Book Review: "The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race" by Jesmyn Ward

By Miciah Bennett @miciahbennett

The Fire This Time is a diverse collection of essays and poems about the current black American experience. Inspired by beloved author James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, the editor, National Book Award Winner, Jesmyn Ward gathered today's most visible black authors to talk about the black body in America in three parts: Legacy (the past), Reckoning (the present), and Jubilee (the future).  

We can't talk about the present or the future without acknowledging the past: the mythological origin story of America. The essays in Legacy were intriguing in a historical and anthropological way, but the most memorable and relatable essays are found in section two and three.

In the introduction, Ward said she was pregnant and working on Men We Reaped, a book about the violent deaths of five young black men she loved when Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012. She addresses the myth of young black males being violent, undisciplined, gangsters and shares her own experience with racism via a school trip to see former Mississippi Senator Trent Lott.

The Trayvon Martin case is particularly important to me, as I remember writing a hasty article as a young, naive, journalist about how it could have been a wrong time, wrong place situation before the facts were revealed. That case matured me as a woman, as a writer and as a black human being in America. I understood oppression, slavery, and institutional racism, but I was not prepared for racially motivated murder in my 2012 America. Trayvon Martin, who the book is dedicated to, was my wake-up call. He is the ghost that will always remind me that I am black, visible and invisible.

The overarching theme in The Fire This Time is passing on the knowledge that we, as black and brown Americans, have a voice that is powerful, cherished, necessary and understood; and that we don't experience anything another black or brown person hasn't already. Still, we keep fighting so that future generations won't mourn as our ancestors have, or live in our current state of constant worry.
This level of communication, community, and conversation––whether in person, through books or social media––is critical. It’s imperative that we ingrain a sense of self-worth, hope, and love into our community, biological or not, so that our children mature knowing that their black life, face, body, knowledge, family, ideas, words and art matter. In "My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation,” the first section of The Fire Next Time, Baldwin tells his nephew, "You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a n——-r. I tell you this because I love you, and please don't you ever forget it." The quote instills the lesson that Mitchell S. Jackson aimed to learn in his piece, "Composite Pops.” It is a tale true of any (black) child’s life: a story about how he constructed and pieced together a father figure from the various actions and character traits of the men who were in his life when his biological father wasn’t. Although the sources of his composite were obviously flawed, they all taught him what it means to be a black man in America. So many black children, male and female, have and will have to follow the footsteps of Jackson in order to learn how to maneuver and survive in their black body as well.   

The Fire This Time is diverse but still coherent. To me, this is reflective of the various shades and experiences of brown people, and the reality that, no matter what shade, there is collective understanding and bonding in our mission to persevere and preserve our culture and history in this euro-centric world.  

The last two pieces in the anthology are so emotionally tremendous and hopeful that this book is unforgettable, just like The Fire Next Time or Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. In a letter to his wife, Daniel Jose Older quotes Nizar Qabbani: ”Our deliverance is in drawing with words,” which is exactly what Ward does with this ambitious collection. My favorite quote from the book comes from the last piece, “Message to My Daughters,” by Edwidge Danticat. It is a quote that is so profound to me and where I am, and what I do and who I want to be in life:  

"’You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read,’ James Baldwin wrote. Or you see. Or you weep. Or you pray. Or you speak. Or you write. Or you fight so that one day everyone will be able to walk the earth as though they, to use Baldwin's words, have ‘a right to be here.’”

Books like The Fire This Time are critical; not only to brown and black bodies for community healing through camaraderie and vulnerability but to the collective consciousness of the entire world.


Miciah Bennett is a library associate in South Carolina. She enjoys reading, beer, podcasts and DIY manicures.


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