The urgency of Jesmyn Ward

Ward’s books deepen our understanding of an iniquitous America

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Jesmyn Ward is the only woman to have won the National Book Award for Fiction in America twice, most recently with her new novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing. She’s also a MacArthur “Genius” Fellow and a New York Times bestselling author. She isn’t well known over here yet, but she should be. As the editor of the collection of essays, The Fire This Time, she aims to respond to James Baldwin’s legendary exposition on race, The Fire Next Time (1963) by providing a forum for a new generation “to dissent, to call to account, to witness, to reckon”.

We know that African-Americans achieve at the highest levels, including ascending to the presidency, and that there is a substantial middle class, but this is counteracted by a systemic racism that continues to dehumanise, marginalise and impoverish black lives; a racism that sanctions the disproportionate incarceration and killing of black people, especially men, at the hands of law enforcement. In Isabel Wilkerson’s short but devastating essay, “Where Do We Go From Here?” she writes, “It seems the rate of police killings now surpasses the rate of lynchings during the worst decades of the Jim Crow era. There was a lynching every four days in the early decades of the 20th century. It’s been estimated that an African-American is now killed by police every two or three days.” This sobering fact should demolish any residual myths about a post-racial America.

The essays collected by Ward take various approaches to the thinking around race. Wendy S Walters, for example, examines her own disconnected relationship to slavery in “Lonely in America: “I resist thinking about slavery because I want to avoid the overwhelming feeling that comes from trying to conceive of the terror, violence and indignity of it.” In “The Weight”, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah tells us that as the only intern of colour in an august New York magazine, she was also the only one put to work hidden away in a storeroom. However, it’s where she discovered a 1965 invoice from Baldwin for an essay. This results in a pilgrimage to the south of France home he lived in for the last 25 years of his life. Honorée Fanonne Jeffers digs deep into the besmirched reputation of John Peters, the black husband of the first published black woman poet, Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784), and finds the biographical sources racist. The piece is an important challenge to literary history, but this anthology isn’t quite the home for it.

More apposite is Carol Anderson’s argument for the acknowledgement of “white rage”, as opposed to the familiar refrain of “black rage”. White rage is unnoticed, she says, because it doesn’t “have to take to the streets and face rubber bullets to be heard”. Instead, “it has an aura of respectability and has access to the courts, police, legislatures, and governors”. The civil war, desegregation and Obama’s presidency were all triggers for white rage. She tells us, “For every action of African-American advancement, there’s a reaction, a backlash.” She doesn’t need to spell it out. Enter Donald Trump.

The book’s standout essay for me is “Black and Blue” by Garnette Cadogan, who shows us how dangerous it is to “walk while black” in America. A lover of long walks from childhood, he migrates from Jamaica to New Orleans to study, where he quickly realises he’s seen as a threat by white people and a criminal by the police, who continuously stop and harass him. Cadogan establishes survival rules, “No running, especially at night; no sudden movements; no hoodies; no objects – especially shiny ones – in hand,” and he assembles a preppy “cop-proof wardrobe” that doesn’t always work. When he returns to Jamaica on a visit, he feels “once again as if the only identity that mattered was my own, not the constricted one that others had constructed for me”. Everyone who doubts that black males are persecuted in their daily lives should read this excellent essay. It begs the question: how free are you when your right to walk the streets of your country is constantly being challenged?

The Fire Next Time began with Baldwin’s painfully tender letter to his nephew, James: “You know, and I know, that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too early”, he wrote. Edwidge Danticat ends The Fire This Time with a letter to her young daughters. She wonders when she should tell them about the historical roll call of abuses levelled against black people in America because she’s worried they’ll “grow up terrified of the country and the world they live in”.

The Fire This Time is not an easy or uplifting read, but it is an essential one. In her introduction Ward sets the stage for Sing, Unburied, Sing, her third novel. She tells us she grew up in the American South, “A place that could sometimes feel as limiting and final as being locked in an airtight closet, the air humid and rank with one’s own breath and panic… a place where black people were bred and understood to be animals… a place where black life has been systematically devalued for hundreds of years.” It’s this place she fictionalises in the novel, the dangerous backwoods of Mississippi where injustice still prevails and the black characters are hyper-alert to the extremes of it.

The novel opens with the graphic killing, skinning and evisceration of a goat in preparation for cooking, foreshadowing some of the violence to come. Thirteen-year-old Jojo alternates narration with his black mother, Leonie. Jojo’s white father, Michael, is the son of a rabid racist, Big Joseph, whose calcified heart cannot acknowledge his only grandchildren. Leonie and Michael are drug-addled and neglectful parents who appear to love each other more than they do their children. Jojo’s three-year old sister Kayla is, in effect, parented by him. His love for her is the heart-warming core of this novel and Ward manages to bring Kayla to full characterisation as a barely verbal, demanding, gurgling, drooling, squealing scene-stealer. The children live with Leonie’s parents, the quietly dignified Pop, who offers protection and a moral code, and the loving but dying Mam.

The story centres on Michael’s release from the ominous state prison known as Parchman. Pop recalls how the Parchman of his childhood was run like a slave plantation with overseers and shooters to keep the field-working inmates in line. It was where a 12-year-old black boy he knew found himself imprisoned for years alongside 2,000 men for the crime of stealing food for his starving siblings. Leonie takes her children to collect Michael from the prison, which turns into a nightmare road trip replete with drugs, cops and sickness.

If I’m making the book sound all doom and gloom, it’s not. I absolutely relished reading it. Sure, Ward writes about dysfunctional people struggling to survive in a cancerous culture, but her literary aesthetics remind me of Toni Morrison, especially in Beloved. Ward’s characters too are richly complex and her impressive imagistic and sensorial descriptive powers create beauty out of tragedy. And as in Beloved the dead come back to haunt the living.

Both of Ward’s books deepen our understanding of an iniquitous America, and argue, in their own ways, for African-Americans to be treated as equal citizens and enjoy full human rights. 

Bernadine Evaristo is a novelist, poet and dramatist. Her books include “Mr Loverman” (Hamish Hamilton)

Sing, Unburied, Sing
Jesmyn Ward
Bloomsbury, 304pp, £16.99

The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race
Edited by Jesmyn Ward
Bloomsbury Circus, 240pp, £17.99

This article appears in the 18 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Israel and the impossible war