I learned about The Fire This Time from Kiese Laymon. His is a powerful and impassioned voice for the new wave in African American literature. He travels effortlessly from rap and hip-hop to the encompassing love of his family in the South that time tries to forget.
While I was awaiting the arrival of the book, I heard an interview with editor Jesmyn Ward. She explained that the death of Trayvon Martin and the horror that has expanded since drove her to rethink James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time in which he wrote: “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.” Ward seeks to reconcile and update Baldwin’s passion with what she’s seeing with the treatment Trayvon, and Mike Brown, and all the others who have died at the hands of police and rent-a-cops.
She asked “some of the great thinkers and extraordinary voices of my generation to puzzle this out.”
Of course I started with Kiese’s essay. “Da Art of Storytellin’ (a Prequel)” landed me on the front porch at dusk with a lesson from Grandmother Catherine and Kiese in linguistic nuance. In this case it’s central Mississippi, but it put me on a bayou rice farm in South Louisiana. Ms. Catherine goes to work pristine even as she spends the next eleven hours yanking the guts out of chickens. And she shows up even more pristine and elegant on Sunday in church. The strains of “Higher Ground” echoed in my head, but I found myself wandering in the fields of OutKast and into the story of how Kiese became a writer.
My veterans’ writing group will be discussing this:
What my English teachers didn’t say was that voices aren’t discovered fully formed, they are built and shaped—and not just by words, punctuation, and sentences, but by the author’s intended audience, by the composition’s form, and by subject.
I doubt anyone in our group has heard of OutKast, but these guys can learn from André 3000 and Big Boi – and most especially from Kiese.
Which leads me to my larger point. Jesmyn Ward wrote this book to explore her feelings about Baldwin’s message to black people. White people need to read This Time and Next Time more than we do. But like much else, I suspect it will remain our eloquent and well-kept secret.