Fire This Time

Fire This Time

by Randall Kenan


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Fire This Time by Randall Kenan

James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time was one of the essential books of the sixties, and one of the most galvanizing statements of the American civil rights movement.

Now, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, with a new generation of Americans confronting what Baldwin called our "racial nightmare," acclaimed writer Randall Kenan asks: How far have we come?

Combining elements of memoir and commentary, Kenan’s critical eye ranges from his childhood to the present to observe that, while there have been dramatic advances, some old issues have combined with new ones to bedevil us: “Nigger” has become a hip usage; the African-Americans that have finally attained prominent political positions are, more often than not, arch-conservatives; the Christian and Muslim religions so central to the civil rights movement have become more intolerant, while the stirring spiritual music that inspired it has been replaced by an aggressive form of hip-hop.

Starting with W. E. B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King, Jr., Kenan expands the discussion to include many of today’s most powerful personalities, such as Oprah Winfrey, O. J. Simpson, Clarence Thomas, Rodney King, Sean “Puffy” Combs, George Foreman, and Barack Obama.

Published to mark the forty-fifth anniversary of James Baldwin’s epochal work, this homage by novelist, essayist, and Baldwin biographer Kenan is itself a piercing consideration of the times, and an impassioned call to transcend them.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781933633244
Publisher: Melville House Publishing
Publication date: 05/01/2007
Pages: 149
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 7.60(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Randall Kenan is the author of the biography James Baldwin: American Writer, and the collection of oral histories Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the 21st Century, as well as the novel A Visitation of Spirits, and the short story collection Let the Dead Bury Their Dead. His work has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Writers Award, the Sherwood Anderson Award, the John Dos Passos Award, the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and numerous other prizes. He teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Read an Excerpt

The Fire This Time

By Randall Kenan

Melville House Publishing

Copyright © 2007 Randall Kenan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-933633-24-4

Chapter One

In Memphis, Tennessee, on December 3, 1999, Crystal, aged thirty, died. For the next thirty-three days her nine-year-old son, Travis, lived alone with his mother's body. He covered her body with a coat and notebook paper. He fed himself canned soup and breakfast cereals and frozen pizza. When he had no more food he went through the apartment finding whatever money he could and walked himself to buy groceries. He went to school every day-not missing a one-dressing himself, riding the school bus, doing his homework on time. He cut his own hair. He signed his mother's name when he needed to.

When a friend came by with her husband to check on them, for she could not raise anyone on the phone, Travis met them at the door. He is reported as having said: "Mama can't talk anymore because she got really sick and I think she is dead." The prospect of going to a foster home had terrified him. (Later it would be discovered that his mother suffered from a fist-sized, noncancerous tumor in her lung.)

For most of the winter of 2000, this story captured the heart of West Tennessee and much of the nation. People gave money and support. Though it doesn't really matter to point it out, Crystal and Travis were African American. This wasone of the saddest, most existential stories I had ever heard. But what does one do with such a tale?

My response was to write a short story about it. Perhaps the impulse sounds a bit cold at first blush, but I wanted to turn this tragic and bizarre narrative into a short story. For me stories are able to make sense when little else can. Not so much in terms of teasing out morals or rigidly defining that which is so elusive and frightening and senseless in the world, but by allowing us to slip into another's soul for a short period, to perhaps comprehend that which is them, to glimpse their experience for a brief while. But for reasons I could not grasp, the fictional daemon eluded me. Perhaps such stories cannot be altered, cannot be mussed with. Perhaps their truth remains somehow inviolate. Realty's starkness sometimes defies recasting. And yet the story continues to move me, to teach me; it is the power of the narrative itself, the emotional force, just like the power of the most straightforward gospel or the rawest blues lament.

Perhaps, when all is said and done, this story will best be expressed as a Sorrow Song.

Through all the sorrow of the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hope-a faith in the ultimate justice of things. The minor cadences of despair change often to triumph and calm confidence. Sometimes it is faith in life, sometimes a faith in death, sometimes assurance of boundless justice in some fair world beyond. But whichever it is, the meaning is always clear: that sometime, somewhere, men will judge men by their souls and not by their skins. Is such a hope justified? Do the Sorrow Songs sing true? -The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois

In 1903 W. E. B. Du Bois wrote, in his landmark book The Souls of Black Folk, "The problem of the Twentieth Century will be the problem of color line-the relation of the darker to the ligher races of men."

A son of Massachusetts, he was educated at Fisk University and was one of the first African Americans to receive a PhD from Harvard University. He became an astoundingly prolific sociologist, novelist, and polemicist; a founder of what would become the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the editor of its important magazine, The Crisis, during a time when it was read by a large number of African Americans all across the nation. Du Bois was long-lived, and the older the scholar got it seemed the more radical his views became.

For one of our greatest native-born geniuses he was as right on the point of the color line as he ever was about anything. Some could say he was hedging his bets, figuring that his all-consuming topic could not be so easily solved. Yet, when you consider the changes he had seen-born in 1868, just after the Civil War, witness to slaves becoming members of the United States House and Senate, freedmen beginning with nothing and transforming themselves into substantial landowners, slave boys becoming great scientists, dark women once shackled but now leading the crusade for suffrage: when you consider how much of the twentieth century was still to come in 1903-it is not difficult to see how much of a prophet Du Bois truly was.

That was over one hundred years ago, and after a maelstrom of American societal change, and, despite cries to the contrary, the problem of the twenty-first century will not be a matter of color so much as it will be a matter of class-about access to education, access to funds, access to power; a definition of class that is now more fluid than ever for some, while becoming ever more stratified for others. The new century's biggest problem will not be about assimilation but an all-out assault on the very notion of what it means to be an American. Despite evidence to the contrary, "color" is becoming less and less important, antiquated, though not eradicable, not irrelevant. Bastions of traditional thinking, traditional prejudices, still exist, but these pockets are quickly waning in power, about to go the way of vinyl and eight-track tapes.

What had once been so easily defined as the ongoing black-against-white conflict has metastasized into a polychromatic, polyglot, polyethnic stew of a war. And within the black community, what once had been romantically seen as a monolithic voice from a mountaintop, a series of moral Elijahs and Moseses and Apostle Pauls condemning their pharaohs and Pilates, has broken free of those old Biblical archetypes into a fractal world of politics and economies, a chaos of culture, a bouillabaisse of media, a shifting tangle of strategies and agendas and ideologies. What once had been so easily polarized by Huey Newton and Marcus Garvey, is now not so easily parsed.


Excerpted from The Fire This Time by Randall Kenan Copyright © 2007 by Randall Kenan. Excerpted by permission.
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