Continuing with the Southern Gothic theme of the last post, here is the current opening of the novelette I mentioned, The Hell I Burn Through.
Chapter One: Part One
Incense mingled with the smell of soil, salt, roses, and graveyard dust, filling Sula’s nostrils, as She sat in the darkness of the parlor. She exhaled, holding her hands out over the water bowl in front of her with her eyes closed. She inhaled again, and got a strong whiff of the graveyard, mossy, yet almost like rotten thyme and cooked spinach. Maybe it was strange she’d come to like it, but growing up around goofer dust,taken from old cemeteries, had that effect on those who’d grown up in that world. Miss Faye hated that word, goofer. Apparently it sounded far too low country for her tastes. No matter what you called it, Sula found its comfort. Somehow it still didn’t feel like she could breathe the air, despite this being her element, her birthright. The tension in the house was already thick, and it felt all the thicker when Miss Faye gave her work. But that was simply what life in the house entailed, and always had.
In her mind, Sula saw the room as though her eyes were wide open. Sula knew which way the flame of each of the twenty seven white and black candles around the room flickered, and she knew what direction Miss Faye, in her ocean blue headscarf and yellow flowers chose to pace. She could see herself too, sitting at the little table at the center of the room with the bowl in front of her, the woven dime bag satchel of whatever bodily matter brought to use to the right of the bowl, and the burning incense in front of the bowl. The bowl held filtered rain water and her reflection, which was almost perfectly still due to the bowls construction. Supposedly, according to Miss Faye, it’d been a gift for Sula though Sula was only allowed to use it when Miss Faye asked. Some people called helping themselves a gift, Sula knew, and Miss Faye had always been one of those. Well, at least, as long as Sula had been alive. Sula peered directly at herself, and realized she still had some sleep dust in the corner of her eye and that if the shoulder of her blouse fell you could see where Miss Faye had taken a switch to her shoulder yesterday. The bruise was a deep purple against her brown skin.
If Sula couldn’t do what Miss Faye wanted today? Well, then she’d be in for a world of hurtin. She had to focus. She had to breathe. There was nowhere else. No one else. There was life and there was death. There were no borders except the ones she’d been taught, and she’d been taught to break them down to find the universal connections between past and present; here and there. Somewhere a distant ancestor’s breath matched her own. Somewhere a flower blossomed. Somewhere became everywhere, and Sula breathed. From the recesses of her mind her grandfather whispered “Let yourself fall,” and she, ever the obedient girl, slipped down into everything. Before her eyes, in the dark, glitter began to flicker and there came her target, Mr. Johnson. He was a kind man to children, and often gave Sula fresh fudge from his cart for free every Christmas, and whenever he’d been by to see Miss Faye. His bald held gleamed, his once muscular body stretched from a yawn so big his fifty year old round belly jiggled. Once upon a time Miss Faye had been crazy about him, but she’d been crazier about the social club Mrs. Johnson headed.
Sula was gonna miss that chocolate and gooey fudge.
**Chapter One Part One of Draft 2** The Hell I Burn Through is a southern gothic of intriguing whimsy and fascination with the world of southern high society, african american conjure, mojo, sensuous affairs, innocent loves, and good down home cooking.
Lately in my writer’s groups and circles I’ve been seeing a lot of white writers saying that they feel as though they can’t write POC, or it will be inherently seen as offensive. They bemoan POC as being controlling and over sensitive, or even rightfully concerned, but that it shouldn’t be that way. White authors, they posit, shouldn’t have to fear that their work will be taken the wrong way. They didn’t mean it that way. They are really trying, or they’ll just only write white people then. The story I see is they’re told by friends, editors, etc. that they shouldn’t write POC as a white person. How goddamn un-American blah blah blah. The funny thing is if they looked around plenty of white folk are writing great and enjoyable POC characters that are praised on the page and screen. So what gives? Why can they write POC and be white, while other white authors can’t?
Well, I’m here to tell you why and that reasoning you think is correct can’t be your shield anymore. This one is gonna hurt, and it should.
The reason you are told this is because you talk about POC in a way the demonstrates to those people you can’t present POC without the loaded baggage of centuries old systemic racism and stereotyping. And you never want to listen to that being pointed out. It isn’t just POC trying to stop you from writing freely. We don’t care about that. We care about what you’re saying about us because we’re sick of the same bullshit being peddled as truth. It is POC hearing your words and hearing how you have internalized and attached race to certain stereotypes and beliefs.
If a POC says you need to stop writing, and think about how you even asked them their opinion then you said something way off the mark. You demonstrated to them your incompetence on race and/or your ingrained prejudices. You say you don’t really like to write black characters, or you begin describing a character idea and it becomes increasingly clear you have tied stereotypes to race. When called out, and people point to this baggage the response is intense defensiveness. No one likes to be implied to be a racist. However, we live in a world of ethnic and racial baggage that crawls into our language and very concept of race.
An example(not linking because of privacy) would be a recent role playing game forum online where someone asked if their black character would be a stereotype. The asker was thoughtful, but the question was still worded to be concerned with how they were seen, not the stereotyping. A responder asked “why did you make her black?”, and people were sincerely flummoxed that the question would be asked. It didn’t make sense. They didn’t see what was obvious to the black responder, and refused to. The character in question was a sex worker, a formerly teenage mother of two, from the ghetto; described as strong, courageous, and devoted to her kids with a smart mouth and street smarts. Things kind of rambled out from there and the question never got answered. People said don’t put on a “faux-black affect of speech” during the game, and then people started asking why not. To those people, these elements, stereotypes, were inseparable from black people. It can’t be wrong if it is the “truth” and that character was a “truth”. Yet that character could have easily been any other race.
The question they couldn’t fathom asked why did those traits become attached to a black character, and no one understood that because the baggage is glued to race in their minds.
It’s part of why it is so common to hear nerdy POC be called coconuts, oreos, bananas, etc. The very concept of X race even in creative media is still loaded down, and if an author cannot transcend that it shows.
So what of the white writers who can write POC? They listen, they learn, and they don’t just sympathize they do their damnedest to empathize. Because the truth is it ain’t all white people, and the white authors who say they can’t write POC because of POC responding to their works are lost, at best, and willfully delusional, at worst. In America blacks may be a smaller part of the population, but that smaller part still numbers in the millions. Same with latinxs, east Asians, and virtually all peoples. There are sources you can turn to conquer your “fear” of being perceived as racist.
In building this blog I’ve stumbled upon so many posts about people of color and how to describe them. At this point dozens if not hundreds of easily available blogs talk about describing POC like Writing with Color, Springhole , or words from reflective authors of color like N.K Jemsin . Yet it seems like there are more people wanting to complain or ask the same questions ad nauseum. And asking this question isn’t a problem, but one begins to wonder about how isolated white folk are when this comes up.
As a person of color in America, my life has been drowned in consuming white culture because white culture is mainstream culture. In a few days I’ll have a post that goes into more details on this, but the short version is POC in the west can’t escape learning everything about white culture as simply existing, neutral. White isn’t just white it is beige, khaki, and as a result I’ve learned a lot about it. I’ve worn it and studied how it’s shaped. Yet as a black person my culture has been whittled down to pockets based on kernels of truth filtered through white perceptions of my body, my life, who I am, and what blackness means. Even in the black community that filter has traces everywhere.
I have countless examples of not only white friends and lovers, but the whole of the film, television, and literary industries to inform my white characters. The depictions of black, brown, yellow, and everybody in between is historically and currently limited. But before you go saying “Well, D that’s why white authors shouldn’t be judged or penalized or critiqued,” that still isn’t an excuse in 2017.
There are authors of color online on every platform. There are Meetup.com groups, universities with POC students, and essays like this that can inform you. If you choose not to listen, to continuously defend yourself before listening to what POC are telling you– that your words are filled with old stereotypes– then the problem is you. You can choose to change, to learn, to be open to listening, and to know that it isn’t POC’s job to educate you all the damn time…or you could not, but you don’t get to use the same excuses anymore.
I know tons of white writers who ask these questions about how to portray POC better. They seek out POC and POC writers and learn from them. These writers, if they can, travel and live with the people they wish to write about. If they can’t they find resources, meet people near them, and explore the many cultures of the world and how race impacts perceptions. They don’t come in with an attitude bemoaning POC telling them they need to learn better. Of course all humans can be defensive…but they still try to really listen. In the end they learn to listen to themselves because they begin to notice how odd it is they tend to use “savage” when talking about black folk or African inspired things not just as a colloquialism. They notice how odd it is that they keep writing Asian characters as though Asian cultures are interchangeable; or like all Asian parents are the same and not just of a particular cultural background. They notice how they keep making innocent characters white and light, and cast antagonists as darker from hair to eyes to skin.
The white authors who listen have the courage to actually challenge themselves, and learn how to navigate stereotypes and their own prejudice. They accept they will make mistakes, and listen enough to try to learn from them in order to become not only better writers but better people. They know they have baggage, picked up from society, that they may not even realize is racial baggage because it is their normal…and they realize it shouldn’t be normal, and it can’t be allowed to flourish unintentionally in their writing.
But second to all this is, you have to accept that POC can criticize you as much as we please. This may surprise you because you choose not to think about it, but I’ve meant hundreds of white folks in my short life who truly deeply are offended that POC would dare have negative opinions about them. They aren’t even aware of how differently they respond to, usually, immigrants and dark people. They don’t hear the patronizing or condescending attitude that accompanies their defensiveness. The insinuation that POC just don’t get it, isn’t racism…it’s just anger? But it usually ain’t and people of color, especially black people, have been forced to learn the difference over the centuries. POC aren’t stupid or hysterical. The critique of a POC, especially an immigrant or a dark person, has been coded in our society as doubly insulting, a diminishing of character or intellect. (And let us not forget that other POC engage in this behavior as well against black and dark people)
This attitude doesn’t just belong to the 90 year old grandmother whose racism is excused as “that’s just grandma”. It’s the 20 something year old white coworker who sees my critique of their plan as more insulting, who denies that they treat black coworkers differently when they have a tendency to try to report them to their boss for “unprofessionalism” or acting maliciously. So let me say this:
If you are more afraid or mortified by the thought of a POC saying your work is disrespectful or stereotypical than actually dealing with why you created a problematic and racist work then the problem above all things else is you.
Repeatedly, the undertones of the defensive remarks from white writers frustrated at the responses their works– filled with passive veiled racism– is that they shouldn’t be critiqued this way. This in part goes back to the first problem of connecting a stereotypes being part of how different races are defined. They believe they shouldn’t be critiqued because they don’t see what’s wrong or erroneous about what they’ve made. There’s a voice going “But this is true!” or “But this is just how black folk are described” or “Well I think Asian guys who break dance are cool!”. They destroy the conversation by rendering POC into being inherently wrong, liars, or fascists opposing their creative freedom.
This I one of the most insidious legacies of racism because it seems so harmless. No one dies. No towns get fire bombed like parts of Tulsa. Generally no one gets denied usage of anything public. It simply relies on one socialization, one life lesson, one gift from the past to white descendents who can be as liberal or as nice as they want. That one thing is the belief that POC don’t know as much as white folk even when it comes to the experiences, the trends, and the linguistic/creative issues surrounding race or ethnicity. So they should not be questioned, and this thought isn’t necessarily conscious, but it is pervasive because of that very reason. If you don’t acknowledge it or disarm it then you won’t challenge it. Then when you encounter a black person saying, “It’s very odd and racist that you made this character black and then also have her be this series of walking stereotypes even if you perceive some nobility about those stereotypes” it becomes a personal attack deeper than a standard critique.
The result is half of ya’ll seem stuck here alternating between using ignorance, denial, and defensiveness as a shield. Sometimes using other POC as a shield because a handful agree with you as though we’re a monolith, and they come rolling out not realizing how you just used them as a tool or a dog to be summoned at your leisure. The other have are still having to explain this shit, and look at us POC like “I’m so sorry.” and experience an iota of what it’s like to be a POC because we get that fairly often(especially if you’re in the south in a “nice” part of town the other ethnic family acts up and all eyes fall on you. It is total bullshit). And it isn’t. It’s an observation, a critique, a perspective, and if a hell of a lot of people are explaining why and saying why your work is deeply flawed in a racist way then something is probably actually wrong.
But there is all this other shit in the way, bogging down your writing and your life. Being nice to a POC or even other POC doesn’t free you from prejudice. I grew up in the southern U.S, sweetheart, we bleed nice and that ain’t NEVAH stopped racism or prejudice. Plenty of people were nice to my kinfolk when they cleaned their houses and talked shit in the next sentence. Plenty of writers can create amazing innovative worlds loaded, unintentionally, with the stereotypes and associations of the real world. It doesn’t make a difference. A person can be nice and talented, and that has nothing to do with if they’re capable of showing people as people, or if they write hurtful, lazy, and incredibly problematic aspects to their imagined species, cultures, and real world races. Whether it is Earth or Nabu, a human colony or Vulcan, if your characters read like caricatures or have dubious elements you will be critiqued. POC , like anyone else, can critique you how ever the hell we like…and I can assure you POC know a lot more about racism than you. It is an entirely different experience to be white in the world, and in the U.S, than black or dark or yellow or what have you. The slights inflicted on others are taken for granted as truths, but they are not.
You can be more than wrong. You can create and incorporate out right racial lies and prejudices in your work. IF you’re called out on it you can either be a coward or not. You can listen and consider….or not. You can get an attitude….or not. But if you keep writing X race and it sounds eerily stereotypical you should question yourself. You shouldn’t get mad that people noticed.
But I doubt that many of you will. Instead you’ll do something else, something better writers don’t do…
You resent. You justify. You assert in a thousand different passive to overly aggressive ways that your work is correct, valid, and even reflective of POC. It can’t be racist or come from stereotypes, you say, because there are blacks like this. She just sort of happened to be black, right? You’re a good person, and a good writer, and all of those nasty POC don’t know what they’re talking about, right? They don’t get what you’re saying, and you just have to make them understand. Now you’ve tried, and they still don’t change their tune? Oh well they just don’t get you, right? Who cares what they think about your work! After all you have those two or four black people you know and they like you? They get you and the nasty ones are just not capable of understanding your genius and even if you did mess up it doesn’t matter because it wasn’t intentional maliciousness! You spout shit like that, and then wonder why POC don’t want to deal with your trifling ass writing anymore.
In short you don’t give a damn about POC. You only care about looking good, and anyone with a lick of sense can tell the difference.
It seemed funny at first…
Immediately as she crossed the street,
Bright blue socks, with yellowed feet,
Dressed well in denim dress,
Shoes in hand “No…yes?”
Immediately we said,
As she scratched her head,
“Drugs” and gave dry little laughs,
Continued on our homeward paths,
But then we wondered as she crossed the street,
Why 3 social workers,
Outside the social work school,
Can do nothing,
In the richest country in the world.
In light of recent events I wanted to take the time to talk about my father, a former police officer, and a black man in the United States of America. Over and over again I hear the same resistance, and the same arguments. I hear blanket attacks on cops, reflecting passion and the same blanket offenses. To me these are understandable reactions, but there is one question that cuts through both in many ways…”What are the experiences of black cops, of black men who work public safety as more than just a bouncer?”. Another way of wording this question: “Does being a cop protect you from other cops?”. When these officers take off their uniforms do they get treated like other black folk do? I’ve known an officer of the law since I was born, and that officer taught me repeatedly that no matter what people will see your skin color before they see anything else about you. Black folk have to prove a world educated in anti-blackness wrong, so we work twice as hard to get just as far and do everything everyone says we should do. Some of us grow up to work in law enforcement, the military, public service…but when has that stopped us from getting killed or injured? When has that stopped people from assuming the worst of black people and fearful of black bodies?
I don’t know, but I do know this…my father was a black man before he every put on a badge and that badge didn’t change his color.
People talk about cops like somehow being one erases blackness, and while there obviously some very vocal cops who think that way (of all colors) my siblings and I were taught how wrong that was by watching and listening to our father. He was a cop from 1972 to 1990, worked contracted security (Nascar tracks and other places), he worked for the county sheriff from the late 90s to the earlier 2000s, and now he works security for the federal government. That’s 45 years of combined security and safety work from D.C to North Carolina and back. He always liked to have two things on the car…a sticker indicating he was a retired police officer and a free mason symbol. My dad is one of those guys who loves repping his teams so to speak. He still has an old Cowboys jacket we got him for Christmas over a decade ago because of it (and sentiment). But one day not too long ago, soon after he got his new truck, he told me that the reason he always had those emblems on our cars was that he was a black man in America.
No one was going to stop and ask if he was a “safe black man”, no one was going to assume he had his gun because he was a former officer, no one was going to assume he had a gun because he was a lawful citizen, and even as a member of the NRA my father knew they wouldn’t do shit for a black man whose rights were infringed. After all he knew his history. He knew what pushed gun laws and reeled in the NRA was black people with guns stating they had a right to defend themselves, and defend themselves from injustices committed under white supremacy. He knew the internal racism of police departments, of which black. latinx, and other minority officers thought they could join the old boys club by being just as or harder on blacks and latinxs. He’s seen other retired and active cops be yelled at by white officers while trying to assist potentially different situations. He’s been stopped between NC and D.C, and god knows where else and questioned about why he needs a gun by white officers who have literally refused to accept he was an officer in another state or D.C.
He knows being a black police officer will not protect him, or afford him the immediate response of kinship other lighter officers may receive. He was a black man in America long before he was cop, and very few officers raised in a racist society taught by an institution dripping in current and historical racism will automatically assume he is someone who protected the public. These days they may see an older black man, and maybe his age will protect him, but that’s if they look at his face. These days they may see the patches on his favorite vest and see he has some ties to law enforcement, but they have to get close enough to see it. These days my dad knows that his smart and sarcastic son and his bright anxiety filled daughter are too old to automatically get a sympathy (not empathy) from an accosting officer from dropping “Oh my father was a cop” in conversation.
Over my relatively short life I learned all sorts of things from my father both good and bad, both things he meant to teach and not. He’s mellowed in his old age. The man who once said don’t bring a white boy home, smiles warmly at my white boyfriend and enjoys taking the both of us out to eat (If you’re reading I could go for a steak soon by the way, daddy, or an Eddie Leonard’s fish sandwich in the near future). He tells us about the supreme court justices and judges he protects. Nothing much just that they are nice and funny people. We talk about the news and politics a lot more these days. He can’t stand that Sheriff Clark, and says most black officers he’s known can’t either. Every time his face comes on the TV “I can’t stand him” or sometimes “That Tomming asshole”. It usually makes me laugh cause he’ll stop talking and get this sour look on his face, and even interrupt our other conversation. Now sometimes he’s even nice and listens to him talk to reporters, essentially say all black people but him are liars(including other black officers with differing opinions), and that asking for justice reform means you hate cops because apparently demanding them to be accountable is too much. Daddy will roll his eyes, say “Please” while rolling his eyes, grab the remote, and usually turns it something else. Sometimes QVC, but more often the History Channel.
It’s funny to remember that daddy used to be one of those rare creatures, the illusive black republican, a phase my mother still groans about. I can remember that phase too and it was eerily adjacent to his bolo tie and cowboy hat phase. Even then he couldn’t stand officers like Clark, blacks who didn’t just have an opinion(that’s their right), but who silenced other officers and repeatedly were paraded by white higher ups like a willing praised poodle. Why? Because they always claimed there were no problems, that the police needed uncritical support, and that if other blacks just “did right” things would change.
These officers of color say they integrated and flew right, when really they just assimilated, and began believing they were special snowflakes while other blacks were brainwashed and ignorant. They keep their mouths shut when they see injustice, or don’t see the injustice at all because they believe they’re cops first. Hell some of them believe with their white wives/husbands, their pats on the back, and their willingness to readily agree with white officers that their uniform is the only protection they need out in the world. After all they assimilated into white culture, and feel successful under white supremacy. They have their opinions, and consider every other black officer is uninformed. That is their right(and a dangerous one), but when they come out of the side of their mouths and begin to say that all police officers everywhere leave racism at the door? When they say that in light of internal emails, texts and more from fellowofficers cracking jokes about black people, our black former president and first family, and about other black officers? No, they say, nothing is wrong. All those racists disappeared when they came along. Much like all those grinning white folk you see in lynching pictures they vanished and turned off every racist comment, belief, conversation and lesson. They’re not anyone’s superiors, teachers, parents, friends, and family. No, to Sheriff Clark and his ilk police officers are without racism or justified in it. So holding cops to a higher standard to ensure they protect everybody isn’t needed, and cops protect all other cops no matter what because racism doesn’t affect justice. We know this isn’t the case, a fact reinforced by the Philando Castile verdict by that officer’s non-sensical words. Justice isn’t and has never been colorblind. Justice isn’t and has never ignored ethnicity. Justice isn’t and has never ignored gender, sexuality, or plain old personality. I wish that was the case, but unlike these officers of color and white officers my family, my play-uncles, play-aunties, friends, etc. can’t afford to pretend it does. Maybe if you get on TV every time your superiors need a cop-friendly brown face you can, but I don’t know many cops like that.
To my father and to me when they say that nothing is wrong in light of entire police departments all over this country being 70% to 90% white with an exceedingly disproportionate arrest rate for blacks and latinx, when crime rates are so deeply skewed because of an inability to pay bail, when again and again black people young and old are murdered regardless of whether they listen to an officer, employ their right to bare arms, or are a cop themselves…they are choosing to believe that they are exceptional black people because they have done everything right, because they disagree, because they’re cops and no cop ever threatens, harasses, or shoots black cops without cause right?
In April 2015 I went to protest in Baltimore in a march I’m 90% certain you didn’t see because it was one of the many peaceful marches in 2015 where reporters stood around looking irritated by how peaceful it was. I chanted for reform in police departments, that black lives mattered, told people that I wondered about having kids because I didn’t know if I could take it if they were as dark as me and they came into a path of a officer whose first instinct was to assume they were dangerous criminals. I marched because I believe in justice and because I care about the black community. I marched because I love black officers, and know their lives and jobs would be better without entrenched racisms. Citizens who want change and believe in the better natures of their people, while still knowing the worst, get involved anyway they can in changing society.
I didn’t tell my parents about the protest. They’d worry, and when they found out…they were more than surprised to say the least. Despite that daddy was proud because he spent years telling his children that black lives did matter and that we couldn’t trust the world to see it. We had to make the world see it. We had to be willing to fight, to be both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, and learn the lesson he taught us without ever having to say it:
You’re black long before you are ever anything else.