AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
In 1963, James Baldwin gave voice to the black American experience of his generation in his essay collection "The Fire Next Time." Writer Jesmyn Ward first read these essays in her 20s, but recently she found herself thinking about them a lot, about Baldwin's decades-old observations about race and racial injustice. And so she picked up Baldwin's book again.
JESMYN WARD: I read the passage where James Baldwin alludes to the fire that will come when America again is denying its past, you know, with history and with racial inequality and saying that the result will be a fire next time. And I thought, man, this really feels like a moment where we're burning.
CORNISH: Ward felt the time was right for a new reflection on race in America, so she reached out to some of the most prominent black thinkers in the country and asked for their observations. She compiled their writing in a new collection "The Fire This Time."
When I spoke with Ward recently, I asked her how she convinced people to even sign on. Baldwin, one of the great American essayists, is a tough act to follow.
WARD: So the pitch was really vague, right? So I was like, oh, do you think you could write something about race in America for me (laughter) right now? It's really...
CORNISH: (Laughter) Discuss.
WARD: Yeah. It's...
WARD: Exactly. Everybody was like, what? I don't - could you give me some direction? I'm like, not really because I want - you know, like, I wanted the essay topics to be very specific to the concerns of each writer.
And so we're sort of responding to Baldwin, you know? But really I just want you to talk about race in America right now and in this very heated present moment where you have the Black Lives Matter movement, where you have this sort of amazing movement across America, like, from normal communities. And so I don't think I gave people good directions (laughter) at all.
CORNISH: I asked Jesmyn Ward to read from an essay that really moved her, and she picked the last one in the collection. It's called "Message To My Daughters" by Edwidge Danticat. In it, Danticat tells her girls Mira and Leila about the injustices of the world they were born into and also about her hopes for their generation. Here's Jesmyn Ward.
WARD: So she's quoting Baldwin at the beginning of the paragraph, and she says, (reading) 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. May that day come, Mira and Leila, when you can finally claim those crowns of yours and put them on your heads. When that day of jubilee finally arrives, all of us will be there with you, walking, heads held high, crowns a glitter because we do have a right to be here.
CORNISH: You write in your introduction that not that many people wrote kind of forward-looking essays or works, and this one does do that.
WARD: This one does do that, and it does it beautifully. I think that part of the reason that we did not receive a large number of essays that looked to the future is because I think it's hard for us to look to the future because this moment can feel so overwhelming. I mean some of us have children. Some of us don't.
But I think that it's really difficult to think about having that conversation with the young people that we know and that we love - like, having that conversation about what it means to be a black person in America, what it means to, you know, as one of the authors in here said - oh, as Claudia Rankine says, like, to be in a perpetual state of mourning. I mean that - it's just so difficult to talk about that with young people that you love that I think that that's the reason that few of the essays look towards the future.
CORNISH: There's a poem called "Queries Of An Arrest" by Clint Smith. I bring it up because it poses an important question I think for writers of, you know, our generation focusing on this. And the verse reads this way.
(Reading) Maybe I'm scared to write another poem that makes people roll their eyes and say, another black poem. Maybe I'm scared people won't think of the poem as a poem but as a cry for help. Maybe the poem is a cry for help.
And this made me think of the challenges of doing this kind of work in a time when people will claim a certain fatigue about talking about race.
WARD: I do think that people will claim a certain fatigue about talking about race, but I think that even though they do, it's still necessary - like, completely necessary that we continue to have this conversation because if we don't - like, if it's a conversation that we walk away from because we're too tired of having it, then nothing really changes.
CORNISH: Is he raising something, though, that you thought of yourself - right? - like this idea of, like, OK, I'm going to give this a shot, but I don't know, right?
WARD: Yeah, I mean I have felt that numerous times throughout my life. And you know, maybe the first time that I felt that was, you know, when I was in high school (laughter). So you know from my teens up to now - I'm in my late-30s - like, I felt that periodically.
But sometimes you do. You get tired of fighting. You know, I think you just sort of come to this realization that yes, that you will get tired, but that doesn't mean that you can give up the fight.
CORNISH: Because we're in the middle of an election, people are starting to talk about President Obama and his legacy. And it was interesting reading this book in that context. And I thought it was kind of bleak (laughter) a little bit, right? And just after all of that conversation - I can remember as a reporter covering his election, there was so much conversation about how this was going to change the state of race in America in that conversation.
How are you feeling? What did all these writers kind of reveal to you about these last couple of years?
WARD: I think that his presidency is very important to the black American community. In several of his, like, important speeches, he said really important things about race in America, about the fact that he is a black man, that he could be a victim of the kind of senseless random state-sanctioned violence that many black Americans have been victim to in the past couple of years or a son of his, hypothetically - right? - could be a victim of it or his daughters, right?
And so those statements were a revelation I mean because without him, we would never have heard those things. I think it's really important for us to hear someone in a position of power - like, the position of power - say that.
CORNISH: The Obama age has obviously not solved (laughter) the issue of race in America.
WARD: No, (laughter) no.
CORNISH: But it seems to have birthed an entire new generation of black and brown public intellectuals who are talking about it.
WARD: Yeah, I think so because it - I feel like there's a certain sense of mobilization now. People are not afraid to be activists, to be vocal. And I think back to my years in college, and that wasn't the case. I mean I - you know, I was in college in the late-90s, early 2000s, and it didn't feel like now. It didn't feel like...
CORNISH: It was muffled.
WARD: Yeah, it was muffled.
CORNISH: I was there at that time, too (laughter).
WARD: Yeah, and you know, it was. It was definitely muffled, and it didn't feel like as sort of young people with sort of big ideas - like, it didn't feel like we had any sort of voice or even a part in the conversation. And that's very different now. And I think it's a great thing. I think it's a wonderful thing. And it's part of what I wanted to tap into with the book.
CORNISH: Well, Jesmyn Ward, thank you so much for talking with us.
WARD: Thank you for having me.
CORNISH: That was Jesmyn Ward, editor of the new essay collection "The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race."
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