Race in Fiction, pt. 1

“That there woman is Missus Beech. Look like a little ol’ nothing. Don’t be fooled. Ain’t easy for a white person to be saintly, but she closing in. That there woman is your camel, passing through the eye of the needle.”

–Mbira Man to Keita Ali, The Illegal by Lawrence Hill

 

All stories start somewhere, right? Sometimes, we just don’t know where that beginning is.

Lawrence Hill’s 2016 novel (about an illegal “African” marathoner living in a fictional wealthy country) isn’t the most subtle tale about race, but it seemed as good a launch point as any. (Hill kind of hits the reader over the head with unabashed bigotry and the ‘N-word’ in the opening pages, but it’s not as jarring as other works.)

Writing about race has always seemed like a heavy, loaded proposition (though maybe it shouldn’t be). Full disclosure: I’m white, upper-middle class. What could I possibly contribute to the canon? Wouldn’t it be a daunting tightrope to walk? In truth, I feel that writing about bigotry and skin color–as the surface topic–is a task best left to other more elegant or skilled artists. I would also argue there’s very little competition with books like Invisible Man or Native Son or Middle Passage (one of my all-time favorites).

Yet, it’s in my writing. It’s been there for a long time. And over the past few years, the topic has been percolating in my conscious self–pushed to the fore by the stunning turn of events in America (not all of them pretty, of course).

If writing (and all art) is an extension of the self, then I’ve set my mind to live by three tenets:

One, scientists have recently proven that all of us humans have ancestry in what is now Ethiopia, on the Horn of Africa. Check.

Two, I have just as much in common with a farmer in Uganda or an Indonesian seamstress or Argentine cattleman as I do with my white neighbors, nice folks from Australia. Check.

Three, it matters. It really, really matters now. Double-check.

 

I try not to write about politics, because it often boils down to ugliness and bickering over right and wrong. The current political climate (in January of 2017) is downright scary. Right-leaning voters have put in office a man whose open bigotry and five-year-old’s maturity can’t be glossed over or overlooked. (It’s no accident that his Cabinet is scarily white. One could almost take every word uttered by his mouthpiece or press secretary and correctly believe the exact opposite.) That whole ‘alt-truth’ issue. As well, the President’s vile misogynistic behavior of the past and raging campaign tantrums can’t be overlooked. But he is who he is and–via the democratic process–we are stuck with who we’re stuck with.

DT’s election has been called many things–an anti-establishment ‘rejection vote’ among them. But we can’t deny that part of it is due to some deep-seeded racism in America, and that’s very troubling. This is 2017. We’re still dealing with the problem of skin color? Apparently.

For the record, I’m in a privileged position. I’ve never felt the scourge of poverty, and I live in a country that is (by some statistics) predominantly white. Or, I’m not a “minority.” But that doesn’t mean I’m not affected by issues that “minorities” have to deal with.

 

A little background. My first job was at a Kroger store in Nashville, on the edge of Belle Meade. That’s where the Old Money is–colossal brick mansions and ivy-covered brick. If you guessed that no residents of Belle Meade work at a Kroger, you’d be right. Fair enough. The staff seemed to be half-white and half-black (the city was a two-toned place, then) and all was well. The job itself was a sucky starting job, but the people were great. (Among them was a checker named Roberta who used to pal around with a boy named Jimi Hendrix.) I was aware that West Nashville was predominantly white, but this probably didn’t register as a huge divide since I worked where I worked. I’m as guilty of anyone as being blind to the obvious, sometimes.

Nevertheless, I was all set to leave the South for college in the Midwest when I got some extra motivation. I was a house party with a writing-camp friend when some wealthy guys drinking on the back porch started tossing around the ‘N-word.’ I was stung. No, there were no African Americans at the party–huge brick mansion, prep school lot–so there was no uproar. And I, in the company of strangers (and far from home) didn’t know what to say. But it felt like the Civil Rights Movement had never happened. (As I was taught in college) Wasn’t the minimum wage just a step up from slavery, after all?

Since childhood, I’ve lived with the words of Dr. King and Gandhi in my blood. We’re all the same. You and me, he and she (or he/she) we’re all people, all humans. We need to see each other as equal in order to get along. (For those who deny the “appalling” notion that we humans were once chimpanzee-like apes in the Horn of Africa, get over it. People brighter than you have settled the matter.)

So what’s happened with the black-versus-white crisis in America is, honestly, confusing to me. Like I’ve been living my whole life behind rose-tinted glasses. When my son did his third-grade biography fair piece on Jackie Robinson, we had a good time going through the history of circumstances of the 1940s. By why had the Negro Leagues been necessary in the first place? Why had it all started? I couldn’t answer. I don’t know how to explain the logic of seeing skin color or heritage as a status marker, as an excuse for poor behavior. Does that make me a fool?

To be continued…

 

Red pen and coffee mug with Edison's draft work.

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