Category Archives: books

“South is South”: Writing about Race in the South

Introduction

When writing a piece of fiction set in the South, race looms a specter in the back of the writer’s mind. The subject of race makes people uncomfortable, but without a frank conversation about how racial tensions and violence contribute to southern culture and history, we cannot hope to write about the true south in any meaningful way. What makes the discourse more difficult, however, is measuring progress: how far have we come as a society? Many people pose that we’ve entered a post-racial phase of history, though the people who claim such things don’t experience aggressions based on racial difference every day. Because racism doesn’t exist as it did during slavery or Jim Crow does not mean that racism doesn’t exist; racism is the skeleton in the closet, the unspoken sentence in a conversation, something that pervades all of our governmental institutions and workplace processes despite lack of discourse. In order to better deconstruct how to incorporate a consciousness of race in your stories, I will speak about the vehicles of race that became most prevalent in three eras.

Slavery Era South Carolina

At the last Juneteenth Celebration in Aiken County, a man arrived with a booth of artifacts from the South Carolina slave trade: these included bills of ownership, neck claps, shackles, and whips. When Charlestowne was settled in 1670, the slave trade already boomed in the West Indies and found a new market in South Carolina. The port city is built upon marshland perfect for growing rice. Subsequently, rice plantations, as well as tea, cotton, and tobacco plantations, spread throughout the Low Country. Work in the rice fields involved grueling labor, slaves often up to their waists in pluff mud. Because of Charlestowne’s popularity, over 40% of slaves passed through Charleston.

Fiction set in South Carolina should be embedded with an understanding of this history. More importantly, books set in this era should embrace this history. Too often books written about the era focus more heavily on the romantic beauty of the Antebellum South, ignoring that the grandiose wealth had been built on the backs of the enslaved. Often depictions of slaves rely on what here we’ll call the Aunt Jemima/Uncle Ben Problem: women are happy to care for their white masters’ children, men happy to serve their masters.

images                During this era, how was race constructed? In fiction, one sees the most commonly philosophies of race related to hierarchical race: white is civilized and good, black uncivilized and bad. This is perhaps the most commonly understood conception of racism, though the complexities of relationships between white and black communities should be explored in a more nuanced way. For example, white women often viewed their black female slaves as young non-sisters, someone to educate and take care of. Never mind that black enslaved women raised these white women; their white civilized superiority offered an easily paternalistic relationship to exploit. Intimacy plays an important role in this discourse of dominance: white male slave owners often raped young female slaves. But they called these women their “mistresses,” implying a mutually-consensual sexual relations; I assume that the realities of the master-slave relationship made it difficult for slaves to actively defy these men and so were seen more often as submissive.

These relationships often resulted in mixed-race children. “Colored” slaves occupied a different place in the imagination of the white south pre-Civil War. Consider how gradations of race affect the individual’s ability to engage with either white or black communities.

If you were interested in writing a book set in the Antebellum South and interested too in depicting the lives of slaves, I would shy away from assuming the easy character tropes. Especially prevalent are narratives of slaves complacent with their condition, and I think this comes from a misunderstanding of the nature of enslavement. If your characters are struggling for dignity, imbue them with the dignity they deserve, even if the white characters do not. Above all, keep in mind that each day is a struggle for claiming the validity of humanity.

Jim Crow South

jim_crow2                “Jim Crow” refers to a set of laws that prevented black Americans from voting and created the adage of “separate but equal.” Not only did these laws disenfranchise black Americans from engaging in civic life, but they also promoted job discrimination, inferior schooling, and substandard public facilities. During this time, the white populations of the South generally constructed race in a similar way as they did before the Civil War. Blackness was a sort of a marker of inferiority, a social stigma worn tight around a person’s skeleton.

During this time, however, as the number of mixed-race individuals grew, the distinctions began to be blurred. This did not preclude mixed-race people from the experiences of discrimination and often violence. Being black came with a deep consciousness of being black during this era, coupled with limitations on that person’s liberty. Race was something more concretely learned through the segregated places that whites or blacks inhabited.

Violence pervaded this era. Most commonly we speak about the organized violence of the Ku Klux Klan and other images (1)white-supremacist groups, but there existed also a more personal violence. For example, boys were often taught that they needed to be ready to “fight back” in case any black man attacked them; race was tied intrinsically to expressions of masculinity. White men became afraid during this time of black sexuality, the possibility of black sexual dominance, and so response through violence. The organized violence of the Ku Klux Klan, meanwhile, found its causes rooted in fear and dominance. As the lot of African Americans approved (more land ownership, increases school enrollment), they became fear of what possibilities these new citizens manifested.

Modern South

What about writing about race in the modern South? To understand where we are now, we must consider the Seneca-South-Carolina-e1277147978526-1024x861collective history of African Americans in South Carolina, the legacies of slavery of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan. Racism persists, but wears a new face. Aggressions occur on a more personal level, played out in job interviews, street interactions, and trips to the grocery store. Blackness is construed often as criminal, connected today with many expressions of blackness including attire and hair style. Through naming these attributes, most commonly associated with black youth, criminal, the South now seeks to equate blackness with criminality. Therefore, a fear or prejudice against someone seems not to stem from race but instead their perceived criminality.

If writing about the modern South, the writer must be conscious of these new vehicles of racism. Furthermore, one should be conscious of the narratives surrounding the criminal justice system, how systematic incarceration disenfranchise young black males through disproportionately imprisoning them for often non-violent crimes. Groups like the Ku Klux Klan persist, but they do not wear their racist titles as proudly: instead, they operate under crusades for morality, family values, and traditions.

In writing The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County, I wrote about a fictitious southern-tradition group called the Knights of Southern Heritage. In the story, one of their members is accused on lynching the black ex-mayor, though his guilt remains uncertain. One of the ideas I wanted to express was that despite the obvious racist undertones of this group, they were not the most dangerous people in a rural southern town. Who become more damaging are the people operating under the guise of tradition, those that rail against progress or development for the sake of clinging to nostalgic beliefs.

Who become more dangerous are the everyday people: the football team that makes light of depicting black-majority downloadschools as apes (True Story), the man in the grocery store following your son around because he expects your son to steal, the teacher who assumes failure for the black student, the couple that crosses the street when approaching a black homeless man, the woman who touches your hair without asking and thinks it’s so weird, the woman who calls you pretty for the black girl, or the fearful police officer who approaches a black boy for suspicious behavior. These actions tend to have more effect on our lives than the actions of any organized hate group—at least their bigotry is worn proud on their sleeves.

When writing about race in the south, we must observe the invisible barriers, the walls that creep between us like kudzu, and the assumptions we construct based on media-proliferated images. We must be careful not to paint with too broad a brush either about black southerners or even the people who discriminate against them, lest we ignore the ways in which people are most often disenfranchised. We must avoid these generalizations, lest we forget that the characters we’re writing must be human: the good, the bad, and the ugly. We might forget that despite our shared humanity, our experiences based on our race differ not because we ourselves are intrinsically different, but because people treat us differently.

“South is South”: Writing About South Carolina Without Demonizing or Romanticizing Its Culture, Past, and People

The South of the Mind smells like honeysuckles; sometimes Charleston smells like sewage and dead fish. The sun is SC Welcomea warm friend in the South of the Mind, where snow is mere fantasy; last weekend, snow blanketed my hometown of Aiken, and a week before the sun was a bully breathing down the backs of our necks. Either genteel Southern belles or toothless rednecks populate the South of the Mind; South Carolina is populated by a growing diversity of people who do not easily conform to categories. Just like any other geographic region, the Southeastern United States suffers from an image problem, presumptions propagated by stereotypes about the places, people, and culture that overshadow the true nuanced portrait of the region. Perceptions of the South formed through fiction often affect people’s opinions about the South itself. In writing The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County, I grappled with representing the small-town South in a way that felt authentic. On one hand, I wished not to construct the South as an overwhelmingly horrible and backwards place and therefore gloss over its positive attributes. On the other hand, I couldn’t ignore its faults. While southern culture and politics does not escape unscathed in my stories, I intend to present a balanced representation—the beautiful, the ugly, and the damned.rural-SC-commerce-competition

Although all novelists writing in English must confront the hegemonic power of the language and the violence committed by its speakers both in the physical and intellectual realm, writers in the South wrestle with a particular trailer-parkcomplex past. Because our past brims with violence, exploitation, and continued inequality—trends that today perpetuate new forms of oppression—we cannot paint the South in its antebellum grace. Too often we portray the South as blood-less cotton fields and pristine plantations, southerners sipping sweet tea while seated in rocking chairs as the breeze tickles the backs of their necks. Conversely, we also tend to focus only the brutality of our past without taking into consideration the hardships of southerners. In order to truly have a conversation about how to write about the South, I think we should confront a few topics. Over the next few weeks, I will pen short essays on the intersection of fiction and other topics, how these topics pervade our culture and therefore our stories. Though I may choose to write more essays than I currently intend, the topics include race, development, politics, religion, and family.

While engaging these topics, I hope to challenge myself to think more critically about how I construct my own “South gty_Beaufort_south_carolina_thg_130510_wmainof the Mind” in my novels and short stories. The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County is only the first book I intend to write about the South, which tackles all of the above mentioned topics, but as I write about different cities in South Carolina and beyond (I am now writing about North Carolina, gasp!), I hope to show how nuanced each region truly can be. The “South” is merely an idea—a construct formed by unconscious popular consensus—in much the same way “Africa” is merely an idea for many Americans based not in any actual knowledge or experience (See Chinua Achebe’s “Image of Africa” for confirmation of this). If you have any comments throughout the series on what ways portrayals of the South are fair or unfair, please share them. Likewise, I must contend that I speak primarily for South Carolina being born and raised in the state. Let us write with our minds and hearts open. See you next time for a frank talk about the South and its history of racial oppression.

To Wear Candy On Your Head

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Today, I drank coffee with Medusa’s little sister,

whose hair does not slither, but rather rises buoyed,

a cotton-candy flower blooming into sugar-rush and sick.

She drinks espresso in a single gulp.

She tells me that just because her face does not stop men in their tracks,

the way her sister’s beautiful face causes men to become immobile,

struck still as stone statues in their bumbling awe,

this does not mean she remains permissive to their stares.

The absence of serpent heads does not make her victim. She too

courts lightning inside of her.

She too some days feels like a monster,

shattering mirrors with shrieks of desperation.

She too knows rage’s name, kisses him like a grandfather.

She too has been scorned, but her hair

does not scare away the boys who whistle, only melts in the heat,

a sticky pink mess of fake sweet.

Literary Adventures Come More Frequently Lately

This week has been so far incredible, and now I’m gearing up for a slightly quieter week of writing and editing and putting my head down so that the copy-edit of the final draft of The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County can be finished.

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I got a poem published in RiverSedge, a lit journal based out of the Texas-Pan American Press. I will update on which poem got published once the journal is released.

Recently, I also received publication in The Southern Tablet. You can read my poem here: When You’re Sixteen In a Small Southern Town. It’s a fun poem about childhood and growing up, which is probably one of my favorite non-slam poems I’ve written recently.

On Saturday, I got the honor of being in my hometown newspaper The Aiken Standard. Entertainment writer Stephanie Turner penned an awesome feature about my first novel, my burgeoning poetry career, and my creative process. I was very happy at work that morning as several people approached me, having recognized my picture from the article. It’s been an interesting summer in Aiken, SC, because I always felt like in Charleston, people know me as a writer and in Aiken, people don’t know me as anything. But that is starting to change, and I hope only I can remain humbled and grateful about the opportunities afforded to me.

Read the Article here: Aiken Poet Completes First Novel.

Poetry, too, has blessed me this week with an incredible energy. On Wednesday night, Nova (a fellow poet and my significant other) and myself drove up to Greenville, SC to compete in a small slam hosted by Moody Black. I was happy to catch up with my poet family, especially one brother who is about to join the Navy. The event stoked my love for the spoken word art form and taught me just a little bit more about the competitive side of poetry. Check out the slam winner Annie Lee, picture below.

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The very next evening, I attended an open mic at MAD Studios in Augusta. I have featured here before and love the venue. This week, Bilaal Muhammed blessed us with some poetry. Augusta Poet Laureate SleepyEyez Carter was instrumental in bringing out many of the city’s poets and performers for an evening of high-energy love. During that evening, I learned that both Sleepy and Brotha Trav (the previous poet laureate) were heading to Atlanta on Saturday.

I called to ask if I could tag along. I performed as the spotlight poet at Urban Grind’s “Do You Lyric Lounge?” I also got invited back next year on August 2015 to perform as the feature. I am slowly building up a calendar for 2015, based around the same time my book will be released!

On top of all this great news, Germany won the WORLD CUP. I celebrated by buying some new books. In the coming week, I’m going to start blogging more frequently so I can give more full thoughts on the events and happenings I’m experiencing. On July 22nd there will be the Holy City Slam in Charleston (hosted by myself and Matthew Foley) which I will blog about before it happens. Also, we are having a small poet’s party tomorrow evening at a local pool– The Poetry Potluck! The other big news is the Word Perfect show in Charleston on August 14th, which will take place at the Charleston Music Hall.

 

Destroying Our Perceptions of What Women “Should” Look Like

google-template-women-must-beThere’s nothing wrong with a preference. For example, I like smart girls.

But sometimes, our expectations for women contradict, creating a tension between conflicting desires. Women are expected often to be demure, to be quiet, though at the same time then exuding passion through sex. There also exist contradictory ideas about beauty, whether it be skinniness or big breasts or big hips, whatever. People will also expect you to be something, bigger, smaller, smarter, taller, with better teeth. In the end, it’s pointless to actually cater to these expectations.

Therefore, I encourage all women to “fuck what I want.” Just stop caring about what I think women should look like or act like or be like, because I’m not the one living your life, you are. Or what anyone thinks, honestly, because it will just make you miserable, considering the fact that it will be impossible to live up to men’s expectations.

This is the simple message in this poem, which I performed

 

First Novel The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County, To Be Published Fall 2015

I am extremely happy to announce the forthcoming publication of The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County.

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On May 21st, I signed a contract with PRA Publishing for my first novel. This summer I am working with my superb editor to put the finishing touches on the manuscript, and then we’ll begin a massive marketing campaign. You’ll see reviews, blurbs, interviews, and other creative forms of marketing on this site! The tentative release date is August 2015, though I’ll keep you updated about specifics as the time draws nearer. Find out a little more about the book here:

When Declin Ostrander arrives in Lickskillet, South Carolina, he encounters a town on edge: after a grisly hate crime in their most affluent gated community, the citizens have adopted extreme caution and comical political correctness. The lynching coincides with a series of strange occurrences: the haunted house burns down, the local swimming hole is filled in to make space for condominiums, and a corporate lawyer arrives in town to defend the accused– a lawyer who happens to be Declin’s father. He moves to a new city every six months, sometimes once a year. Such might be the duration of the average hate crime trial. When Declin arrives at Lickskillet High, he struggles to relate with others and must seek out his own identity in the wake of tragedy.

Every town the same: a new racism, a new house, a new you. Declin’s father works for the infamous Knights of Southern Heritage, a cultural group often accused of hate crimes, and though he does not care fondly for the Knights or the victims, he relishes the chance to constantly move from town to town, to essentially recreate himself. The town reels over a central mystery: who killed Francis Jameson?

The book re-landscapes the South as an absurdist menagerie of Southern heritage groups, social segregation, and corrupt local politics. At the center stand the disaffected and aloof teens of Lickskillet, crusading against the humid hum of boredom with reckless mischievousness, post-modern apathy, and redeeming humanity.

Of course, I’ve written a book that is Young Adult (though that term here applies to 16-30 years old) and Southern. I wanted to write a different southern novel, one that didn’t glaze over the potholes of our history and society. Whether I’ve succeeded in recreating the SC atmosphere will be up to you readers come next year.

“Pursuit of Happiness”- Derek Berry

A new slam poem.

Cistern, 5pm

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dangling from his shoulder as he

stretches onto his side in the Cistern’s shadow mosaic,

his crisp blazer folded beneath his white crown.

When I approach to ask

if he might sign a petition for everyone

to start loving one another, he lowers his book and

wordlessly draws a pen from his breast pocket, and leans

forward to grab the clipboard.

“Happily Ferris After”

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Panera Bread gives no days off,

no fake sick days of water-tower fame,

no Michigan Avenue Beatles musical

where the world joins in for the sake of spontaneity.

Turkey and Swiss smell less romantic

than sprinting home with five minutes to spare,

or saving our friends from abject misery.

Just coughing up nostalgia,

I recall the vibration of

a leather steering wheel.

Should have driven somewhere new,

when we still had time, still had mileage.

827 Poetry Night: “In the Year of the Snake-Skin Boots” and other poems

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At my significant other’s first feature, I got the chance to jump onto the mic and share some new poems. More poems coming soon, to be uploaded tomorrow.

“In The Year of the Snake-Skin Boots” and “What Masturbation and My Poetry Have In Common.”

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