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In 1963 James Baldwin released the book, “The Fire Next Time.” He confronted the issue of race in America head on, questioning progress made, laying bare the pain of black history in the United States. Jesmyn Ward, national book award-winner for her novel “Salvage the Bones,” turned to Baldwin after the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown. She found comfort, wisdom, and inspiration. Ward felt the questions he addressed seemed just as relevant in 2016 as half a century ago. And she wanted to hear how contemporary writers would respond. The result, “The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race.”
- Jesmyn Ward Associate professor creative writing, Tulane University; author of "Men We Reaped" and "Salvage The Bones"; editor of "The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race"
- Clint Smith Author of the forthcoming book of poetry,"Counting Descent"; contributor to "The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race"
- Garnette Cadogan Editor-at-large, “Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas”; contributor to "The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race"; fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, University of Virginia
MS. CECILIA KANGThanks for joining us. I'm Cecilia Kang of the New York Times sitting in for Diane Rehm. Author Jesmyn Ward first read James Baldwin's "The Fire Next Time" when she was in her 20s. Published in 1963, it chronicled black life in America with brutal honesty. For Ward, the author of the award-winning novel "Salvage the Bones," it was a revelation. Today, Ward feels the country is in a need of similar reckoning with race.
MS. CECILIA KANGShe's just released a new anthology that acts as homage and update. It's called "The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race." Joining us from WWNO in New Orleans to discuss the new work is Jesmyn Ward and from a studio at Harvard University, Clint Smith, a contributor to "The Fire This Time." And from Virginia Public Radio in Charlottesville, Virginia, contributing writer, Garnette Cadogan.
MS. CECILIA KANGWe'll be taking your comments, questions throughout the hour. Call us on 800-433-8850. Send us your email at email@example.com. Join us on Facebook or Twitter. Thank you, everyone, for joining us for such a great topic and a beautiful book.
MS. JESMYN WARDThank you.
MR. CLINT SMITHThanks for having us.
MR. GARNETTE CADOGANThanks so much for having us.
KANGJesmyn, in your introduction, you say that James Baldwin's writing seemed particularly relevant to this moment in history. Talk about that.
WARDWell, I, you know, I've always found Baldwin to be very truthful, to be forthright, to be fierce, you know, on the page and to say things, you know, in his writing that I had just never encountered before. You know, he's just so -- his writing is so honest and so frank and I felt like I really needed it at this time, you know, in my life, like, as a black person living in America, experiencing the things that I've experienced and then, also, you know, watching events unfold, you know, around the country.
WARDAnd so I, you know, I just felt a real need to have someone with his intellect and with his forthrightness to say these things to me and make me feel a little less alone. And that's the reason that I sought him out.
KANGThat's right. And Jesmyn, can you explain to our listeners what "Fire Next Time" and the title of your book "Fire This Time," what the connection is there?
WARDWell, Baldwin -- I wish I had the book in front of me, but unfortunately, I don't. Baldwin ends "The Fire Next Time" with a quote. And in that quote, he's basically saying, you know, that the next time that there's, I guess, the turmoil like this, then, you know, the Lord will, like, cleanse the Earth with fire, right? And so I thought, you know, when I was compiling this anthology, I thought, wouldn't that be a great thing, right, to refer to Baldwin.
WARDBut also to communicate a little, I think, of what I feel and a lot of the contributors to this anthology feel, right, that this is another moment of turmoil that requires, you know, the requires, you know, writers to address it, to make their voices heard, to reckon, to testify. And so I thought that it would be great, right, to, you know, title this anthology "The Fire This Time" to recall Baldwin's title.
KANGYou collected some pretty prominent voices in your collection, Isabel Wilkerson, Claudia Rankine, and then a number of younger, more emerging writers. When you approached the different contributors to this anthology, what did you tell them about what you were trying to achieve and what instructions did you give them?
WARDI actually feel guilty about that because I didn't give them very clear or detailed instructions regarding what I wanted. I mean, I just basically approached them and asked them to contribute a piece, you know. Some of the people that contributed were poets, some of the people that contributed were essayists. But I just asked them to contribute pieces that, in some way, addressed race in America, right? And because basically, like, I wanted them to write about whatever they were obsessing over at this time, right?
WARDAnd I didn't want to be, you know, I didn't want to direct their projects really at all because I really wanted them to write about whatever they had a passion for sort of at that moment. So, yeah, and I know that was sort of problematic, I think, for some of the contributors or would-be contributors who perhaps felt that they needed more direction, but I didn't give them that because I really did want them to write about whatever they wanted to write about.
KANGAnd we've invited two of your contributors to join us today. But first, I'd like you to read from your introduction. Can you start from page 7?
KANGAnd give us a sample of the purpose of the book.
WARD"Around a year after Trayvon Martin's death, the year in which black person after black person died and no one was held accountable, I picked up "The Fire Next Time" and I read. You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger. I tell you this because I love you and please don't you ever forget it. It was as if I sat on my porch steps with a wise father, a kind present uncle who said this to me, told me I was worthy of love, told me I was worth something in the world, told me I was a human being.
WARD"I saw Trayvon's face and all the words blurred on the page. It was then that I knew I wanted to call on some of the great thinkers and extraordinary voices of my generation to help me puzzle this out. I knew that a black boy who lives in the hilly deserts of California who likes to get high with his friends on the weekend and who freezes in a prickly sweat whenever he sees blue lights in his rearview would need a book like this, a book that would reckon with the fire of rage and despair and fierce, protective love currently sweeping through the streets and campuses of America.
WARD"A book that would gather new voices in one place in a lasting physical form and provide a forum for those writers to dissent, to call to account, to witness, to reckon. A book that a girl in rural Missouri could pick up at her local library and, while reading, encounter a voice the hushed her fears. In the pages, she would find a wise aunt, a more present mother who saw her terror and despair threading their fingers through her hair and would comfort her. We want to tell her this. You matter. I love you. Please don’t forget it."
KANGThank you, Jesmyn. You know, it seems like so much of what you're talking about is making the invisible, visible. Why is that important?
WARDWell, because I think that when issues like, you know, like the sort of systematic, you know, subjugation and disenfranchisement of black Americans occurs and then it is invisible, then it's easy for that to continue over, like, generations of time. And as a writer and a person who has been lucky enough to have a forum and to, you know, express myself and to have a voice, like, it's important to me that I speak out against that and that I make, you know, these issues visible in the hope that one day, you know, that things will change.
KANGClint Smith, you contributed a poem to the book. When Jesmyn approached you, you said she was -- she said she was putting together a book in the vein of "The Fire Next Time." What were your thoughts when you hear of this reference to a book in the vein of James Baldwin's famous writings?
SMITHWell, I think I was deeply honored, first and foremost, that a writer like Jesmyn who I've looked up to for so long and whose book, "Salvage the Bones" was so important to me personally, having grown up in New Orleans and having experienced Hurricane Katrina in a very personal way so I was deeply honored that she would even think to approach me. And I wasn't fully aware of how many legendary writers of the black tradition would be in the anthology alongside of me.
SMITHAnd when I, you know, she talked about the purpose of the book and when she talked about the references and the way that Baldwin's "The Fire Next Time" had so deeply influenced the way that she was processing so much of what was going on in the world, I deeply resonated with that and connected to that and I think that Baldwin's work was sort of out in the sort of literary discourse in the world in a way that it hadn't been for some time and, in part, because of Ta-nehisi Coates' book and the sort of very explicit references to Baldwin's work there.
SMITHAnd I was very heartened that Baldwin's work was experiencing a sort of resurgence because it's so important. And for so many of us, he is such a light and such an example of what it means to not compromise the sort of artistic integrity of one's work while also being deeply committed to the political project of black liberation and being able to hold both of those things at once.
KANGWe are going to ask you, Clint, to read from one of your poems, from the poem that you contributed, when we get back. Coming up, more of our conversation with Jesmyn Ward, National Book Award-winner for "Salvage the Bones," and the editor of the new book, "The Fire This Time." Clint Smith and Garnette Cadogan. More of our conversation after this.
KANGWelcome back. I'm Cecilia Kang of The New York Times sitting in for Diane Rehm. I'm joined by Jesmyn Ward. She's a National Book Award winner and author of "Salvage The Bones." From ISCN at Harvard University is Clint Smith, a poet and doctoral candidate of education at Harvard University. His work has appeared in a number of publications, including The New Yorker and The Guardian. He will release his first book on poetry on September 15 called "Counting Descent." Also, from Virginia Public Radio in Charlottesville, Va., is Garnette Cadogan, the editor-at-large of "Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas," and a fellow for the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.
KANGClint, could you read your poem, "Queries of Unrest"?
SMITHCertainly. "Queries of Unrest, After Hanif Willlis Abdurraqib. Maybe I come from the gap between my father's teeth. Maybe I was meant to see a little bit of darkness every time he smiled. Maybe I was meant to understand that darkness magnifies the sight of joy. Maybe I come from where the sidewalk ends, or maybe I just read that in a book once. It can be hard to tell the difference sometimes. Maybe that's because when I was a kid a white boy told me I was marginalized and all I could think of was the edge of a sheet of paper, how empty it is -- the abyss I was told never to write into.
SMITHMaybe I'm scared of writing 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. Maybe I come from a place where people are always afraid of dying. Maybe that's just what I tell myself so I don't feel so alone in this body. Maybe there's a place where everyone is both in love with and running from their own skin. Maybe that place is here. Maybe that's why I'm always running from the things that love me. Maybe I'm trying to save them the time of burying darkness when all they have to do is close their eyes."
KANGThank you. Clint, I'm going to actually read a couple comments that have come into our website from Joey. I'm so tired of talking about and hearing about race. It's a nonissue to me. It's a nonissue in my life. Can we go back to judging people by the content of their character? We got an email also from Roger saying, Samuel Johnson is reported to have said, patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. I have come to and conclude that discussions about race are the last refuge of persons with nothing original or interesting to say.
KANGYou know, Clint, a passage in your poem that really struck me is when you said you fear people will roll their eyes and say, another black poem. Is this what you're talking about, these kinds of comments?
SMITHYeah. I think there's this sort of false notion or sort of fallacy in our discourse around race at large in this country, where you have a lot of people thinking that we talk far too often about the topic. And this idea that black people and black writers and black televisions pundits and thinkers are always talking about this issue. And that's hard for me to hear and to fully understand. Because I think that we, as a nation, have actually not fully reckoned with the history of racial inequality in this country in -- at all.
SMITHYou know, the first slaves were brought here in 1619, the Emancipation Proclamation, 1863, the Civil War ended 1865, the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, 1964 and 1965. So if you think about the entire, sort of, arc of this country's history and think about the fact that for over 300 years, the black people were legally and legislatively dehumanized, subjugated to second-class citizenship in a very literal way. And that only for the last 50 years or so have black people actually had any semblance of legal freedom in this country.
SMITHAnd so the idea that we talk about race too much is -- feels, to me, an incredible sort of misunderstanding of, like, the history of this country and all the myriad of ways through slavery to the failure of reconstruction, through Jim Crow, through the pieces of legislation like the New Deal, that specifically left people out from the benefits that it afforded and thus strips away generations and generations of wealth and assets from these communities. I don't think we talk about it nearly enough. And, you know, we, as a country, for something -- for a place that has been so deeply shaped by the legacy of slavery in this country, don't have a sort of national slavery museum.
SMITHIn a way that I think if, you know, Germany, for example, like wasn't -- if Germany failed to discuss the Holocaust in the way that we fail to discuss slavery, I think that we would look at Germany in shock because of how recent it felt and about how it has very much shaped the way we understand that country and its history. And I think that we have not done that in the United States. So I would argue that we don't talk about it nearly enough.
KANGJesmyn, one thing that you say in your introduction is that, you talk a bit about social media and discussion on social media, because in fact there is a lot of discussion. There's a lot of information and bits and pieces of thoughts and, you know, 140-bit, you know, ideas about race, right now being -- every day, being espoused. But perhaps it's the problem that there isn't something that's deeper, that's being written and said and that's more permanent. Is that one of the reasons behind this book?
WARDDefinitely. You know, I -- my social media application of choice is Twitter. And so I, you know, at the time, like, you know, in the introduction I'm talking about when Trayvon Martin was murdered. At that time, I was really grateful for a place like Twitter. I was really grateful that Twitter sort of served as this virtual community, you know? And it made me feel like I was a little less alone in my grief and bewilderment, right, as I'm like watching what is happening.
WARDBut the problem with an application like Twitter is the fact that, you know, that everything is so transient, right? That these really profound, you know, insightful thoughts are here one day and then, if you return to the application and to that person's feed two days later, you can't find it. You know, like you can't find those thoughts because they've been buried in the feed. And so, you know, that was one of the, you know, major motivations that I had when I was, you know, thinking about this book and figuring out how it would -- I would put it together. Because I wanted, you know, an expression, right?
WARDThat sense of community, I wanted that to be embodied in something like a book, right, which will last.
KANGYes. One of the contributions that really stuck with me was from another contributor here with us today, Garnette. Your essay about walking while black, tell us about it.
CADOGANWell, I wanted to give a sense of how the things we take for granted, that when you begin to look at them, when -- in a telephoto lens or, you know, through a telephoto lens or under a microscope, how it begins to show different details that illuminate the ways in which life is very different for people or can be different according to your complexion. You know, for people who may be exhausted with conversations about race and who think that we're over it, I thought, why not look at the very simple, commonplace, mundane act of walking. You know, what could be different, you know, about that. You know, how could we look at something like this and think that it's -- and different for you if you are black than if you are white?
KANGEverybody does it. Mm-hmm.
CADOGANYeah. It's, you know, it's, you know, short of a disability, in this, you know, commonplace, universal act that -- it's a first potent symbolic act first that you see a child walking. It doesn't matter what you are doing. Seeing your child take its first steps suddenly stops the entire world. And that's the center of focus. That's a cause of celebration, because it signifies independence, discovery.
KANGAnd in fact, you...
CADOGANYou know, just, you know, all these, you know, powerful, symbolic things. And so to look at something like this that we take for granted and that is so imbued with such symbolic significance -- walking is freedom, walking is discovery, walking is escape, walking is departure -- and then to show the ways in which it's different, incented me -- force people to begin to have some empathy spillover and just to have -- asking questions about the way we are treated differently.
KANGGarnette, in your essay, you explore issues of race by talking about how walking, which you enjoyed so much since you were a really a young child, really to escape the abuse of a stepfather, walking all around the city of Kingston in Jamaica. And then how walking there was very different than walking in New Orleans, when you came to the U.S. for college, and then in New York City. Can you talk about how you tried to explore issues of race and your own dealings with race through walking in these different cities?
CADOGANI coming from Jamaica, where I grew up in the capital Kingston, a majority black country, that as you walk, you're certainly trying to be aware and streetwise, trying to walk in a way where you control for the dangers that may surround you. If you're walking through a dangerous neighborhood, you try to be streetwise and try to be aware, have your antenna up for the dangers that may befall you.
CADOGANBut I found, when I came to the U.S., first in New Orleans, that it wasn't enough to be streetwise and to be aware of the dangers that may come your way. I also began to anticipate other people's fear of me. That it wasn't enough to control my fear and to have my fear be a litmus test. But I also to extend to what felt like an impossible task and is to anticipate the ways in which other people would fear me because my movement in public, my movement in public space -- the way I walked.
CADOGANMy movement towards them would, too often, be the cause of suspicion. And I found, time and again, that it was because of race. So, for instance, I would offer to help -- I had an instance in which I'd offer to help a gentleman who was in a wheelchair cross the street, who then threatened me with violence, threatened to shoot me. And then turn almost immediately to someone who was white and said, you now, help me across the road. So then I couldn't put it off as a fiction or something I was imagining. I saw clear examples of the distinction.
CADOGANBut then, also, you know, someone who loves walking, one of the joys of walking is the ability to walk aimlessly. Because in walking aimlessly, you're open to serendipity. You're open to so much of the joys that come your way from encountering unexpected, from seeing something that you would otherwise see, to, you know, walk along new routes rather than the regular ones that you've mapped. But to do so, with my complexion, to walk aimlessly, to walk without purpose, to walk, you know, as a spontaneous, was to invite suspicion of others.
CADOGANAnd so I suddenly had to modify the way I walk and be more aware and conscious of the way I walked. I tried to walk in a way that seemed purposeful, but not only that, that seemed safe, that would try to alleviate other's fears. So not only was I being mindful of my fear of dangers coming way, I also had to begin to imagine what things could I possible do that will make others fear me? And so I had to manage my fear and their fear.
KANGI'm Cecilia Kang. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." If you'd like to join us, call 1-800-433-8850. Or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Find us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Garnette, I love walking too. And I -- what was so eye opening about your essay was just that -- the acknowledgement that I would never have to consider all the things that you have to consider because, as you say, of your complexion as you walk. You write about an incident with the police when you were stopped for no reason and treated roughly. Do you think we can get to a constructive place in this conversation between police and people of color, communities of color?
CADOGANIt depends on the day you ask me. Some days I'm an optimist, the next day I'm a pessimist. I find often I'm a pessimist when I've had a bad encounter the night before. But I do think that there are ways in which we can move to a place of having a more constructive conversation. And I tried to do that through this essay, to give a sense in which this very simple act, it's a mundane, commonplace act, it shouldn't be this complex thing, this contested, this embattled practice.
CADOGANAnd so in trying to illuminate how this very simple thing has become complicated and frustrating, something that's supposed to lead to joy, something we do out of necessity or choice, you know, often becomes something that we have to -- instead of walking, feel like we're tiptoeing -- that it may then suddenly let people who are walking more freely and walking or thinking, step back and go, ah, really, and perhaps force a conversation or force, you know, practices that will then minimize, you know, this asymmetrical way of treating walkers, you know, based on their race.
KANGGarnette, can you read an excerpt for us, page 143?
KANGPlease go ahead.
CADOGAN"One definition of home is that it's somewhere we can most be ourselves. And when are we more ourselves but when walking, that natural state in which we repeat one of the first actions we learned? Walking -- the simple, monotonous act of placing one foot before the other to prevent falling -- turns out not to be so simple if you're black. Walking alone has been anything but monotonous for me, monotony is a luxury.
CADOGAN"A foot leaves, a foot lands, and our longing gives it momentum from rest to rest. We long to look, to think, to talk, to get away. But more than anything else, we long to be free. We want the freedom and pleasure of walking without fear -- without other people's fear -- wherever we choose. I've lived in New York City for almost a decade and have not stopped walking its fascinating streets. And I have not stopped longing to find the solace that I found as a kid on the streets of Kingston. Much as coming to know New York City's streets has made it closer to home to be, the city also withholds itself from me via those very streets.
CADOGAN"I walk them then, alternately invisible and too prominent. So I walk caught between memory and forgetting, between memory and forgiveness."
KANGComing up, your calls and questions for the authors and contributors, for "The Fire This Time." We'll be right back.
KANGWelcome back. I'm Cecilia Kang of the New York Times, sitting in for Diane Rehm. I am joined by Jesmyn Ward, the National Book Award winner and author of "Salvage The Bones" and the memoir "Men We Reaped." She edited the new collection "The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race." From Harvard University is Clint Smith, a poet and doctoral candidate in education at Harvard University. Also from Virginia Public Radio in Charlottesville, Virginia, is Garnette Cadogan, editor-at-least at the "Non-Stop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas" and a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies at the Culture of Studies -- in culture at the University of Virginia.
KANGWe have a website comment, and it reads, Americans have selective amnesia. Colin Kaepernick is expressing the same sentiments that we express by -- that were expressed by Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali, two of the most -- of the foremost saints in the American pantheon. Yet selective amnesia has whitewashed, literally, the most controversial aspects of Robinson's and Ali's activism and made them into saccharine saints.
KANGTheir crime in their own time was to tell uncomfortable truths to white people, which is the same crime Kaepernick is being attacked for. Of course this is the controversy over San Francisco 49ers' quarterback Colin Kaepernick and his refusal to stand up during the national anthem. What are your thoughts, Jesmyn, Clint or Garnette, about this idea of collective American amnesia?
SMITHYeah, I think that -- you know, before I became a doctoral student at Harvard, I thought high school English in Prince George's County, Maryland. And so, you know, I've experienced the education system both personally, having gone through public schools my entire life, and then having taught in public schools. And I think the way that we teach history is fundamentally misguided, and I think that there are so few people who understand history beyond the sort of dominant paradigms through which were often discussed.
SMITHSo for instance, I brought up before, and it's an example I always am thinking about, is the New Deal. And so often conversations around racism will be centered on, oh, well, slavery is over, you guys should get over that, it ended a long time ago. But I don't think -- you know, so one, I don't think we've actually reckoned with the remnants and the residue of slavery and how that generation after generation affects a specific demographic of people, but I also don't think that we've reckoned the very sort of recent sets of public policy that have also deeply impacted the black community.
SMITHAnd so the New Deal, which is sort of largely posited as the most important series of legislation created...
KANGCelebrated for sure, yes.
SMITHYes, certainly, that created the contemporary middle class, but we don't often talk about how Southern bureaucrats and folks in the Southern states specifically made it so that black people would not have access through this legislation through the GI Bill to housing mortgages, to Social Security. And so for years after these bills were passed, you had black people in the North and in the South who weren't afforded some of the most fundamental benefits that create the wealth that makes education possible, that makes socioeconomic mobility possible, that makes building a safe environment for your children to grow up in possible.
SMITHAnd we don't -- you know, I never learned about that. All that I learned about in high school when I was learning American history was how the New Deal was so great. But we don't talk about the ways in which such a celebrated piece of legislation was specifically designed with the intention of leaving black people out of it. And I think that's just one example of a myriad of pieces of public policy that have and continue to impact the black community and that aren't talked about in our sort of contemporary discourse around race and certainly not in our American history courses.
KANGAnd the conversation cannot just be within communities of color, is that right? And Will from Fayetteville, Arkansas, will speak -- wants to speak to this point. Will, thanks for calling.
WILLOh, thank you for having me. But the poet gentleman, Clint Smith, pretty much stole my thunder completely. Everything he mentioned was pretty much what I was going to touch on. All I will add, though, is that let's be honest. Let's be real about this. Those that deny most of this, there's a very large segment of white people, and the one person mentioned collective amnesia, I don't think it's amnesia, I think it's just I don't give a care because we've known about this for too long.
WILLAnd like we said, this was a systemic problem, and when you look at the generations and generations that it's been going on, it prevented black people from developing healthy communities, healthy political power, you know, economic wealth, passing stuff on from generation to generation. But everything that white middle class and white people were afforded to build up their communities, to make them strong and sustained, that was denied to us.
WILLSo you can trace those footprints of the past to the present right now, and I hate when they say that that doesn't matter anymore, that's the past. Well, we're here where we are in the present because of the past. This didn't happen in a vacuum. But the denial is the problem, and you can't really address it, it can't just be a conversation with black people in the black community because it has to be both communities. But that denial aspect that's been in place since Reconstruction, it's just -- it's continuing -- this is an open wound that keeps festering and oozing over and over again.
WILLBut I do -- I do plan on buying the book, but that was pretty much my comment because...
KANGThank you, Will. Thank you, Will, for your call. And Marcia from Kalamazoo, Michigan, who is actually white and 63, has her own perspective. Hi, Marcia, you're on the air.
MARCIAYes, I just wanted to say it's an excellent program. I'm reading the book "Between the World and Me" by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
MARCIAI'm from Baltimore. I moved here on April 15 to be with my daughter in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and I was shocked to find that there's more segregation and divide here in the Midwest than I saw in Baltimore. In Baltimore, people speak their minds. I -- there's a quote from the book that I'd like to read, and it says America -- Americans have built an empire on the idea of race, a falsehood that damages us all, that falls most heavily on the bodies of the black women and men, bodies exploited through slavery and segregation and today threatened, locked up and murdered out of all proportions. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it?
MARCIAIt sort of says it all, and just fear that people live under with, you know, who they are, all of this has come about -- I lived in Central America, my son's father was murdered there during the wars in the late '70s. All of this immigration and people that are refugees, this is all a result of many, many years ago, even before I was born, when people were forced to leave their countries. No one leaves their country for no good reason. There aren't greedy Mexican people that are coming here to steal American jobs. They're here out of desperation. And we have to live together on this planet and realize that race is so insignificant.
KANGIt -- thank you for your call, Marcia, in fact I'd love to hear from you, Jesmyn, if you think that writing about race today, how it was different than in Baldwin's time.
WARDWell, I mean, I -- I imagine, actually, that it must have been harder for Baldwin to write about race than it is for, you know, me and the, you know, the contributors to this anthology. You know, just because, you know, during the time that Baldwin, you know, was a -- was a working writer, you know, an adult, he was witness to segregation, he was witness to the riots, he was, you know, witness to really some tumultuous time, you know, in regards to civil rights in this country.
WARDAnd so yes, so I imagine that it must have been much harder for him. But, you know, one of the -- just one of the things that I admire about him so much is that he -- is that I think that he's -- it makes me think about Colin Kaepernick and also about Muhammad Ali, right, so these people who -- who have access to a really wide audience and who decide that they're going to use that access to speak up and to voice their opinions on matters that are important to them, right, and important to, you know, to their community, right.
WARDAnd so in that way, you know, like he -- you know, Baldwin is -- for me he's like the precursor to that, right, and that's one thing that I find just so impressive about him. And one thing that I feel like that I try to emulate in my work, and it's also one thing that I admire so much in other writers, you know, work in -- you know, whenever I see, say, an actor like Jesse Williams, right, who uses his platform to speak -- to speak up, right, and to agitate and to -- and to push for, you know, to push for what -- what he thinks is right.
WARDAnd so yeah, and so that's something that I try to do, I feel like I try to do in my work and that I admire so much when others do.
KANGLet's take a call from Ebony from Lafayette, Indiana. Hi, Ebony, you're on the air.
EBONYHi, how are you?
WARDI'm well, thank you. What is your comment or question?
EBONYSo I actually just had a comment on simply the book title and where the book comes from, the origins. Here at Purdue University in 1968, there was a movement, a social justice movement, called The First Next Time, in reference to Baldwin's work. A few years ago, as I was at Purdue as a nontraditional student, a group of us got together to protest some of the things that were going on again, calling this event The First This Time in a similar frame.
EBONYWhat I discovered was that there was certainly action from those who participated in the first demonstration in 1968 that felt that the second demonstration could be viewed as aggressive. And I was just curious as to the panelists' comments on the general differences in how to approach social justice issues. I'm personally in between the two generations. I was a nontraditional student, so I don't have an opinion. I just feel like it's our duty to stand up in whenever frame that we're capable for make a voice heard. But I'm curious as to what the panel feels like are the differences between the generations and how the older generations tend to view these younger generations as radical.
KANGAnd Ebony, are you referring specifically the difference in generations from within the black community or broadly?
WARDIn the black community, yeah.
KANGWithin the -- Clint, what do you think?
SMITHYes, so I think a lot has been made of the sort of reported disconnect between older generations and younger generations committed to ending white supremacy. But I actually don't think that there's as much of a disconnect as has been made out to be. And I think that there are certainly facets of the contemporary racial justice movement that are -- are thinking about issues in a different type of way, right. I think that the predominate narrative around the civil rights movement of the '50s and '60s was very much centered on sort of church-going, reverend, male, suit-wearing figure, the sort of Martin Luther King, the sort of Abernathies and the other figures in that same sort of context.
SMITHAnd I think the new generation of activists are trying to open that up a bit and trying to say that we are not a movement that is singularly led by one person. We are not going to wear suits. We are not going to -- this is not going to singularly grounded in the church. This is a much more secular movement. This is a movement in which we must and have to put the issues of the queer community, issues of women, issues of the trans community, at the forefront of this dialogue because for so long they have been left out.
SMITHAnd so I think that the current generation is trying to expand the nature of the discourse and expand who is or is not included in that discourse in a way that many of us perceive the older generation having not lived up to. And that's not to say or to denigrate the work that they did because clearly the work that we are doing now and the work that so many young activists and organizers are doing now is only possible because of what our elders have done.
SMITHBut I think that we're also, like any social movement, trying to learn from the failures of past movements and trying to create a more democratic and more decentralized and more equitable plane by which everyone can be involved and by which only -- that we're moving away from this idea that only a specific subset of voices who fit neatly into the sort of white social consciousness are hear and instead saying that there are a lot of different types of black people, we are a deeply heterogeneous community, and all of the issues that plague us need to be heard, and none of those -- none of those folks who are marginalized within the margins should be further silenced in this conversation.
KANGI'm Cecilia Kang. You're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. Let's go to Jay, a caller from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Hi Jay.
JAYHello, thanks for taking my call. One of the issues that has disturbed me about race and racism in America is it's always talked about from the victim's point of view, as if somehow racism doesn't impact white people. I mean, you can even hear in discussions on television or talk show hosts or whatever, they'll say people of color, but they'll never refer to the police as white.
JAYTo me if we're really going to make substantial change and progress with racial problems in America, white people have to do something. It can't just be black people, our black leaders constantly stepping up to the fore and, you know, addressing the issue. And I know there's people like Peggy McIntosh, (sp?) Tim Weiss, (sp?) there's people out there that actually study the impact of racism on white people, but it never gets discussed. It's always black people discussing a problem that's created by institutional racism and white people. That really bothers me, and I hope someday that some of the times these shows actually have white panelists, where it's just white people that are experts on being white and talking about it from that perspective rather than just us always doing it.
KANGThanks, Jay. Jesmyn, really fast as we finish up, what are your thoughts on this, the importance of this conversation going beyond the community of people of color but to also those who are white and in leadership positions.
WARDI think that that is a really important and very good point. I -- you know, that's one of the hopes that I had for this book, you know, when I conceived of it and also, you know, when I was putting it together. Like I -- of course I -- and I explicitly say this in my introduction, like I wanted, you know, this book to reach, you know, young black kids and people, you know, older people in the black community, right, in America, you know, across the board and other people of color.
WARDBut I -- but I have to admit, right, so another audience that I really hoped that I would reach is, you know, are white Americans, right, because I do think that it's important for white Americans to, you know, to be a part of this conversation because it needs to be a conversation, right. And, you know, and I hope that this book would, you know, would sort of nudge people into, you know, into talking to each other and into connecting.
KANGAnd the book is this, "The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race." And I am thankful to my guests today, Jesmyn Ward from New Orleans, Clint Smith from Harvard University and Garnette Cadogan from Charlottesville, Virginia. I'm Cecilia Kang of the New York Times, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
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