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Editor’s Choice: ‘The Fire This Time’ pays Tribute to James Baldwin

The Fire This Time: A New Generation of Writers Speaks About Race in America, edited by Jesmyn Ward, Scribner, 224 pages, $25. “After George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin on Feb. 26, 2012, I took to Twitter,” writes Jesmyn Ward. “I didn’t have anywhere else to go. I wanted to hear what others, black writers and artists, were thinking about what happened in Sanford, Florida.” Twitter seemed right, she writes in her introduction to this book. “I found the community I sought there.” But over time, she says, after “article after article” she realized “no major news outlet was stating the obvious. Trayvon Martin was a seventeen-year old child, legally and biologically; George Zimmerman was an adult. An adult shot and killed a child while the child was walking home from a convenience store where he’d purchased skittles and a cold drink ... Everything ... seemed insane. How could anyone look at Trayvon’s baby face and not see a child? And not feel an innate desire to protect, to cherish?” But then she had grown up in the American South, “a place where black life has been systematically devalued for hundreds of years.”

She “needed words.” So she read James Baldwin’s essays, “Notes of a Native Son,” which had once been a revelation to her. A year after Trayvon Martin’s death, she picked up Baldwin’s 1963 masterwork “The Fire Next Time.” “It was then I knew I wanted to call on some of the greater thinkers and extraordinary voices of my generation to help me puzzle this out ... a book that would reckon with the fire and rage and despair and fierce protective love currently sweeping through the streets and campuses of America.” That was even before the horrendous events of the past few months. So here is a response to Baldwin from 18 current black writers. Kevin Young writes about Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who claimed to be black at almost the same time as the killings in Charleston; Rachel Kaadzi Ghanash writes about Baldwin himself; Emily Raboteau writes about murals in New York and, among others, Edwidge Danticat writes that murdered Michael Brown could be thought of as “an internal refugee.” Danticat wants, she says, to live in “jubilee” but “the world keeps tripping me up.” One of the necessary books of our time. – Jeff Simon

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