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The right to be scared: ‘The Fire This Time’ explores the state of race in America

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Chuck Twardy

Four stars

The Fire This Time Edited by Jesmyn Ward, $25.

I’d like to shower thousands of copies of The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race on a Trump rally. I know I’m dreaming, but indulge me. Maybe a few will thumb through Jesmyn Ward’s compilation of essays and poems by young African-American writers, and settle on a page that hits a nerve and starts peeling away the layers. Maybe it will help to hear from actual black people that the one thing “all blacks” agree on is that it is dangerous to be young and black, and then learn the history of why that remains so.

Ward was inspired by James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and its warning letter to a nephew, and asked writers to respond to recent killings of unarmed African Americans. Edwidge Danticat tackles the task in “Message to My Daughters.” Like her, most of the writers are perplexed to find they still have to heed and pass along warnings.

Isabel Wilkerson, in “Where Do We Go from Here?” explains why—every advancement for African Americans has been undermined by vicious suppression, including the election of a black president. “We seem to be in a continuing feedback loop of repeating a past that our country has yet to address,” she observes. Carol Anderson takes the point deeper in “White Rage,” turning the term around to explain the postwar, post-Migration, post-Brown v. Board of Education and finally, post-Obama backlashes. “A rash of voter-suppression legislation, a series of unfathomable Supreme Court decisions, the rise of stand-your-ground laws and continuing police brutality make clear that Obama’s election and re-election have unleashed yet another wave of fear and anger,” Anderson writes.

Yes, I know you can disagree with Obama without being a racist, but Anderson’s analysis, and much in the other essays here, exposes why being black means you have to be scared. It is surprising that most of these writers, however disappointed they might be, leave me somewhat hopeful. For one thing, there’s some ace writing in this slender volume; for another, these young writers, social-media savvy and grounded in history, tell rich stories of their lives growing up and navigating daily experience with a vague threat always following.

Ward writes movingly about discovering that she is 40 percent European and about one-quarter Native American. This troubled her at first, but it just proves that the roil of cultures in her heritage is the heritage of everyone in this country.

For more by Chuck Twardy, visit chucktwardy.com.

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