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“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.

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Warning: May Contain Metaphors

I write a sonnet: iambic Tupac.

A rocket rented: let’s skip the sweet talk.

In the space the clouds are not even there,

Nothing can echo: not even prayer.

 

Calculate life spans: TI-83.

Death could come for you: I just hope not me.

Got a collection of glass bottles here—

Stocking up all week; stocking up all year.

 

Graveyard shift Arby’s: Roast Beef Sandwich please?

Hide my soul in grease: hide my heart in cheese.

Equilibrium of a black-singed penny

Insignificant if I owned any.

 

Feral ain’t the truth; I don’t have no proof.

Structure breeds the breath of Creation’s death.

Modern Day Horror An Impossibility?

I watched The Woman in Black for the second time last night and came under the impression that every horror movie ever made should take place in the 1800s, perhaps the early 1900s. Once the characters get technology, all the mystery is gone.

So you think there might be a poltergeist in your house? Don’t worry. There’s an app for that. The wonderful new spectral locator app on your IPhone will indicate whether or not paranormal activity is going on within your home. When you find out a ghost is haunting your attic, sell your house and move away!

How lame would that be, though, if through some technology we could trace ghosts, kill vampires, and reverse every killer zombie plague? Thanks a lot, Richard Matheson!

Would  The Ring not lose a lot of its scare value if someone received a tweet, “U will die in 7 days #Evilcurse.” Then, Samara comes climbing through your IPad as you’re trying to watch 30 Rock on Hulu.

My point is, with as many technological advances as we have today, the things that once were scary have been demystified. We’re no

longer superstitious of demons possessing people with epileptic seizures. Not every crow means death. But back in better, less complicated times, true horror existed in uncertainty. These days, we are too certain that we know everything. Not that we can ever truly know anything.

Think of Plato’s wall, and what doubt it casts on the shadow of reality being truly reality, a real world and not one of shadows. Maybe this idea itself, the sheer notion that perhaps we paragons of technology don’t know EVERYTHING, perhaps that is today’s new horror. No more ghosts, ghouls, and goblins. Only uncertainty. Only a true ignorance where once we presumed was vast, concrete knowledge. Every day, we learn that things we absolutely knew without a doubt were never in fact true.

Is this merely more reason to lament the days when we were certain about our own uncertainty, not so mixed up about it?

What we need is more ghosts and haunted houses. Call me cliche, but I love those stories. In fact, check out this Litreactor article on Haunted Houses.

What are your thoughts? What’s the last good horror movie you’ve seen/horror book you’ve read set in modern day? Or do you prefer to kick it old school?

Modern Music’s Mega Dilemna

Rap and Country genres seem as far apart as you can get, but in fact, they have more in common than listeners to either music would like to admit. They both can be well-done as a style. I actually enjoy both of these genres provided they are done right. Country and rap music, today, however, is highly repetitive and annoying. Singers or rappers talk about the same things over and over again in each song. All rappers want to make it rich and get girls and do drugs. Country singers drink beer, fall in love, and drive trucks, sometimes tractors.

Both speak incredibly fake. Rappers pick up this “real talk” that sounds so fake, I could call it Velveeta. Meanwhile, the only thing that sets “country” apart from “acoustic” is that country singers sing in a heavy and obnoxious (sometimes even put-on) southern accent. Not every person in the south sounds like they’re chewing on wood.

Some musicians from both genres find ways to innovate. These people are mostly ignored. If you delineate from the subject and style set forth, you’re not considered a rap artist or country singers. They both face the same problems as pop singers of the 90s. Yes, I’m looking at you Justin Timberlake. Or even Justine Bieber, who rehashes the same things with his baby sweet voice, garnering the adoration of millions of preteen girls. Wait, have we seen this done before? Oh, yes, we have.

When you get right done to it, every genre acts upon this formula. Let’s pick a style and never leave it alone. Let’s all sing about the exact same things. Take scream for example. Despite the fact that every scream song sounds just like a variance of a massacre, even the lyrics are dreadfully dull. All about suicide, suffering, and nihilism. What happened when bands were inspired by something other than the clichés of the past? When did innovation in music die?

Centuries ago, words did not always have music, yet composers found ways to innovate. What I want in musical lyrics is honesty. Because with honesty, you get the raw emotion from which music should spring. If a song comes from genuine emotion and not from the careful study of musical trends, then beauty can exist in the music. If we return to this ideal in music where musicians are treated like people rather than Gods, we do no pressure them into conforming to what they have already done.

Anymore, musicians are scoffed at if they genre-hop though to do so shows great versatility. Instead, they are expected to label themselves correctly in order to better to market themselves. Therefore, music is less about music and more about market structure. I say, don’t be held down by your own image. Just because a man is called a drunk does not mean he cannot become sober. If music allowed musicians to make music that their emotions expressed, I would find commercial music much more interesting and worthwhile.