Category Archives: South
“because love too is like a county fair/ in that it’s at its best in the dark/ next to someone you just met.”- Keegan Lester
Keegan Lester’s debut poetry collection this shouldn’t be beautiful but it was & it was all i had so i drew it, winner of the 2016 Slope Editions Books Prize, possesses a haunted urgency that, as one careens through its poems like a semi navigating mountain roads, suspends one between what we cannot know about being human and what we cling to as gospel. Gospel’s an accurate word for Lester’s verse. He explores language, love, grief, and Lester’s adopted home state of West Virginia.
The collection, however, is not coal-dusted or steeped in stereotype, but instead luminous with the acknowledged humanity of Appalachians. This is summed up neatly toward the book’s end in “You Appalachian Re-appropriating Asshole Poets,” in which Lester writes, “i don’t write about killing deer… my great uncle pitched/ for the yankees. He also killed deer/ he never wrote a single poem.”
There is an impossibility in both capturing the places we have lived, how they must necessarily change in our actions and through the echo of our memories. In the first “half” of the book (although this part accounts for the majority of the book), Lester weaves together disparate poems into a singular “ghost note,” which is like an elegy. Or prayer. Or the scribbled final thoughts of the dying. Or the dead.
In early 2017, I had the opportunity to see Keegan Lester perform his poems. He reads with both the New York Poetry Brothel and the Travelin’ Appalachian Revue. I use the word perform because Lester affects the posture of a backwoods preacher. The words travel through him, rather than from him as if transfused through the mother-lode vein of a word mine.
I picked up the book this morning for a long car ride and tore through the book for the third time. Perhaps it took some time to compose proper thoughts on the collection, but there must be a reason I keep returning. This book is itself a return, a home town not yours but nevertheless intimately familiar.
“Keegan Lester is an American poet splitting time between New York City and Morgantown, West Virginia. His work is published in or forthcoming from Boston Review, The Atlas Review, Powder Keg, Boaat Journal, The Journal, Phantom Books, CutBank, Reality Beach and Sixth Finch among others and has been featured on NPR, The New School Writing Blog and ColdFront. He is the co-founder and poetry editor for the journal Souvenir Lit. This is his first book.” – Found on Publisher’s Website
The flag blocks the view for other drivers, an obstruction to traffic. The truck too seems too large for Charleston’s streets. They are heading downtown to join the Confederate Day of Flagging. A few weeks ago, the South Carolina Secessionist Party organized a “flagging” of Charleston during the Southeastern Wildlife Expo and parked this same truck atop a garage overlooking Marion Square. The flag drew the ire of local activists, and by the day’s end, the city of Charleston had released a statement disallowing flags or banners of any kind in parking garages. But groups like these were not stupid, not as stupid or clueless as I once believed. Before they drew attention for their stunt at Marion Square, they had spent the past few years posting men on the corner of Battery Park in south Charleston, and there they took turns carrying the flag. I used to work downtown in a restaurant and would see them every Saturday morning when parking my car along the Battery. They were still here, still dedicated to their cause. Years ago, when writing my first book, I interviewed several people like this. I wanted to know why people still fetishized the Confederate flag, while disavowing their connections to white supremacy.
We’re not racists, they said, we just don’t like how things are going.
And how are things going? I had asked in my initial interviews.
The answers were often the same. The president was black. Mexicans were taking all the jobs. Muslims were infiltrating the US government, and they were always planning an attack. No, not New York. Here, and here! In Jackson, Orangeburg, Sparturnburg. They would blow up the water tower, the local factory, the beach boardwalk.
I pressed these people, didn’t they think these views were racist?
No, not racist, not them. They were, in their words, only pragmetists.
I wonder if I spoke with the same people today if they would bother brushing off that title of “racist,” or more suitably “white supremacist.” I wonder if the Confederate flaggers, their trucks too big for Charleston roads, their stars-and-stripes banners blocking traffic, fluttering in the breeze as the truck presses forward, a mechanical roar escaping its hood, if they identified as “white supremacists?”
When the hate crimes began, which are– maybe we agree– more heinous than the Confederate flagging, we asked ourselves, “But where did these people come from?” Were they not living in the woods somewhere, toothless hicks? How did they move from white-sheets meeting to Facebook groups? How did they gain such prominence and why have we been sitting around waiting for it to just stop, as if it will “just stop?”
The problem, I think, is we fundamentally misunderstand what white supremacists look like, who they are, and how they are radicalized. In fact, I published a book in February 2016 that absolutely mischaracterized white supremacists, and one year later, after re-reading the book I wrote in high school, I am rethinking how to approach this concept.
But in writing about these people at all, had I somehow given them a platform? Does the desire to “understand” what makes them tick normalize their beliefs? Writing a novel, after all, is almost always an act in empathy. In order to write about these characters, I had to empathize. I had to think hard about what they cared about and how that motivated them. I assumed they cared most about family, that misplaced fear of immigrants and other races somehow fueled these people? Of course, these are underlying motives, but in construing them thus, I painted them as passive actors in a system they could not control rather than humans with agency and choices. White supremacy, especially the organizational variety, is not an ideology ones falls into. It is a choice, is it not? Or at the very least, conscious decisions play a crucial role in the person’s construction of the self.
In early 2016, we were still arguing about Hillary Clinton accepting $675K to speak at Goldman Sachs; progressives named Bernie Sanders’ candidacy as a “dangerous moment,” fearing the rise of social-democratic programs like free college tuition and universal healthcare. These were simpler times, when Donald Trump’s presidential campaign amounted to an amusing circus-like sideshow and white supremacists were visible only on society’s fringes. In fact, Ted Cruz had just beaten out Trump at the Iowa caucus, and liberals everywhere were scoffing at the absolutely bombastic notion that someone as unqualified and self-centered as Trump might ascend to the presidency. This was the world as-is when the book came out, and even then I still spoke– in lectures, readings, and Q&A’s– about how to construe white supremacy.
The reality, of course, is that the project of white supremacy permeates every aspect of our lives: public schools punish young African American students in a manner that funnels them into the prison-industrial system, job markets still favor white employees despite what affirmative-action naysayers might suggest, and the beauty and art industries continue to uphold whiteness as a standard. I was, of course, aware of the greater spectre of white supremacy, but I had been writing about a more visible and visceral racism– not the kind that is systematic and pervasive, but rather the human-embodied variety. In my first book, white supremacists wore white hoods; they feared the rise of immigrants; they manufactured and distributed meth from their trailer park homes; they committed hate crimes. This brand of racism I viewed as marginal, a vestige of Jim Crow era Confederate-loving Southerners still lurking in the backwoods. But I was wrong, because they were not some peripheral population. They were America.
In order to better understand how the visibility and saturation of white supremacy groups have evolved in the past few years, allow me to explain some details about my book, why I wrote it, and how I understood racism at the time of its writing.
In Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County, published by PRA Publishing in 2016, a corporate lawyer and his son move to the mid-sized town of Lickskillet, so that the lawyer might defend a man accused of lynching the black ex-mayor. The novel is a satire about race, southern tradition, and backwoods upbringing, featuring a broad cast of characters who include drug-addled idiot savants, half-black soccer players, a trailer park genius, an ultra-rich sadist, a self-conscious granddaughter of a rock music mogul, and a boy who pretends to be someone new in each city he visits.
As the book evolved, I brought in new elements. I have a bad habit, even now, of weaving new narratives into already existing ones– a tendency I adopted from the post-modernist forms of fiction I read throughout my late youth. I began writing the book when I was sixteen years old, after a few years writing manuscripts set in exotic locations. I wanted to write about the South, with a capital ‘S,’ and because I had met the sons and daughters of white supremacists in my high school years, these characters became an integral part of the book’s plot. In the book, the group is named The Knights of Southern Heritage, and their main creed is to preserve the family-oriented, Christian values of the American South.
Family-oriented. Christian. Traditional. Alone, these words might seem innocuous, but they are the subtle signifiers of white supremacy. By promising to uphold family values, white supremacist groups do not mean to preserve families and contribute to education policies and fund agencies aiding single mothers; no, they mean they stand against LGBT rights. The phrase “Christian rights” too seems positive, but these groups are not seeking religious freedom for themselves but rather religious suppression for others. “Religious freedom” for these groups means the liberty to impose their religious will on others who might not share their beliefs. Harkening back to “traditional” values too is a vague precept– what is meant by traditional? Perhaps the nostalgic good-heartedness found in Mayberry on The Andy Griffith Show? Sadly, no. Traditional here is coded to mean “white” or “controlled by whites.” By evoking seemingly empty phrases, white supremacist groups may fly under the radar; they may defend their actions as justifiable by cloaking them in euphemistic language.
I made a lot of mistakes in writing Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County, and the biggest mistake was painting white supremacists as marginalized people. They were poor, white, desperate. By the book’s end, I made a point of [spoiler] revealing that it had been a member of the elite rich who had murdered the black mayor, not the racist hick who had been first accused. What point had I hoped to make? That just because a man was racist, he might not be guilty of a hate crime? Sure, that’s fine, but it misses a bigger point, one I outlined earlier– white supremacy does not rely just on the individual actions of racist people, but rather the collective passivity of an entire white community.
I began writing Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County in 2010, and it was not published until 2016. In the time between writing the book and its publication, police and citizen brutality against black Americans had become a national talking point. Trayvon Martin had been murdered for walking through the wrong neighborhood. Eric Garner had been choked to death for selling cigarettes. In the year leading up to its publication, I lived in Germany; back home in Charleston, a police officer shot Walter Scott in the back and then planted a taser on his boy. A white supremacist, fueled by an online community, walked into a the Emmanuel AME Church one block from where I had lived and took nine lives. And all this time my ideas about white supremacy, about what constituted racism and its prevalence, shifted dramatically.
Because when I tell people today my book references a lynching, no one bats an eye. It is the opposite of shocking; it is expected. In fact, I was tremendously worried talking about the book because it inadvertently exploited black death in a way I had never before considered. In writing what was essentially a satire, I had resurrected the ghost of black trauma, the ghost of black death, the ghost in a white sheet. Not only does white supremacy operate as a systematic oppressive force in American society today, it operates also as a proactive force.
Last week, gravestones at an upstate New York Jewish cemetery were vandalized (likely by white supremacist groups). Two days ago in Kansas, an Indian man was shot dead by a white man who believed him to be Iranian. Today in South Carolina, another Indian man was shot outside of his home. Hate crimes have been steadily on the rise since November, and while it is popular to link this rise with Trump’s presidency, the acceleration of hate crimes has been ongoing before Trump came onto the scene. What his rhetoric enabled, however, is the normalization of hate.
The Internet– that wonderful utopia and dystopia– is a source well for much of this hate. Log on to any news article related to race-related crimes or immigration, and you will see the outpouring of hateful rhetoric. What language before belonged only in the mouths of white supremacists– condemnation of migrants as inherent criminals, arguments blaming the black community for the terror facing it, blanket-statements concerning Muslim members of the country as universally linked to terrorist organizations. Recall the comments made concerning protesters blocking highways, calls to run them over. People who we might have viewed before as perfectly normal are now calling for the state-sanctioned murder of those who protest the status quo.
Furthermore, white supremacy has evolved, has worn new masks. Consider, for example, the vitriolic spewing of Milo Yiannopoulos or the neo-Nazi rhetoric of Richard Spencer; these men affix a modern varnish to a stale ideology. White supremacists are not simply handing out pamphlets in neighborhoods any more; they are making memes on the Internet. They are organizing via social media, using the same tools used by those who coordinated the Arab Spring. They are both grassroots and high-tech; they are not just hicks. They are web-savvy and able to spin their own narrative into one about free speech, not about the actual ideas they are trying to spread.
The level of intellectual hoop-jumping one must initiate is mind-blowing: even liberals are defending white supremacists in the vein of “protecting free speech,” when that really means “paying them money and giving them a platform to disseminate their racist notions.”
I finished writing Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County when I was eighteen years old, and little changed after that draft. Some scenes changed, of course, while I worked with the publishing company’s editor, and even more changed on a sentence-level. But after 2012, very little content in the book changed. It is a portrait almost of a young white psyche, blind to the vicious and infectious strain of hate spreading through the United States. And white supremacy is not a splinter ideology worthy of satire; it is a growing political reality worthy of extreme consternation.
In 2016, no longer were white supremacists hiding in the “backwoods” or living in trailers. In 2017, this is even more true. In fact, they are living in The White House.
[Short Fiction] Interview with Mr. Talbot Odessa: Transcript Concerning His Personal Theories About the True Cause of Hurricane Hugo
Interview with Mr. Talbot Odessa: Transcript Concerning His Personal Theories About the True Cause of Hurricane Hugo
Just start at the beginning please. Don’t leave anything out.
Pawpaw used to say, the ocean’s about the closest a human being gets to Heaven. ‘Cept the ocean killed his brother back in 1953—this was when Pawpaw and Great-Uncle Hank boozed around France post-war, picking up women and pissin’ into the Seine. Two weeks after Pawpaw met Memaw, they went for a small cruise in her daddy’s boat off the coast of Mallorca, and Hank stayed up deck while my grandparents did the nasty down below; soon, a storm comes and knocks his ass clean into the water, his arms flailing for help. But course Pawpaw’s flailing himself—if you heard him tell the story, you’d be cringin’ more than this—and Hank drowns beneath the vicious waves.
But Pawpaw still swore a love of the sea, could wax poetic about how the current of beauty pulls you under. When I was just six or seven, that’s when it happened—swear this is a true story. Back then, Pawpaw brought us to Myrtle Beach from Sumter on the first vacation we ever had—and I saw them for the first time. The mermaids.
No, real live mermaids. With fins and gills and everything.
And not like that redhead chick from Disney, I mean savage fuckin‘ mermaids. That’s why you came here, right, to ask about the storm of 1989? Well, I was there, just a child at the time. Wasn’t cleanin’ no place, tell you that. Wasn’t moppin’ up blood or vomit from the floor of this club after the high school seniors go home. This was the time of Hugo, ask anyone. For years after, all anyone could talk about was how that storm wrecked the shoreline, but some of us, we know the truth. The true truth about the mermaids and the sea turtles?
Hell yea, they rode in on these big-ass sea turtles. Swear on Jesus Christ, the bible, and Memaw’s grave. Now let me get on with the story: daddy and mama didn’t own no TV, so we thought we was supposed to have a nice, fine weekend. Rode up in the back of Pawpaw’s truck for about two hours, me and my brother hanging out the side of the bed with our arms waving. Loved the feeling of wind in my face, ‘cept the whole ride lasted too long. Daddy and Mama couldn’t come, so it was just us boys and our grandparents.
When we get to Myrtle, we post up in a hotel right on the shore. The Sandy Kingdom, this regal place. Memaw said the place reminded her of the Palace of Versailles, only The Sandy Kingdom was better because it had a water park. We got two big king-size beds, a refrigerator, and a window from which you could see the ocean. Pawpaw opened his arms wide and gestured to the water.
“Look, boys, he said. Just as beautiful as I remember.” Said it just like that. Told you I had a hell of a memory, I can recall it perfectly. “Just as beautiful as I remember,” that’s the exact words that fell from his lips.
Only when I peeked under his arm out the window, I didn’t think the ocean looked too pretty. Cloaked in gray-sky like some old antique smothered by dust, the tar-black ocean whipped the shore violently. The beach stood nearly empty, the wind whipping up belts of sand. “Dang, guess people don’t come round late summer,” Pawpaw said. “Guess we’ve got this whole place to ourselves.
My brother was around the age he started to play with himself and think about girls in a sense that didn’t involve them having cooties. You know: little hairs on his giblets and his voice doing that thing where it goes up and down, breaking like a ceramic plate. I didn’t like so much the idea of sleeping in the same bed as him, for obvious reasons.
“Grab your trunks, boys,” Pawpaw said. “We’re going down to the beach.”
Memaw decided to stay upstairs and read. “I just enjoy looking at it,” she said.
We changed into our trunks and headed down with Pawpaw to the beach, walking barefoot cross the parking lot. Once we got to the ocean, the sand lashed us something fierce. “Damn, that wind’s strong,” Pawpaw said. “Must be sandy season, and that’s why no one’s here at the beach.”
Not a damn soul in sight, not for miles in either direction. My brother Lincoln barged toward the waves that crashed huge and swallowed chunks of sand like some hungry beast. Plastic shopping bags, empty aluminum beer cans, and torn bits of net swirled in the dark water before us, carried by the crests of breaking foam. The entire beach, littered with trash; we couldn’t figure out why. Till I saw Lincoln go in that water. Soon as he leapt into an oncoming wave, something threw him back out. Something with scaly hands.
I screamed. Pawpaw came round to tell me, there’s nothing to worry about. Lincoln seemed to think he got pushed back by water, didn’t see no hands. But I saw ’em, and they would too. Pretty soon, I realize all this trash, the ocean’s spitting the trash back onto the beach. Cigarette butts, glass bottles, and fishing hooks. Even a pair of lady’s underwear, the kind with a little string that sits in the butt-crack.
See, you wanted a story about beach conservation, well, this story’s just right for you. They sent you to the right man, oh boy. Because see, that’s what the mermaids wanted. To save the ocean. That’s why they came onto land that wretched day.
So I was sitting on a dune minding my own business, trying to rub the sharp grains of sand from my eyes, and Lincoln yells, “Someone’s coming!” Sure-nuff, there’s this pair of men riding up in a golf cart. Only it ain’t a golf cart but instead some kinda military vehicle, you know, like the ones from M.A.S.H. You ever seen M.A.S.H.? I miss that damn show. I recall, when we first got our TV, it was on some channel, and I kept getting all excited; only my Daddy says, M.A.S.H. went off the air years ago. Anyways, these men were driving toward us and screaming. I couldn’t hear what words they were saying, cause they was far off, but it sounded pretty bad.
“Looks like they want us off the beach,” Pawpaw said. “Best listen. Come on, boys.”
By this time, I was feeling pretty weird bout the whole thing: we ain’t ever been able to afford any fancy hotel room before or no vacation to the beach. But here we were, mid-September, at Myrtle Beach. All the kids at school, they used to say, I go to Myrtle Beach every Spring and every Summer. But family never got to go until the weekend of the hurricane.
We walked across the parking lot, and the two men climbed out the Jeep. They ran up to us and started yelling. “Get out of here?” “What the hell you think you’re doing here?” Stuff like that.
Pawpaw puts his palms on both our shoulders and looks the men square in their faces, says, “These here my grand-kids, and I’m showing them the beach.”
“Sir, you can’t be here right now. You know there’s a storm coming.”
Pawpaw pointed to them clouds black as death and said, “Them clouds ain’t nothing? Let me tell you about the clouds they used to use in trenches. Them Nazis… ” He trailed off. Pawpaw liked to claim he was in the Second World War, but he was only an ambulance driver working in Italy.
“Sir, it doesn’t matter what you think. You ain’t heard of this hurricane? Hugo’s supposed to blow this whole city away, and you wanna bring kids here. You got to get in your car and get out.” One of the military men began waving his arms wildly.
Then I saw the strangest thing. The waves began to break, split apart like the Red Sea at the hand of Moses. Two walls of water blast up into the air real tall-like, and then I saw ’em. The beastly creatures stood on their tails and slithered up the beach like humanoid serpents. Straight biblical beasts, them mermaids were.
Yes, mermaids only. No mer-men or nothing. Just mer-maids, and you could tell they was women cause they had—well you know, women’s parts. Blue nipples on their pale-gray skin, first time I ever saw a breast. Their faces were wicked, jagged teeth like skinning knives jutting from their crooked jaws. Their eyes green like granny smiths. They wore white-green hair long down their backs, braided together thick and intricate. And halfway down, their skin became scales; they became fish with these pronged fins that stuck out underneath them as they slid like slugs up the beach. And they chanted something, foreign words. Afterwards, I swore it was Russians—they must have been communist infiltrators sent by Gorbachev cause he was sore bout the wall that was gonna fall—but Lincoln said their words sounded more like one of them Arab languages.
Anyways, they were chanting or singing. Kinda like in church, a prayer with rhythm. In their hands, they held these long tridents. Like them fancy salad forks you see at Olive Garden, only bigger and pointier.
You writing all this down? It’s important.
So these mermaids came up onto the beach with their weapons and their fishy-bodies, and suddenly they stopped. One was in front, she was the leader, obviously. She moved forward alone toward the two men.
The one man who was mean to Pawpaw screamed into his walkie-talkie, “They’re here. The combatants have touched ground. I repeat, they have touched—”
Suddenly, this screech comes right out the Queen Mermaid’s wicked mouth. And then we hear something, not out loud but in our heads. Like she’s speaking straight to our minds.
This is your final warning, humans. Make amends now. Promise us you will discontinue your campaign of destruction, and we will allow you to live.
But the military men only leapt into the Jeep and began driving away. Suddenly, we heard the rumble of helicoptors overheard and the smack-smack-smack, tap-rapta-tap of bullets. The words from the Mermaid Queen made me shudder, but the gunfire got me running too. I sprinted toward the Sandy Kingdom hotel with Pawpaw in tow, Lincoln a few lengths ahead of us.
Once inside, we stormed the stairs to the third floor and found Memaw. She sat in bed with a book above her face. “Look, Marguerite, we’ve got to leave.”
“But I’m only getting to the good part.”
The entire building shook, wind slapping the walls of the hotel. Rain sprayed from above in trembling blasts. Have you ever got your friends to shove you in a foot locker and roll you down a steep hill? Like that.
We peered over the edge of the balcony. The beach swarmed with mermaids now, the one we saw earlier merely a vanguard. Now a bonafide army of the slippery creatures stood ashore locked in mortal combat with human soldiers. The mermaids moved fast, knocking guns from hands with swift smacks from their tridents. Some blasted lightning from the tips of their weapons, siezing men with electricity. Men tended to remain far from the water, because waves continued to lash forward and drag the men beneath the depths.
The wind picked up. The rain chattered against the window harder. We moved away, backing against the door. We could not go outside, not with the sky damning each building. I crawled forward and could see the expanse of the beach shredded by the destructive storm, the waves of mermaids descending upon shore. We could sea the turtles now too, huge terrapins stomping up the beach like tanks. You ever see that movie Finding Nemo, came out a few years ago, and there’s a turtle in it? Well, nothing like that. They had legs large as tree stumps, spikes rising from their concrete-thick shells.
To our left, a pirate-themed mini-golf course, its astro-turf uprooted and thrown like a green-brown pawl against the face of One-Eyed Jack’s ceramic statue. Further down, a rollercoaster rusting against the relentless rain, its train bending under the power of sky’s rebellion. To our right, bright-neon signs crashing upon black pavement. Mermaids crawling up the light poles, wrapping their tails around street signs and breaking their stands like fragile toothpicks. They skewered car tires with tridents, overturning vending machines and spilling pinball machines from the arcade, which rode out like life rafts on the rising tide. As the mermaids overpowered the military men with lightning and brute ferocity, they advanced along the street. And the ocean followed them.
We watched as the entire city became Heaven.
Well, that’s it? That can’t be it. How’d you get out?
Oh, you believe me now, huh? Well, for awhile, the bottom floor of the hotel was flooded. We survived on provisions of snacks from vending machines upstairs. Pawpaw bust them open with can of corn we found. We stepped outside after the storm, and the whole city was wasted. Everything devastated in the mermaid’s wake. I seen tornadoes tear through trailer parks before, but nothing like this, nothing like how the rage of sea and sky could scorch a city so good, you wouldn’t recognize its fondest sites.
The amusement rides, broken and bent. The boardwalk crippled, boards ripped up, dock collapsed into the water. I remember seeing this stand, one of those fair-type places where you could shoot targets and win prizes. The whole thing sunk into mud, fluffy bears staring from the wreckage with gouged-out eyes.
Entire buildings collapsed, became a mess of concrete and sadness. Some houses got pushed off their foundations, even the ones raised up on wooden stilts. Church steeples toppled. You ever build a Lego-castle as a kid, a huge castle out of multi-colored blocks that gets taller than you, and then you take the whole structure and toss it to the ground, maybe from some height like the couch or kitchen table, and all the parts explode, blocks sliding across the floors? And you can’t recognize that magnificent castle you built? Like that.
Except there was one thing I guess people never tell about Hurricane Hugo, and that’s this. All the debris lying around the city, it all didn’t come from the buildings. Some came from the ocean. Piles of rotting, sea-soaked garbage. Just stacked in the streets like bodies from a war. Like a calling card or symbol. Or a warning.
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.