Reading Baldwin’s Heirs in the Age of Trump

Douglas Ray

The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race. Jesmyn Ward, Ed. New York, NY: Scribner, 2016. 227 pages. $25.00.

National Book Award-winning novelist Jesmyn Ward brings together seventeen other writers—Jericho Brown, Edwidge Danticat, Kiese Laymon, Claudia Rankine, Natasha Trethewey, and Kevin Young, among others—to talk about race in essays and poems. The whole collection is dedicated “To Trayvon Martin and the many other black men, women, and children who have died and been denied justice for these four hundred years,” and these pieces are responses to tragedies, to legacies of loss, to histories (personal and collective) of injustice that frame present predicaments and limit future progress. Each of the eighteen pieces—ten of them written for this collection—reminds us that conversations of race cannot exist merely in the realm of ideas, and conversations about race in America cannot exist beyond an integrated—past, present, future—timeline. The case for what’s at stake is clear, for why everyone should awaken to the state of our (dis)union with regard to race: life and death, safety and peril, justice and injustice, jubilee or desolation.

The essays and poems are fresh, referencing many recent touchstones in the national discourse on race: police brutality, Black Lives Matter, Shelby County vs. Holder, Ferguson, Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Sandra Bland. They remind us, too, of the brutal legacy of slavery, Jim Crow laws, lynchings, three-fifths personhood, the failures of Reconstruction, Emmett Till, the Great Migration, the Middle Passage. Reading these essays and poems, though, after the election of Donald Trump on November 8 in the wake of racist rhetoric from the so called “alt-right” changes the way we read. As election returns rolled in late on November 8, CNN commentator Van Jones, realizing an inevitable Trump victory, reminded the millions watching that race shapes the experience of the world in a fundamental (and, yes, political) way. Given a second volume, I wonder what these eighteen writers would say now. Or is the urgency with which each writer speaks in this book just made clearer to those dulled by privilege?

Reading this collection is also a reminder that the injustices of race—that subjugation and systemic oppression—are sadly as American as rhetoric of freedom and exceptionalism. Smart criticism of the racist heteropatriarchy is not new either; just consider the title’s invocation of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, which itself invokes the slaves’ spirituals. The song Baldwin draws his title from references God’s covenant with Noah in Genesis to destroy the world by fire in the future, this on the heels of destroying the wicked world by water. The apocalyptic vision of Baldwin—oppressed for being black and brilliant and gay—is just as searing now as ever. Ward quotes Baldwin in her introduction; she sought out Baldwin for clarity after the trauma of Trayvon Martin’s death and George Zimmerman’s subsequent acquittal:

If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on or create the consciousness of others—do not falter in our duty now, we—handful that we are—may be able to end the racial nightmare and achieve our country and change the history of the world. If we do not dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by the slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!

Yes, Baldwin’s vision promises our human capacity to ignite a holy destruction, but also to “achieve our country” through creating consciousness. I’ll suggest that consciousness, for Baldwin, for these writers—his heirs—is praxis: reflection and action aimed toward transformation.

Ward speaks of the power of words in her introduction to build hope, tied to Baldwin’s idea of creating consciousness. Wendy S. Walters then addresses one of the keys to consciousness-building—inspiring empathy and empathy’s connection to storytelling:

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.

It’s impossible to ignore the vast empathy gap that exists between folks in America; if anything became clear on November 8 and the days following, it is that America is divided according to experiences and values, that the idea of expanding rights and privileges to those traditionally marginalized is interpreted by many as a threat to their existence. Carol Anderson says it bluntly: “White rage recurs in American history.” And Claudia Rankine addresses another group of white people. She quotes playwright Lorraine Hansberry in suggesting a strategy for white folks conscious of the need for change: “The problem is we have to find some way with these dialogues to show and to encourage the white liberal to stop being a liberal and become an American radical.” Perhaps that “white rage” that has served to counteract social progress can be turned, through empathy, to a radical love that works to dismantle systems of privilege that persistently oppress.

The radical transformative capacity of love is what drives these essays and poems—even outrage and disgust is based in love for fellow human beings. A love for justice and freedom informs the critique of injustice and bondage. Edwidge Danticat’s essay “Message to My Daughters”—at once heartbreaking and heartwarming—is steeped in love for the possibility of a world where her daughters might “live in jubilee.” I challenge anyone to read Kiese Laymon’s brilliant “Da Art of Storytellin’ (A Prequel)” that muses on OutKast, Mississippi, and his Grandmama and experience those last several paragraphs as anything but a sermon on love and gratitude. It sticks with you—like the “stank” he mentions, like wisdom, like magic.

So here we are—still in the endless battle to recognize that we haven’t begun to change the broken world we inhabit. We know the tools for change: words, hope, empathy, love. We know, too, the consequences of refusal to change: the litany of lives lost growing, the rhetoric of fear that breathes life into hate.

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