In my novel How to Be Manly, there is a scene when the main character Matty is alone, demoralized and in a very risky moment in his story. As he rests in a park at night, a police car drives past.
“Under the one tree by the skate park was a nice place to rest. The sky spilled over with stars. The tree’s white bark was smooth to touch and its leaves fluttered in the night breeze like thousands of clapping hands. I never noticed before how pretty it was. Stupid lonely tree.
A cop car rolled by the park. I flipped over to my stomach and tried to make myself as flat as the ground. My heart bumped against the grass.”
The imagery of a young black male pressing himself into the earth to escape detection is particularly painful in the light of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. It is as if the only way for this young man to feel safe is to be in the ground and he knows it. In other words, he will never feel safe while he is alive.
The old adage states, “Write what you know.” I know nothing about what it feels to be black or male in this country. I often make the choice to write from the point of view of characters who have nothing to do with my experience. The characters of my published stories include men, an elder suffering dementia, a war veteran, a gay teen, a young Hispanic woman, a girl unlucky in love. I can only say that I write the stories as they come to me. Matty’s story as it came to me included the knowledge that this character is in constant danger by virtue of who he is. Yes, he makes a couple of foolish and dangerous choices. Because he is a young Black male, the consequences of those choices could be disproportionately dire. The novel does not wave this truth on a placard, but it is a pervasive undercurrent in the character’s story.
I know what I don’t know. As real a person as my character Matty exists to me, I don’t know what it feels like to be black in America. I don’t know what it feels like to be afraid that the assumptions that the police or anyone else makes about my kids will result in their deaths. In an article for the Daily Kos, author Hamden Rice writes of the dread that African Americans in the pre-Civil Rights Movement South lived in all of the time. He says, “This constant low level dread of atavistic violence is what kept the system running. It made life miserable, stressful and terrifying for black people.” For every unarmed young person shot in the street, we reanimate a sort of racism so ugly many of us would like to pretend it doesn’t exist in our society at all anymore.
I could pretend racism doesn’t exist if I wanted to because I’m white and my children are as well. Racism doesn’t affect my daily life unless I choose to pay attention to it and feel sad that it is happening to somebody else and somebody else’s child. As painful and dramatic as the events in Ferguson have been, we can’t pretend that violence against young people, and black male young people in particular, isn’t a problem that belongs to all of us to face. This is no fiction, my friends.
I don’t know a lot. But I also know what I know, and I know that racism does exist and it threatens to murder everything about my country that I hold dear as a citizen, mother, teacher and patriot.