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.
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 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 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.
What about writing about race in the modern South? To understand where we are now, we must consider the collective 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 schools 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.