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A new generation of US writers confronts the nation's lethal racism


In the latest issue of Bookforum, Jabari Asim reviews two books by American writers that grapple with ongoing conflagrations around racism in the US, including police killings of Black people and the Black Lives Matter movement. In The Fire This Time, an anthology edited by Jesmyn Ward, a new generation of fiction writers and poets confront the reality that despite the nation’s pretense to equality, Black life has never truly mattered in the US. And in Jeff Change’s We Gon’ Be Alright, the author explores, among other things, the way the Black-White racial binary in the US conditions how other ethnicities experience American racism. Here’s an excerpt from Asim’s review:

All of which brings me back to Richard Wright’s suggestion, in Native Son (1940), that literature is a battleground on which blacks and whites have often fought over the very “nature of reality.” All too often, differing approaches to language reflect sharply contrasting visions of American society. For African Americans, the disparate language of our country’s racial majority has seldom been separate from customs and policies that hinder complete access to the “grand experiment” we continue to hear so much about. Into this schism steps Jesmyn Ward, whose novel Salvage the Bones won the 2011 National Book Award. In her introduction to the new anthology The Fire This Time, she finds evidence of this clash of visions in George Zimmerman’s killing of Trayvon Martin. She looks at images of the latter’s baby face and sees a child. But she recognizes that “most Americans” look at the same person and see someone quite different: “some kind of ravenous hoodlum, perpetually at the mercy of his animalistic instincts.”

Around a year after Martin’s death, Ward began the project that became The Fire This Time. She writes that she wanted to provide writers of her generation with an opportunity “to dissent, to call to account, to witness, to reckon.” Anthologies of this sort are plentiful and powerful, at least to African American readers, those most likely to engage and embrace such efforts, which include The New Negro (1925), Black Fire (1968), and Step into a World (2000). That there have been so many of these books, decade after decade, speaks to their limited utility beyond the sympathetic circles where black artists and thinkers congregate—there always have been new atrocities to respond to, clueless assessments to refute, hostilities to defend against. Nonetheless, the desire to offer thoughtful reflection while setting the record straight pulses resoundingly through the essays and poems Ward has collected. The lineup of stellar contributors invites comparison to a major-league all-star team, with a tremendously gifted writer patrolling every position. The essays and poems stand on their own, but together, they also build into a powerful collective statement, particularly in their attention to how racist narratives have been perpetuated through American history. As Ward states in her introduction, the contributions “confirmed how inextricably interwoven the past is in the present, how heavily that past bears on the future; we cannot talk about black lives mattering or police brutality without reckoning with the very foundation of this country.”

Image: Titus Kaphar, Traveler, 2014. Via Bookforum.