By Keely Sexton
Mount Holyoke College’s Common Read for 2021 will be “The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race,” a collection of essays and poems about race edited by National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward.
The essays on race and racism are “thoughtful, searing, and at times, hopeful,” said USA Today. “‘The Fire This Time’ is vivid proof that words are important, because of their power to both cleanse and to clarify.”
The selection of the book reflects the year of deepening racial crisis in the United States.
“‘The Fire This Time’ holds a mirror to its readers, showing us the shape of racism in America today and asking us, ‘What will you do about this injustice?’” said Gabriel Hall, assistant director of campus diversity programming and LGBTQ initiatives. “The question feels particularly important as we mark one year since the summer of global protests that followed the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade and others.”
Common Read selections form the basis of the first intellectual engagements incoming students have as new members of the Mount Holyoke community. As they begin their liberal arts journey at the College, the Common Read gives them the opportunity to explore complex issues while building an intellectual and social community with each other.
“We need to continue to create thoughtful and brave spaces to have conversations about race and racism in our community,” said Marcella Runell Hall, vice president for student life and dean of students. “This anthology provides us with a beautifully written text to engage in these conversations.”
The selection of “The Fire This Time” for the 2021 Common Read also speaks to the need of re-connecting a community that was suddenly interrupted in the 2020 global pandemic.
“I think all of us on the selection committee had a sense of urgency after spending the 2020–2021 academic year in remote and hybrid learning environments,” said Jennifer Jacoby, associate professor of psychology and education. Jacoby is also director of First-year Seminars, small cross-disciplinary discussion-based classes taken by first-year students in their first semester. “The selection committee felt the need to choose a Common Read text that both honors the struggles our local and global communities experienced this past year, while also looking ahead with a shared vision and purpose.”
The book, which is envisioned as a response to James Baldwin’s 1963 groundbreaking “The Fire Next Time,” has been hailed as “an absolutely indispensable anthology” by Booklist, and widely praised for its framing of the violent racism that still grips the United States.
“‘The Fire This Time’ deals with both historical and contemporary issues of racism — the way that she organized the collection to look to the past, the present, and the future — spoke to the goals of the committee,” said Jacoby. “I am incredibly excited to see how our community of students, faculty and staff use this text as a jumping off point for collective reflection and action.”
Author Jesmyn Ward will appear at Mount Holyoke College at a community event in the fall to discuss the book and its themes.
Ward received her MFA from the University of Michigan and is currently a professor of creative writing at Tulane University. She is the author of the novels “Where the Line Bleeds” and “Salvage the Bones,” which won the 2011 National Book Award, and “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” which won the 2017 National Book Award.
She is also the author of the memoir “Men We Reaped,” which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. From 2008–2010, Ward had a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University. She was the John and Renée Grisham Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi for the 2010–2011 academic year. In 2016, the American Academy of Arts and Letters selected Ward for the Strauss Living Award. She lives in Mississippi.
The Common Read began in 2000 as part of the College’s annual Orientation for new students. On September 9 at 7 pm the College will host a virtual event featuring Jesmyn Ward, Kiese Laymon, and Mitchell Jackson in conversation to discuss "The Fire This Time."