Sunday, June 4, 2017

How White People Write Race

The Doctorow book has me thinking about how I write race.

As a writer, it’s easier to see my black neighbor or the Coalhouse character as sympathetic humans than it is to see my own parents, with all of their ingrained prejudice and homophobia, as sympathetic humans. 

But that’s the easy way out, a temptation we have to resist as white writers, says W. Kamau Bell.

In an interview on With Friends Like These, he told white people to handle ourselves, calling out racism when we hear it and advocating for a new narrative of whiteness.

To participate in writing that future, I might have to understand where my parents are coming from.

The white supremacist is a familiar character, and it is not them. They deserve better. There isn’t a strong narrative of the “good white person,” racially speaking, but perhaps we can only get there by exploring all of the good intentions that lined our path to today.

The task becomes not writing black characters but trying to find empathy or insight in my parents' view of the world.

There is so much I want to say about our time that I felt ill-equipped to say, but surely the only white voices cannot be the bigoted ones. That's serving exactly no one.

Talking about whiteness, talking about blackness, talking about race in America is like talking to my parents about sex. There’s simply no good agreed-upon language for it. There are landmines everywhere.

I've ridden the wave into adulthood on the premise that the old white, Christian tale of America was simplistic and ignorant, the result of brainwashing or fear. Yet my parents are complex people.

Good intentions got us here. We’re going to need more bravery than good intentions to get us out.

Coalhouse Walker: Real Character?

Into this waiting-to-move period, I've injected an old favorite: Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow. Before I opened the book this time, I remembered loving the book but I did not remember the story. I got to fall in love all over again.

The book is a collage of the early-1900s. Harry Houdini, J. P. Morgan, Henry Ford and Emma Goldman make appearances. Two families, one upper-middle class and the other new immigrants, meet these giants of their time in likely, sometimes inconsequential scenarios.

Because there are so many "real" characters in the book, you imagine Doctorow researching and discovering all of the characters: Father, the executive at the fireworks factory, self-empowering Mother and the revolutionary Younger Brother. Tetah the artist who makes it big and his little girl. Their lives elevate to be as important to the course of history as all the names a reader in 2017 still recognizes.

When I last read the book, Emma Goldman was not familiar to me. Now that I know her as a historical figure, the book reads differently: as though any character, if you explore enough old newspaper articles, could come to life and be proclaimed as "real."

This brings me to the central character: Coalhouse Walker. In this reading, I was sure he was a historical figure. Following humiliation at the hands of the local all-white fire department, Coalhouse and his men (a ragtag team of 3-4 black youth and one middle-aged white man) barricade themselves with explosives inside the library and museum of J. P. Morgan. The metaphor is simply too perfect. I wanted to believe it.

From a NYTimes article written shortly after the book was published: "Asked if this angry black man were a real person Mr. Doctorow said, 'There are several hundreds of thousands of Coalhouse Walkers in this country.'" (Article here.)

But Coalhouse Walker entered the novel as a polite and proud black man determined to marry a young maid who was already the mother of his child. It was only through humiliation and his insistence on his own humanity and worthiness that he became indignant, and ultimately dead at the hands of his oppressors.

I believe in the reality of Coalhouse Walker, as unique or as aggregate, as both human and metaphor. I wonder if many black readers also believe in him.