By Alec Clayton
It’s a good question: Why in the world would a white boy from Mississippi presume to write about race. I’ve been pondering it a lot. Especially after the Academy Awards and the many comments swirling around comparisons between Spike Lee’s Black Klansman and Best Picture winner Green Book, which reminded everyone of when Lee’s Do the Right Thing was snubbed and Driving Miss Daisy won Best Picture.
There’s always an outcry, justifiably so, when white writers pen books or scripts about black protagonists, and especially when a white dude is the hero who comes to the rescue of a black person, such as the white FBI agents in Mississippi Burning and Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, the latter of which is an unfair charge. I might add, however, I’m glad Aaron Sorkin, a white man, has written a new version of the stage play of Mockingbird that focuses much more on the black characters.
I’m a white boy from Mississippi. I grew up during the most intense years of the civil rights struggles (which are still far from over) in the most racially divisive state in the union, and I have written four novels that have strong racial components. In Tupelo, a white boy has a crush of the daughter of his family’s black maid, and a black man is falsely accused of rape and murder. The same trial for rape and murder showed up in my first novel, Until the Dawn — seen from different points of view and told by different narrators in each. In The Backside of Nowhere, a light-skinned black teenager passes as white in order to protect her father, and in This Is Me, Debbi, David, there is an interracial romance.
If you think I approached these racial situations and black characters cavalierly, you are dead wrong. I approached them with much trepidation, asking myself at every step along the way what makes me think I know enough about black culture to write about these characters. I was especially determined to have a black man be the hero who comes to the rescue of the falsely accused black man in Tupelo. Yet still I wondered if I was the right person to write these stories.
So why do I insist on tackling these issues in my fiction? Because they weigh heavily on me. Even now, half a century later. Especially now that there has been a resurgence of bigots openly, proudly and loudly expressing their hatred.
As a teenager in the 1950s and a young man in the ’60s, I was slow to recognize the virulence of racism. I closed my eyes to things I knew were wrong, and I laughed at racist jokes. I did not participate in civil rights actions until enough progress had been made that I felt it was safe to get involved. But things I saw and heard about and the hatred I heard spewed from the mouths of people I knew and liked and the guilt I felt when I did not speak up have all weighed heavily on me throughout my life.
Black or white, witness, participant, activist or bystander, these things do not go away. They must be a huge part of the consciousness of everyone who lives in this so-very-racist country and most especially a huge part of the consciousness of everyone who grew up in the Deep South in those troubling times. So as long as I continue to tell stories, they must be a part of my stories, and I must tell them with as much honestly as I can muster up.