movement - and that title was itself a reference to the traditional belief that the next time the earth is destroyed, it will be by fire. The book is a collection of essays (and two poems) on the same general topic as Baldwin’s: civil rights past, present, and future. Ward herself wrote one, and most of the others were written specifically for this book.

Because the book came out in 2016, several significant events dominate the collection: the murder of Trayvon Martin, the Ferguson killing and protests, Rachel Dolezal’s impersonation, and the backlash by whites against Black Lives Matter.

Because the styles and topics vary pretty wildly, I will just touch on a few things. The book is a good, quick read, in the tradition of essay collections. They have commonalities and differences, and thus function well as a diverse set of voices giving a window into a different set of experiences. (For us whites, at least.)

Some particular essays that stood out were these: “Homegoing, AD,” by Kima Jones, which was a lovely sketch of her family experiences. The essay by Honoree Fanonne Jeffers (with a long title) which reevaluated what we were taught about Phillis Wheatley and her husband (which turns out to have been told by someone who may well have made most of it up.) “White Rage” by Carol Anderson, the one essay I had read before, and which still explains so much about Trump’s election. “Cracking the Code,” Jesmyn Ward’s story of using DNA to explore her family tree. “Black and Blue,” by Jamaican-born Garnette Cadogan, which is an all too common story of police harassment and abuse in the United States. “Know Your Rights!” by Emily Raboteau, about the murals with the same name in New York City. “Lonely in America,” by Wendy S. Walters, in which she researches the African-american grave site in Portsmouth, Maine.

The beauty of the writing is evident. Most of these aren’t protest pieces, or political in the partisan sense. They are stories from the real lives of the writers. The experience of being black in America is story enough to be worth reading - and not just reading, but allowing ourselves to be changed by the process of empathy. More than anything else, my own journey away from right wing politics has been driven by actually listening. To quote Wendy S. Walters:

When a story is unpleasant, it is hard to focus on details that allow you to put yourself in the place of the subject, because the pain of distortion starts to feel familiar. Paying attention often requires some sort of empathy for the subject, or at the very least, for the speaker. But empathy, these days, is hard to come by. Maybe this is because everyone is having such a hard time being understood themselves. Or because empathy requires us to dig way down into the murk, deeper than our own feelings go, to a place where the boundaries between our experience and everyone else’s no longer exist.

Perhaps one of the best examples of this is the murder of Trayvon Martin. And yes, I use that word intentionally, because that is what it was. Ward, in the introduction, expresses her horror that the media failed - refused really - to say what this was. An adult man stalked and killed a minor child walking home from the store. At every possible juncture, the adult chose to escalate the situation, until the child was dead. I have teenagers. (And a 12 year old son, who isn’t always the most aware of what is going on around him. If he weren’t white, I would be constantly worried he would be gunned down by a fearful cop.) The Trayvon Martin murder is one reason I left the NRA. (It is one thing to defend against an armed burglar. It is something else to adopt “stand and fight” as a slogan. What the actual hell? This isn’t the wild west. Don’t start fights over whose sidewalk it is. Sheesh!)  It was also one significant step in my journey to a new way of thinking about race relations in America. A world where you can follow someone around, and shoot them dead as soon as you subjectively feel afraid isn’t a civilized one - it is a society that worships violence. That was how I came to realize that no, to all too many, black lives don’t matter - they are expendable. And that needs to change.

Anyway, this book is a quick read, and is a good one to hear some different perspectives. None of us can claim to have a god-like, purely objective view and experience of the world. There isn’t a “black perspective” as opposed to a “neutral” perspective, which is why the idea that any of us can arrogantly tell other people why their experience of the world is somehow invalid or doesn’t exist is ludicrous. Empathy and basic human decency require that we shut up - and listen.

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