Bearing Witness

The Fire This Time BY Jesmyn Ward. Scribner. 240 pages. $25.
We Gon' Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation BY Jeff Chang. Picador. 208 pages. $16.

A FEW WEEKS BEFORE these books landed on my desk, an urgently worded missive arrived in my in-box. A group calling itself Writers on Trump was circulating an open letter to the American people that they hoped other writers would sign in support. “Because, as writers, we are particularly aware of the many ways that language can be abused in the name of power,” it began. Seemed reasonable. But then it went on to declare that “American history, despite periods of nativism and bigotry, has from the first been a grand experiment in bringing people of different backgrounds together, not pitting them against one another.” Ulp. That observation interrupted my thoughts like a speed bump I hadn’t seen coming. I read the rest of the letter and even admired its conclusion: “We, the undersigned, as a matter of conscience, oppose, unequivocally, the candidacy of Donald J. Trump for the Presidency of the United States.” But I declined to sign or circulate the letter. I could not, as a matter of conscience, endorse the ludicrously false assertion that the United States has been “from the first . . . a grand experiment in bringing people together.” What’s more, I had difficulty identifying a time in this nation’s history—including the present—when nativism and bigotry haven’t posed continual challenges to the idea and practice of democracy. Language can be abused in the name of power, it’s true. But it can also be finessed in the service of a perplexing idealism.

The novelist Daniel José Older, writing at the website Electric Literature, eloquently expressed what I and (I’ll wager) some other writers were thinking about that letter. In part, he contended, “in an age when we still have to shut down highways to declare whose lives matter, the lie of American exceptionalism and ‘a grand experiment’ is really a way of valuing one life, one story, one experience over another.”

The letter also, as the writer Anna Kegler argued in the Huffington Post, reflects a widespread impulse, even in “progressive,” multicultural circles, to resort to “words that center Whiteness, while erasing the harshness of discrimination and segregation.” Kegler, who identifies as white, attributes this distorting tendency to “white fragility,” a term introduced by the educator Robin DiAngelo (also white). “White Fragility has to shift before the language can shift,” Kegler argues. Her essay was posted one day after reporters at the Washington Post published an article discussing a poll the paper had conducted in cooperation with ABC News. “Our recent research suggests yet another way black and white Americans see race differently,” they wrote. “Whites now think bias against white people is more of a problem than bias against black people.”

Both articles appeared against a backdrop of ongoing police shootings of unarmed black citizens, lone-wolf-style killings of police officers, and a major political party’s anointing of a raving xenophobe as its standard-bearer. After Donald Trump’s horrifying speech at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, the liberal New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof tiptoed delicately through a history of the candidate’s racist depredations while also offering a nod to White Fragility. “My view is that ‘racist’ can be a loaded word, a conversation stopper more than a clarifier,” he explained, “and that we should be careful not to use it simply as an epithet.” As for Trump’s record of discriminatory policies and indefensible denunciations of African Americans, Jews, and Latinos, Kristof concluded, gently, “I don’t see what else to call it but racism.”

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.”

I was particularly haunted by Wendy S. Walters’s “Lonely in America,” about her investigation of an African burial ground recently found in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. This is a town where much history is preserved, but where Africans continue to be excluded from the official history. When Walters goes to the town and asks for directions to the newly discovered graveyard, she is told, “It doesn’t matter. It’s just an intersection.” As she accumulates details about the Africans, who first arrived in Portsmouth in 1645, certain facts stand out in her consciousness: “People were carried like chattel on ships to America; they were sold to other people; they were stripped of their names, spiritual practices, and culture; they worked their entire lives without just compensation; they were beaten into submission and terrorized or killed if they chose not to submit; when they died they were buried in the ground at the far edge of town; and as the town grew, roads and houses were built on top of them as if they had never existed.” Her summation captures a Revolution-era America that could only be seen as a “grand new experiment” from the whitest of perspectives.

Honorée Jeffers, like Walters, is both an acclaimed poet and a gifted prose stylist. Her essay “The Dear Pledges of Our Love” describes her attempt to learn more about Phillis Wheatley, who was born in Senegal in the 1750s, was brought to the US as a slave, and later became the first published African American poet. Jeffers is especially interested in Wheatley’s husband, John Peters, who was, according to lore, cruel, ridden with debt, and “negligent.” Jeffers’s research skills prove impressive, as does her talent for succinct lyrical description (she writes, in one personal aside, that her mother speaks in an “alto, cigarette-tuned voice”). The author’s efforts gained momentum when she “realized literary history had entrusted the story of Wheatley and Peters to a white woman who may have made assumptions about Wheatley’s husband that might not just be wrong, but also the product of racial stereotypes.” She convincingly identifies this lapse as part of a “disturbing historical trend of African Americans, and black women in particular, needing white benefactors to justify their lives and history.” Emboldened, Jeffers concludes with a passage that presents another legitimate possibility: that Wheatley and Peters in fact had a romantic, fulfilling relationship.

Titus Kaphar, Traveler, 2014, oil on canvas, 48 × 36". © Titus Kaphar, courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.
Titus Kaphar, Traveler, 2014, oil on canvas, 48 × 36". © Titus Kaphar, courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

The Walters and Jeffers essays successfully embody the reckoning that Ward summoned in her introduction, with results that both sting and soothe. Garnette Cadogan’s essay attends more to the present—to “witnessing”—by describing, firsthand, the phenomenon of “walking while black.” In Cadogan’s case, walking became a way of exploring his adopted cities of New Orleans and New York after spending his youth in Jamaica. But the simple act of strolling, he learns, “turns out not to be so simple if you’re black.” In New York, his eagerness to lose himself “in Whitman’s ‘Manhattan crowds, with their turbulent musical chorus,’” is dampened by the necessity of following the protocol he’d learned in New Orleans. “No running,” he writes, “especially at night; no sudden movements; no hoodies, no objects—especially shiny ones—in hand; no waiting for friends on street corners, lest I be mistaken for a drug dealer; no standing near a corner on the cell phone (same reason).” Unable to completely reconcile the tensions his presence evokes in white pedestrians and the police, Cadogan walks “caught between memory and forgetting, between memory and forgiveness.”

In “Know Your Rights!,” Emily Raboteau also takes to the sidewalks, examining a series of New York murals advising residents what to do if stopped by police. Raboteau, author of the novel The Professor’s Daughter and the nonfiction chronicle Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora, creates compelling narratives about each work of art, even describing the passersby who wander into the frame while she snaps photos. The first mural, found in Washington Heights, states KNOW YOUR RIGHTS and provides potentially life-saving advice for African Americans and Latinos who are stopped by the police. It strikes Raboteau as “an act of love for the people who would pass it by. . . . It was armor against the cruelty of the world. It was also a salve, to reclaim physical and psychic space.”

Both kinds of space remain contested terrain for black Americans—in part, as Claudia Rankine explains, because “the American imagination has never been able to fully recover from its white-supremacist beginnings.” In “The Condition of Black Life Is One of Mourning,” Rankine invokes the Charleston Nine, John Crawford III, Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, and other new martyrs whose killings have animated the Black Lives Matter movement. “There exists no equivalent reality for white Americans,” Rankine writes. “We can distance ourselves from this fact until the next horrific killing, but we won’t be able to outrun it.”

Distance and struggle are not the only themes here. There is intimacy, too. Mitchell
S. Jackson’s “Composite Pops” is a loving paean to the men who shaped him. The aforementioned Daniel José Older contributes a poignant letter to his wife. In “Da Art of Storytellin’ (a Prequel),” Kiese Laymon offers a beautiful portrait of his grandmother and a self-description wonderfully infused with funkified phraseology: “I am a Southern black worker, committed to building stank-ass art rooted in honesty, will, and imagination.”

It says nothing against the eloquence assembled here to note that black brilliance continues to fight an uphill battle. Its luminosity inevitably collides with the stubborn desire of many Americans to place the white experience smack-dab in the middle of the story, an inclination tantamount to hiding our light under a bushel. Ward is acutely aware of this phenomenon, and yet she persists. She presses on, despite all things. She believes “that sharing our stories confirms our humanity. That it creates community, both within our own community and beyond it.” She burns and she hopes. I hope too, for all our sakes, that she is right.

Optimism also enlivens We Gon’ Be Alright, Jeff Chang’s loosely collected essays on “race and resegregation.” The collection takes its title from Kendrick Lamar’s popular song proclaiming, without apparent irony, that as long as God holds his “niggas” in the palm of his hand, they will indeed keep stepping, keep striving, keep rising. Rhythmic, resolute, and defiant, it has become an inspirational chorus for protesters, much in the way that “We Shall Overcome” once motivated activists during the civil-rights campaigns of yesteryear.

Chang, who is Chinese American and the author of the 2005 hip-hop history Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, has long been an astute observer of racial matters, and he remains consistent here. One quickly becomes convinced that, unlike some such commentators, his familiarity with black artists and black people springs from genuine engagement. The prose occasionally suffers from a rushed quality, as if he realizes—knows—that even as he writes about Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, new bodies are collapsing to the pavement. No one can blame him for that, because the killers of unarmed black citizens are outpacing our capacity to write about them in a timely fashion.

On occasion it’s hard to escape the notion that Chang rewards Americans with more credit than they deserve. He writes, for example, of “merchants of division” moving the country “toward the undoing of democracy itself,” but actual democracy must be constructed before it can be undone. Similarly, Chang’s preference for the term “resegregation” distracts from his otherwise salient observations. Segregation has seldom if ever dissolved to the extent that his prefix implies. Writing about St. Louis and other “hypersegregated” cities, he observes, “If segregation once kept communities of color locked into certain neighborhoods, a condition relieved by the all-too-ephemeral victories of the civil rights revolution, then the post-civil rights era has been marked by an unmistakable lurch back to resegregation.” As a St. Louis native, I’m hard-pressed to think of a time when that city ever opened up enough to merit being considered desegregated. There’s no lurching back if you’re still stuck in the place where it all began. Chang is right to note that “black migration finally began to flow out” of St. Louis in the late ’70s, but quite a few African Americans remained on the city’s north side, as my family did, and no desegregation occurred. The black people who did move to the county quickly found themselves mired in all-black suburban pockets only cosmetically different from the neighborhoods they’d left behind. Not much different, in other words, from being locked in.

Chang’s most persuasive essay, “The In-Betweens,” skillfully punctures our myopic tendency to think of race relations in America as a matter of black and white. “America teaches everyone to think in binaries—zero or one, this or that. There is no in-between,” he argues. Told in the second person, the essay traces Chang’s own youthful journey from Hawaii to the mainland, where he pursues a degree and confronts a variety of challenges to his sense of self. In college, “there was an instability at the heart of Asian Americanness. Panethnicity, you learned, was a creation of the state—a provocation turned census category. The state had been blunt and overbroad. It lumped all kinds of people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent together.”

Another essay here advances the notion that American popular culture was “birthed in the twin narratives of cowboys-and-Indians and blackface minstrelsy.” Chang shows that Asian Americans, having no obvious role in those distorted dramas, have in a way suffered their own kind of invisibility, no less painful than Ralph Ellison’s famous rendition. A self-described “cultural chameleon” and able code-switcher, he convincingly adapts the Souls of Black Folk to his personal dilemma. In perhaps his book’s most resonant passage, he asks, “What does it mean to be the evidence that racism is not real? To be fetishized by colorblind liberals and white supremacists alike? To be so innocuous that teachers and policemen and figures of authority allow you the benefit of a doubt? To be desired for your fluid, exotic, futuristic, yielding difference? What does it mean to be the solution? For you, the Duboisian question is turned upside down. It haunts you.”

In the song that inspired the author’s title, Kendrick Lamar repeatedly asks his listeners, “Do you feel me?” Chang’s text, in essence, poses the same question. Enriched and stimulated as much by his passion as his ideas, I’m pleased to answer with a resounding yes.

Jabari Asim is director of the graduate program in creative writing at Emerson College and executive editor of the NAACP’s Crisis magazine.