BLACK LIVES MATTER
Fact: The only reason people feel the need to declare that their lives matter is if their lives are being treated as if they don’t. Fact: Black male teenagers are being shot by the police on such a regular basis that the news stories are starting to run together into one continuous stream. White teens are not.
Race is a big part of my new novel The Earth Breaks in Colors. Two 11 year old girls — one black, one white — start out with the innocence of youth, seeing skin color as only that. After a violent attack by white men who use both their fists and their words as weapons, the girls feel the wounds of history tearing at them. They come to realize that in many ways, we haven’t really come that far from the days of slavery and oppression. When I was writing the attack scene, I knew I had to use the n-word — there was no way those men wouldn’t use it — and it pierced my soul every time I wrote it.
I was 19 the first time I witnessed a white man hurling that word at a black man. I was in my first year of college and a girl I was friendly with was dating a man who I intensely disliked. He was a short little man with a big mouth, and he was a racist. He actually looked like a young Lester Maddox, which was weird. I generally removed myself whenever he came around, confused by why she was with him since she exhibited none of his character defects. But on this day we were outside, and I hadn’t yet moved away from them. Near us were a few black students and Baby Maddox made some kind of vile comment about one of them — in a loud voice — and then called him the n-word. After all these years, I don’t recall what the preceding comments were. But I remember that one moment, that one word, as if it happened yesterday. I remember the boy turning to him with open wounds in his eyes…but only for a second. In an instant the pain was replaced by an anger so visible it was as if the temperature of the day changed. No other words were exchanged, but I know that black student walked away a different person. So did I. I never forgot his eyes, and they came back to me when I was writing the attack scene in The Earth Breaks in Colors. Odelia, the 11 year old black girl, all but disappears behind a rage so fierce her best friend wonders if she’s lost her forever.
Recently I overheard a conversation about the Black Lives Matter movement (I eavesdrop a lot.) The woman said she didn’t understand “all that rage” that black people have, since “slavery was over a long time ago.” Her male companion grunted his agreement. I would like to point out that no one would ever say to a Jewish person, The Holocaust was a long time ago, maybe you should get over it. There are different versions of enslavement. Some are subtle — words and judgements, selective blindness, rationalizations used to discount the long trail of history that travels down through generations. Chains are not always made of metal links; sometimes they’re made from human interaction in which humanity is absent.
The two girls in my novel end up older than their years because of what they’ve experienced. But there is still inside them the glimmer of innocence they once had, before the world moved in. I’d like to believe that’s still in all of us, that purity. Beneath history, beneath the cruelties of this world and the brutality of prejudice, there is a tiny persistent light — a recognition that as Maya Angelou said, “We are all more alike than we are unalike.” It’s a light waiting for us to grab onto it and be guided by it.