What did I do to be so black and blue?

Dinah Washington crooned the Fats Waller classic "Black and Blue" into my ears as I finished reading "The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race," a collection of essays curated by Jesmyn Ward and modeled on James Baldwin's 1963 landmark work, "The Fire Next Time."

The song drifted into my head more than once as I read; the day it flowed through my headphones, my iTunes account was set to shuffle, and I was reading Ward's book during my bus commute through downtown Washington, D.C.

In that moment, though, "The Fire This Time," my music and race in America collided in a tragically familiar way. While still on the bus, I learned that a police officer had fatally shot Philando Castile, a black St. Paul man, during a routine traffic stop in Falcon Heights. The next day, a black-nationalist sniper slaughtered five Dallas cops in revenge.

The universe can be heartbreakingly ironic.

Inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests and the comfort she sought in Baldwin's work, Ward built her collection off Baldwin's searing 1963 essay "A Letter to My Nephew." Writing on the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, Baldwin declared that the country's celebration of freedom comes "one hundred years too soon."

For her book, Ward commissioned more than a dozen writers of color to expand the idea of a free people, metaphorically enslaved, in the era of the first black president.

Following in Baldwin's footsteps seems a daunting task — particularly when Michael Brown or Freddie Gray have nearly as much name recognition as Beyoncé or Barack Obama.

Still, Ward's team delivers the goods, in three sections commenting on the past, current and future states of African-Americans. Their general conclusion: The nation that black people helped build, largely for free, is still conflicted at best about our presence. And being African-American can be a profound joy or a death sentence, depending on circumstance.

The essays in "The Fire This Time" are ambitious: One writer inspects desecrated slave burial grounds to exhume the lie of racially egalitarian New England; another exposes myths about slave poet Phillis Wheatley. Others explain "walking while black" and the "composite pops" concept of raising black boys, and one documents New York City neighborhood murals urging people of color to videotape police — the ultimate 'hood PSA.

The writing is impressive: literary, insightful, urgent, timely, a bracing antiseptic to still open racial wounds. That includes my own (twice, cops have mistaken me for a criminal suspect in my own neighborhood), my father's (ditto) and the ones my 13-year-old son probably will have to endure soon.

I'm hurt inside, but it don't help my case

'Cause I can't hide what is on my face.

The next day on the bus, as video of Castile's death haunted the internet and cable news broadcast images of Dallas police scrambling for cover, I reached a sad conclusion about "The Fire This Time."

Fifty-three years, two civil rights movements and one black president after Baldwin's original, the problem with a book like this is that we still need a book like this.

Joseph P. Williams, a former assistant managing editor for the Star Tribune, is a senior news editor for U.S. News & World Report.

The Fire This Time
Edited by: Jesmyn Ward.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 226 pages, $25.