A Review of “Black Fire This Time”

The Northeastern Anglo Establishment continues to impose acceptable tokens on Black, Latinx, Asian American, and Native American writers, obscuring generations of writers who write as well or better. Anthologies become acts of resistance because they can recognize writers neglected by the New York arbiters of taste but have followings in their communities. Men dominated early Black anthologies. The 1970s saw a shift toward anthologies devoted to the work of women. LGBTQ anthologies emerged after Black, and Brown Queers revolted at Stonewall and before that in San Francisco. Black FIRE THIS TIME, compiled by Dr. Kim McMillon and Kof Antwi unites these literary factions.

Nobody could adequately review Black Fire—This Time Volume 1. It would be like trying to describe all the people of our planet to an alien. The tapestry is just too much. Black Fire—This Time is like a live event in the sense it must be experienced, more than talked about. Then it can be discussed, but not reviewed, because to review it, we reduce it and there is nothing reductionist about what is being done here. Hence the word FIRE.

The creation of this anthology began before many of us: “Black Fire—This Time, pays homage to the original Black Fire, edited by Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal, and published in 1968, a time when black people and minorities, in general, were treated as second-class citizens.” (Dr. McMillon). The editor, Dr. McMillon, has: “managed to print the works of writers belonging to multiple generations.” (Ishmael Reed). This included a necessary update as; “No women are listed among the heroes, (in the original Black Fire) however. Black Fire included some of the bad habits we “warriors” grew up with and as a result, more works by women were not included.” (Ishmael Reed).

Reviewing this, as a mixed-race but white-skinned immigrant, my first thought was: Can I do justice to any review of this masterpiece without some colorism intruding? The answer is no and no. I have the privileges of white-skin in a racist, unaccountable society. Despite my genes, this white-skin allows me to only go so far into the black understanding of blackness. Like this anthology, you must experience it directly. Have no choice but to walk in that centering blackness skin and experience the way you are treated differently if you don’t have black skin. That said, the exclusiveness of this homage, has opened itself up to everyone, and I can and will cherish it, whether I directly share or share by love of what this homage stands for.

Let’s talk about how this will be seen by the dominant paradigm? Will it be viewed as ‘just another black collection?’ in the same way humans are liable to stereotype everything? For many, yes. This is a book that black people will purchase to discover their historical and current voices in literature. This is a book non-black people will purchase because they want to show support, perhaps they’re even being tokenistic or apologist, or because something draws them in, but they will read it differently, because experience is direct or not at all.

“Black people
call across or scream across or walk across
defying physics in the stream of their will.
Our world is full of sound
Our world is more lovely than anyone’s / tho we suffer, and kill each other
and sometimes fail to walk the air.”

Ka’Ba, Amiri Baraka

There is value in reading Black Fire—This Time, regardless of the color of your skin. If that weren’t true then we’ve already all failed. This is a historical artifact – an essential artistic document, encapsulating the spirit of something impossible to encapsulate; the voices of black writers from mid-20th century, to current day. How the editors managed to compile this, is an outstanding feat in its own right. That they included LGBTQ+ and feminist black voices, is credit to their universality and understanding of true diversity and cultural appropriation in white-edited collections.

Those of us familiar with and in love with, some of the icons of the black writing movement will be overjoyed to see Dr. McMillon’s attention to including more women into this collection than the original. This reflects a modern appreciation that not all black voices were equally included and that needed to be rectified. Reading through this huge book I was struck repeatedly by something said at the beginning; the idea this anthology is continuing unfinished work. And relating to the iconic, oft-quoted wisdom by Audre Lorde, that we cannot dismantle the masters house, using the masters tools.

Dr. McMillon says; “For too long, we have lived in a liminal space where the art and culture of Black people is not always seen for its worth” or as Ishmael Reed points out; “Before the Black Arts Movement, Black authors received awards, prizes and chairs at universities and colleges based on their ability to mimic the writing styles of white authors.” Obviously then, meaning will come from black reviewers reviewing black authors, so we do not fall into co-opting a voice by thinking we understand it, because to truly understand, we must directly experience, from the vantage point of inside a systemically racist space:

And I am all, but O! my soul is white
…no lighter
Than an all midnight
So will my page be all that I write?

Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you

– All Lines Matter, Quincy Scott Jones

As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, having put together huge anthologies on marginalized voices, including The Kali Project (Indian female poets) and SMITTEN (lesbian poets) I appreciate Dr. McMillon’s ceaseless work here and marvel at her finished product. Nothing can be fully comprehensive, but to get as close as possible, to have a veritable encyclopedia of some of the most notable, memorable, blazing black literary talent of the 20th and 21st centuries, is an incredible feat. As a life-long fan of bell hooks and other irreplaceable black female writers who have passed; seeing tributes to those geniuses was so moving, such as Carole Boyce Davies’s “Already Missing the High Priestess of “Talking Back”— A Tribute to bell hooks” where she writes about black women ‘acquiring’ “permission to “talk back,” (and how this) impacted many with her unabashed black feminist visionary praxis, taking all of us further along the road to full self-articulation.”

This is part of the incredible black literary canon. It’s hard to know where to stop praising or what could possibly be said in reviewing talent, the like of which is beyond description and overwhelming in its power and beauty. Dr. Mona Lisa Saloy brings marginalized language alive in her magnificent poem ‘7th Ward Daily Fare: or Black Creole Talk.’ Where the flourishing of other tongues and modes of expression are given stage:

No lie; that’s Capoo (Black Creole for bad luck)
Oh oh gotta step
“Need to find a stump to fit & rest my rump.”

Words that for centuries were denied, erased or dismissed, now flourish.

I particularly loved how the editors weren’t wedded to being alphabetical but took the spirit of this universal message and let it expound organically; From the indomitable Nikki Giovanni opening the collection, and her searing tribute to the late Gwendolyn Brooks, (1917—2001) we walk in present day, with our hats deeply tipped to the steps that got us here. When Giovanni writes of Brooks she said; “it is all here: / the work the love: / the woman: who gave and gave and gave” She speaks what needs to be spoken, succinctly, lyrically, with love. There is no fancy-footing here, only roots and eternal meaning.

When Tongo Eisen-Martin says in their poem ‘Good Earth’ that “Black art hunted down like a dog” is the black artists experience, it viscerally puts into rich imagery, the feeling people of color have had in attempting to express their lives, or justify their legitimacy when they should never ever have had to. It’s not about being a white apologist, it’s about the black experience, and when you claim white apology you don’t always listen to black experience, instead you make it about you (white) again. This anthology claims the black experience with zero apology.

The expressive finery of that experience can take your breath away. When Thomas Covington Dent writes his one act play Ritual Murder, it steals the words right out of my mouth. There is such a prescience, an informed outrage lying in the composition that it’s horrifying and talented at the same time. My best friend knew the late James Baldwin in NYC, she remembered him as a man who liked ‘ordinary things’ as he was extraordinary. In some ways, when you read black talent you see there is one uniting theme aside the call for long-denied equity and respect. That is the theme of roots, of love between people. The ordinariness becomes the magic, as related in honest ways, freed of rule and masters tools. “We are incomprehensible / to you who feel only fear.” (IGBO LANDING, Akua Lezli Hope).

Could this be one reason so many have cherished black writing? Not a fetishization of black voices, but a relief. No longer having to read the structure-heavy rule book that was white dominion, but the genuine talent of black voices speaking as they want to speak and not as they are ordered. To pick up an anthology that carries James Baldwin and modern writers we may not all know, alongside famous icons, the greats, the activists and the emerging unknowns; it’s a world you don’t want to step out of.

“I had a jingle going through my mind, like if I was a white man, dig? and I had to wake up every morning singing to myself, “Look at the happy nigger, he doesn’t give a damn, thank God I’m not a nigger.”

– James Baldwin, Blues for Mister Charlie (Excerpt)).

You don’t have to be Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks winning a Pulitzer, to write truth, but when she did win in 1950, she continued the necessary but not inevitable shift toward respecting black voices, black experiences, black lives. When I say ‘not inevitable,’ had nobody done this work, it might not have changed at all. We know it still hasn’t, all these decades later, changed enough, but what we don’t always consider, is how hard it was for those who began it; what it took, what it cost, what it still costs and what it would be like if black people didn’t keep doing it every single generation: These words wouldn’t exist.  “When you set out for Afrika / you did not know you were going. / Because / you did not know you were Afrika. / You did not know the Black continent / that had to be reached / was you.” (Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks, to the Diaspora).

You can’t separate the words from the movement, the movement from the experience. They are all part of the corpus of black lives. When those without black skin tokenistically claim ‘black lives matter’ are we considering what it means to actually inhabit a black life? To be a mother to a black child? To be married to a black man? I think we try to. But without history, without recorded words evidencing these lives, we could fall into a cliché, or lose the black fire that is and was the groundswell for change, and this is why literature is necessary for marginalized voices more than any others. As it has been for reclaiming women, LGBTQ+ also.

“Africana women should not be relegated to the level of The Need for a Definitive Africana-Melanated Womanism assimilation, forced to embrace someone else’s paradigm and priorities for penance—superficial acceptance and feigned political legitimacy. By now, more serious consideration for the call for the acknowledgement of the obvious pre-existence of “interconnectedness,” associated with Africana Womanism for Black women, is to be respected in much the same way as one would never deemed feminism non-existent.” (Clenora Hudson-Weems, PhD., The Need for a Definitive Africana-Melanated Womanism Paradigm and the Question of Interconnectivity versus Intersectionality). Not everyone will agree with everything written here, nor is this anthology an ‘easy’ read; quite the opposite. But its existence is necessary and it should be required reading in every school in the land.

The title of Haki Madhubuti’s poem “We Are A Hated People” doesn’t apologize in its explanation. Even if it’s not every black person’s experience all the time, the reverse is often true, but it’s not being said to inflame or segregate further, it’s an explanation of a historical status that a white skinned person wouldn’t be able to say they’d ever experienced. On that basis alone, it speaks to the subjugation, outrage and suffocation of black lives, long beyond living history. Can you grasp the dichotomy and how fast-forward from slavery to present day, it’s still happening? “Always remember, if our struggles and battles reveal anything,/ it will be the contradictions and treachery of the nation’s / leaderships and actions:”

I have heard non-black people say ‘we got the message’ in annoyed tones. They’ve said it of feminism, LGBTQ+ and black lives matter. People, irrespective of skin color, struggle to understand what they do not (cannot) understand. They don’t like being reminded, they don’t like to feel guilty or responsible, or to change. It’s easier sometimes to try to keep people below water and shut them up or resort to performative activism which achieves nothing. The patriarchal system still does this with women, perhaps the oldest prejudice that exists (gender) so to believe we’ll wake up one day without racism, or other prejudices is naïve. Yet if we shut up, and stop talking about what needs to change, we’re doomed. Change is wrought too slowly, not sufficiently, but speaking out is the only way it ever shifts. Writing is one medium whereby marginalization can find a platform, even as it sickens us that we’re still having to stand up an protest.

The histories here, in the biographies of all the authors, is nothing short of incredible. This is a groundswell of some of the most immaculate and stunning black writing. The combination of folklore, Africana, Rap, early black activism, feminism, queer, every voice is represented to some degree. Vernacular, slang, country, lyricism, colloquialism, every kind of voice speaks out from these pages and demands attention, in recompense for the historical dearth of attention given black authors. Whilst today few would doubt that black authors are among the most brilliant creatives, with unparalleled genius, it wasn’t that long ago a black voice was at best tokenistic, and at worst, invisible. Dr. McMillon has gone out of her way to ensure this collection represents the swell of brilliance that did and does exist in our collective histories, so that they are never lost again:

A hard time for you is when
Others are crowding
Out your bandwidth.

The Luckiest People in the World, Ishmael Reed

If you ever loved poetry and jaw-dropping writing, irrespective of your color and background, Black Fire—This Time, is a collection everyone should have access to. The lyricism of the writing reminds you why writing will always endure; “blue light dawns and a hand full of stars / scatter for mukai’s smile alive and well.” (Paulette Pennington Jones, hello as much as goodbye). Because it evokes LIFE.

The honesty of response is another digress from the usual modes of communication in the white-dominated field of publishing. Nothing is ‘white-washed’ by ending on a positive note, reality is what matters here. As evidenced by the stirring, frightening essay by husband and wife authors Val Gray Ward and Francis Ward, when they write:  “Is there reason to hope for a just solution? Does a just solution seem imminent? Both answers are no, for an affirmative answer to either must be based on an honest assessment that the white power structure is changing fundamentally and accepting the inevitability of sharing power, wealth and freedom with non-whites. No such assumption can be made now, and yet it is this very change—in white people, white people with power—that must be essence of a just, orderly and free society for blacks and whites.” (THE BLACK ARTIST—HIS ROLE IN THE STRUGGLE). We’re free of micro-aggressive dictates when we refuse to be polite about the perpetuation of continued wrongs.

it’s in the bottomless power, magic of duende
climbing stealthily from earth, wrapped inside
secrets, mystery infused in black magic
that enters bodies in the form of music, art,
poetry imbuing language with sovereignty,
in blood spooling back through violent centuries,
voices echoing ancient Africa, rise

– Quincy Troupe, Duende.

We cannot sugar-coat that it’s 2022 and black lives are under threat as much as they ever were. Something we understand with intersectionality studies of black people’s rate of poverty, unequal access, inequity in educational attainment, lack of inherited wealth, higher rates of incarceration and illness. For every success story, there are hundreds where black lives aren’t mattering enough. It is both a bitter feeling and a joy to read the talent here, because it reminds us of how much black lives matter and the talent within these creative voices, but how the system continues to stifle progress to true equal access. Even when that day comes, it is my hope we collect these voices to remind our children why marginalization cannot ever erase brilliance.

the poetry that was here is on a night flight
to hell sent in place of bodies to be
converted like sounds into poetry into medicines
and machines escape routes a march of triumphs”

– QR Hand, Jr., dopey poetry in the rhetoric of blood

Candice Louisa Daquin is Senior Editor at Indie Blu(e) Publishing and author of Tainted by the Same Counterfeit (Finishing Line Press, September, 2022).