Shoutin’ in the Fire: An American Epistle by Danté Stewart

Shoutin' in the Fire: An American Epistle cover imageSummary: A beautiful, poetic memoir of being Black in America. 

Without question, this is one of the best memoirs I have ever read. I know part of my love of it is because Danté Stewart read the audiobook with his beautiful voice. Shoutin’ in the Fire is a book of lyrical, poetic writing, and I can’t imagine another narrator could have captured it as well. The prose reminds me in the very best way of James Baldwin. I know that will be a standard comparison, not just because of how prominent Baldwin is but also because of how frequently Stewart references him. Baldwin is an author for this age, as Eddie Glaude has written. I don’t want to overplay that comparison, their life experiences are so very different, but also they are both Black in America, with a view of both history and the future and with an eye to the church that this country loves to pay lip service to, but not carry through as it should.

I remember thinking to myself, and maybe saying out loud, at some point years ago, early in my awakening to the racial realities of this world, that as much as they are accurate, I wished there were more books by Black authors that were happier, less wrapped up in pain. The pain is hard to process as a middle-aged white man because it creates an obligation. Observing pain and not responding is a type of pathology that some are commending these days, as some call for resistance to empathy. It took me time to learn and process not just that pain and trauma need recounting, but that the history of race in America means no story can be told by Black authors that does not have pain somewhere in the lens, even if not in the direct words. It took me much longer to see that the very act of writing was an act of hope. I didn’t understand the complaints of Ta’Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me being hopeless. Coates is not hopeless, as I think this video with Thabiti Anyabwile shows. But the hope does not always have to be centered if the presenting problem denies reality.

The other comparison I feel when I read Shoutin’ in the Fire is with Esau McCaulley’s Reading While Black. Both books have a chapter on rage, and in both cases, I think the chapter is likely the most powerful in the book. That rage is not a denial of hope; both explicitly point to hope in other places and even in their rage. Both reference James Baldwin’s famous quote about rage that often is shortened to only the first sentence. But the more extended quote is essential:

To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost, almost all of the time — and in one’s work. And part of the rage is this: It isn’t only what is happening to you. But it’s what’s happening all around you and all of the time in the face of the most extraordinary and criminal indifference, indifference of most white people in this country, and their ignorance. Now, since this is so, it’s a great temptation to simplify the issues under the illusion that if you simplify them enough, people will recognize them. I think this illusion is very dangerous because, in fact, it isn’t the way it works. A complex thing can’t be made simple. You simply have to try to deal with it in all its complexity and hope to get that complexity across.

Stewart makes the statement that echoes James Baldwin and James Cone and Howard Thurman, and many others; he comments that he thought that telling people the reality of what it means to be Black in America would cause white people, especially white Christians, to change. But each of them has to grapple with the fact that simple information is not enough. Cultural change is more complex than simple information, especially when resistance to identifying that change is necessary or even that culture comes into play.

Books like Shoutin’ in the Fire are a gift to white people such as myself. They should be fuel to create understanding, empathy, and motivation to change institutions, especially Christian ones, that are resistant to change. Instead, mostly what we have is discussions of methodology, not discussions of the actual problem. Danté Stewart presents the evidence of his own life, the harm he has felt, the fear he has for his family, especially his children, in the future. To be allowed to read books, especially beautifully written books like this one, is a gift that more need to take up.

Shoutin’ in the Fire: An American Epistle by Danté Stewart Purchase Links: Hardcover, Kindle Edition, Audiobook

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