I never set out to write about racism or slavery. I knew I wanted to write a fantasy and struggled, at first, to find a time period and locale that worked for me. Don’t get me wrong. I love Middle Earth and Narnia, and Tamora Pierce’s Tortall. I cannot seem to pull it off.
Somewhere, I got the notion that Elizabethan grammar and words had been trapped in mountain communities in the American colonies and states. I loved the idea of playing with Elizabethan words and phrases in an American context. I am not sure if this idea is valid or not, but I found it fascinating. The journey of writing The Glorious Malevolent Grip may have started there.
I picked 1850 because I wanted my book to be set before the Civil War and around the time when conflict was brewing in Missouri. The Fugitive Slave Act has been passed. Slavery in this state tended to be on a smaller scale: more intimate than a large Southern plantation. For a slave, that could be good or bad, depending on the master or mistress. There would be nowhere and no way to hide. I also wanted the story set before the radical paradigm shift wrought by Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
I did not want to research slavery. It never became less revolting or depressing. The moment I thought I had my head wrapped around it, I’d find some detail, some torture, some humiliation so petty and cruel that I had to stop the research for awhile. Racism and misogyny were the order of the day, sometimes bland, sometimes blatant, and few people censored their feelings or opinions. And what was it for? Money. Kidnapping and torturing people in order to make a business, farm, or plantation thrive.
I stopped saying things like, “Well, they didn’t know any better,” and “The whites then were products of their time and culture.” I’m sure some people bought the lies that blacks needed to be taken care of and, gee, they were just another member of the family–a member of the family you could buy and sell like a mule or a goat. I’m certain some people believed God had ordained a hierarchy to the races with whites conveniently at the top. There were also plenty of smart people who discussed the “Negro problem” or the “slavery problem,” and they turned away. They couldn’t see an easy way out, it was an uphill slog politically, and besides, they benefitted financially, too.
I don’t believe the concept of “race” has any validity. Race is a cultural construct with no basis in science. You can find genetic trends or similarities in some groups (i.e., European Jews), but I don’t believe there are races of people as if we had breeds, like dogs. We are all cousins when it comes to chromosomes. But racism has infected us like a virus that mutates, disguising older forms and adopting new guises. See Dr. Robin Bernstein‘s fascinating book, Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights for more information on the origin of songs, toys, cartoons, and childhood expectations.
Does a white writer have any business tackling issues of race? Or do we have an obligation to create significant, well-rounded characters of color? By that, I mean the characters of color cannot be tossed-in minor characters or characters whose only function is to help a white protagonist find enlightenment, such as the Magical Negro. They cannot be wholly evil or pure: they must be 100% human beings, with a full accompaniment of flaws and graces.
And if I do depict racism: how far do I go? I danced around explicit racial terms for some time, till my critique group rolled their collective eyes and said they couldn’t tell who was what. I had to spell it out–Indian, Spaniard, Negro, white–and not hide behind description. It’s both uncomfortable and liberating. Uncomfortable because such terms matter in the book and matter in life, in spite of strides in civil rights and multiculturalism. Liberating because writers use words as tools; using the clearest words, even with baggage, was better than hinting or describing.
But I knew I had crossed a line. One that would worry or put off some agents and publishers, and anger some readers.
So: what do you do when you know your story has the potential to be controversial, even offensive to some people? You put your blinders on and keep hoofin’ it. It was the only way I could grapple with the use of the word “nigger” in the draft. The n-word hopped out unbidden when I was writing dialogue from the perspective of a racist character.
I sat and stared at it. Deleted it. Put it back.
No other word feels like a slap in the face the way that one does (except perhaps the c-word, but I’d place it a distant second). I wanted that emotional truth to the story I was writing. I did not want to soften it, to lie, and let racists off the hook. I thought, “I am going to be tarred and feathered for this one. And your first novel, too. Way to go, Kate.” I could end up as the Paula Deen of children’s books, except nobody would know who I was before I was declared a racist on Twitter and everywhere else. And I wouldn’t be rich.
I left the dreaded “n-word” in the draft. The editor may take it out, if I am fortunate enough to get an editor one day. I don’t know how to talk about racism without using the right words, the brutal words. I don’t know how to tell my story without offending people. It’s an offensive topic and history. And I very much do not want racism to appear nicer than it is. That’s my biggest fear, especially since I am writing for children. I don’t want racism to be whitewashed.
The Glorious Malevolent Grip began as a white character. It didn’t work. He had no identity in my head beyond being some intriguing hillbilly. I stumbled onto the idea of liminality: a state between states or a position on both sides of a threshold or boundary. When I made the Grip a free Negro in a time of slavery, things clicked. He is a man who withstands vicious tensions. His enormous hands give him strength and power; they also make him a monster, an outcast. He is a free man in a country where non-whites have very few rights in most states, unable to defend or speak up for themselves. The Grip cannot be killed, yet he cannot kill another. He is the one adult in the book who confronts his demons. The Grip is on the path to redemption for his own sake and sense of honor, not for a white character.
The burr under his saddle is his foster-daughter Willa. She complicates his life when his obligations to her are in conflict with promises he has made to himself. What is the honorable choice? Willa wants to keep her makeshift family intact. Although she’s a white girl, the Grip is the only true father she’s ever known and ever will know. Huckleberry Finn is not in charge of Jim in my tale. It’s the other way around.
Soon, I’ll blog about the most racist act I’ve witnessed and the most racist place I’ve visited.