By Eisa Nefertari Ulen
In 1963 James Baldwin published a seminal treatise on American race relations, The Fire Next Time. Baldwin’s two essay volume greatly influenced the mid-20th century Civil Rights Movement. In his January 31, 1963 review of The Fire Next Time, The New York Times staffer Sheldon Binn wrote:
“’You must put yourself in the skin of a black man…’ writes James Baldwin as he seeks to translate what it means to be a Negro in white America so that a white man can understand it.
Despite the inherent difficulties of such a task, his translation in latest book, “The Fire Next Time,” is masterful. No matter the skill of the writer, and Mr. Baldwin is skillful, one can never really know the corrosion of hate, the taste of fear or the misery of humiliation unless one has lived it. Only James Meredith knows what it really means to be James Meredith. But if the actuality cannot be known, it can be related.
On one level it can be related so the listener becomes more or less curious, mildly interested and intellectually aware of what he is hearing.
On another and higher level, it can be related so the listener becomes virtually part of the experience, intensely feels the hurt and pain and despair, and yes, even the hope. The listener can be transformed, as far as words will take him, into the skin or the teller. Out of his own pain and despair and hope, Mr. Baldwin has fashioned such a transformation.
He has pictured white America as seen through the eyes of a Negro.”
Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time has continued to inspire thinking people through the generations. Indeed, Baldwin wrote the first essay in Fire as a letter to his young nephew.
In 2015, Gen X writer Ta-Nehisi Coates published Between the World and Me, a meditation on race in America that Coates authored as a letter to his son. Of Coates’ prose, Toni Morrison wrote “I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates.” With his National Book Award winning book, Coates has helped articulate the salient message of our time: that Black Lives Matter.
Familiarity with the work of James Baldwin, as well as a meaningful engagement with today’s Movement for Black Lives, is certainly not required for educators to teach Jesmyn Ward’s The Fire This Time. However, educators may choose to provide their students with historical context by starting with Mosaic Magazine’s Baldwin lesson plans, then build on Baldwin by giving students the opportunity for substantive engagement with #BlackLivesMatter, before proceeding to this lesson plan to teach The Fire This Time.
(*To teach James Baldwin, educators can access Mosaic Literary Magazine lesson plans by visiting www.mosaicmagazine.org/education/lesson-plans. In addition, educators can access the #BlackLivesMatter lesson plan to help them teach Ta-Nehisi Coates at http://www.magcloud.com/browse/issue/974642
Jesmyn Ward is the author of the novel Where the Line Bleeds and the novel Salvage the Bones, which won the 2011 National Book Award. An associate professor of creative writing at Tulane University, Ward also wrote the memoir Men We Reaped. With her fourth book, The Fire This Time, Ward has assembled a powerful collection of work by contemporary writers of African descent. Divided into three parts, Legacy, Reckoning, and Jubilee, The Fire This Time examines the #BlackLivesMatter Movement and is an homage to James Baldwin.
Ward works in the African tradition of call and response, recognizing Baldwin’s 1963 Fire as a call that the author activist issued through time and across Movements to his literary descendants. Those descendants, Gen X and Millennial writers like Edwidge Danticat, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Emily Raboteau, and Mitchell S. Jackson, respond, with meaningful reflections, stirring meditations, and calls to action, all collected in Ward’s 21st century Fire.
I. Introduction to James Baldwin (See Mosaic lesson plans www.magcloud.com/browse/issue/1129462)
II. Introduction to the Movement for Black Lives (See Mosaic lesson plans: www.magcloud.com/browse/issue/974642)
A. Topics for Discussion
1. The Intimacy of Letters
a. Define epistle
b. What is an epistolary narrative?
c. Think about the letters you have given and received, including cards for things like birthdays and special holidays and even notes passed in class. Would an email on your birthday feel as special as receiving a traditional card with a personal note?
d. How does receiving a letter or card make you feel? If someone special had to tell you something important and full of emotion, do you think receiving a letter would make their message seem more meaningful?
e. Let’s be specific. Is a hand-written love note more meaningful than an email or text message? Is a hand-written expression of sympathy more meaningful than an email or text? Why?
f. People save text and email messages on their phones and computers. Where do people save letters? Do people like your grandparents, parents, and other adults close to you keep letters and cards that you made for them when you were little?
2. Edwidge Danticat contributed “Message to My Daughters” to Ward’s Fire. Why do you think she wrote her narrative to her daughters – rather than about them?
a. Do you think this letter is something Danticat’s daughters will want to reread when they get older?
b. How do you think it feels to be a child and receive a letter like this from your mother?
c. This letter is very different from a birthday or holiday card. What are some of the ways that it is different? But it is similar in some ways, isn’t it? In what ways is Danticat’s letter similar to a special occasion card?
d. Is Danticat’s letter a different way of telling her daughters she loves them?
e. Why do you think Baldwin, Coates, and Danticat examined the vulnerability of Black life in America in letters they wrote to young family members?
3. Legacy, Reckoning, Jubilee
a. Define each of these words
b. Think about the places you have heard these words before. Has anyone ever heard these words used in a place of worship?
c. What is the Day of Reckoning?
d. Why do you think Ward used these words to divide her book into three parts? How is use of these terms different from simply dividing her book into Part I, Part II, and Part III?
e. Essay Idea
Write an essay about the Black Lives Matter Movement as you understand it. Feel free to use the first person and make this a personal essay if you want to. Divide your essay into three parts using Ward’s word choices. For Part I, of your essay, Legacy, write about the history of violence against Black bodies as you understand it. For Part II of your essay, Reckoning, write about the way(s) you have come to understand that history. Come to a kind of resolution about how that past makes you feel. Do you think the history of violence against Black bodies needs to be atoned for, punished, or otherwise reconciled and resolved? Write about that resolution in Part II of your essay. In Part III of your essay, Jubilee, imagine celebrating a victory over this history of violence. What do you think the celebration of free Black bodies will look like in the future? Describe this Day of Jubilee as you imagine it in Part III of your essay.