It takes a long time for a story to get from seed-of-inspiration to bloom-of-book. I’m always worried that by the time I finish, my chosen subject will be outdated and I’ll have wasted two to three years of my life.
And in the case of my current novel, I didn’t even set out to write a book. I wanted to write a short story about two present-day women who discover an old quilt, and each thinks it belongs to her grandmother.
For diversity’s sake, I decided that one of the women would be black. Instantly, my story tangled up with complications.
There was no way I could write a story about their grandmothers — a white woman and a black woman in the 1960s — without taking race into account. No story would be simple. I could always say that the two women had crossed racial lines and became good friends; but that came with its own problems. Not necessarily because they wouldn’t want to, but because existing society had ways of punishing people who tried to cross that line — violence for blacks, social ostracism for whites.
And then I realized how recently that society had existed. It was within living memory. I myself was born in the late 70s when the great Civil Rights battles were still raging. I was thirteen years old before I realized that it wasn’t morally wrong for a white person to marry a black person. I was stunned at how we white people treat this heavy history as long past, when I now could see how it still oozes like toxic waste in our culture even today.
I pondered my newly-complicated story and was faced with two options:
- Embrace the challenge, face the wrongs and injustices that my people perpetrated, and commit myself to honest research about what life was then, and how it affects life now.
- Change the black character back to a white one.
I’ve spent two and a half years writing — and being — a “friendly white girl” who has to come to terms with the existence and effects of racism. I have nothing new to add to the black voices who have spoken up about their realities. But, it turns out, I have a lot to say to white people, especially Christians, who consistently downplay, deny, or vilify those who bring up this “old history” or “won’t move on.” I have, in fact, a whole novel.
And just in case I wondered if the subject was passe… Two months ago, in Georgia, an unarmed black man was killed by two white men. According to available evidence, Ahmaud Arbery was out jogging when accosted by a father-and-son duo who say they thought he was responsible for recent burglaries in the area. It’s unclear exactly what happened, or whether their suspicions were justified, or really anything except that Arbery was shot. That’s because, until now, no arrests had been made, and no investigation had been launched.
It’s that last part that rips the wound wide. It’s part of a pattern that was pieced together a hundred and fifty years ago and is still intact today, even if (thank God) we’re tearing at the seams now. These men weren’t immediately arrested and investigated because they had connections and friends among authorities. That’s an old, tired story. It was true for my fictional grandmothers in the 60s, and it’s apparently still true now.
In all honesty, I don’t know what it’s like to be oppressed, nor do I really know what it’s like to actively oppress. But I thought, institutional racism is kind of like being in an abusive family. What would be like to be the victim of blatant abuse, but have the rest of the family downplay, deny, or vilify me for speaking up?
And then I realized that, against the backdrop of that quilt of mysterious origins, I had my story and my protagonist.
I’m just sorry that the concept isn’t outdated by now.