Where The White People Are
A business item first. And then, some workshopping!
Business Item: Writers! There is a contest happening at the communal blog known as Medium. Various panels will judge personal narratives based on four writing prompts.
I'm not entering. I started to outline an essay, but I chose summer instead. Because who wants to win ten thousand dollars when you can sit at the pool reading a Lucy Foley novel and getting pelted by falling acorns? Not this guy.
I'm going to share some thoughts on a specific writing topic and you, readers and subscribers, will hopefully share feedback. (Also please share this blog with other readers and writers, for commooooonity.)
So the topic du jour is how to write characters in a racialized space.
And not just any characters, but diverse characters.
A racialized space, simply put, is a place where race and/or racism operate. Built into the concept is the notion that race is a social construction. But we shall ignore that part, because it's too pedantic for the real world. Try to see past the awkwardness of the phrase, too. Academics like to turn nouns (like race) into verbs (racialize) then turn those verbs into adjectives (racialized). It's annoying.
What historians examine is not whether a space is racialized -- most are, after all, especially if you study race and immigration -- but rather, how do the dynamics of race and racism work there, how do they affect the people who inhabit these spaces, and how does that dynamic change over time?
I found this conceptual paradigm even more useful in writing fiction -- well, historical fiction about the Jim Crow South. I mean. What are we doing in fiction, but staging characters in spaces, and imagining how they act and feel there?
Here's an example of how I was thinking about one racialized space -- the sidewalk -- in Charlotte in 1906. In this excerpt, the two main protagonists -- Jesamyn, a young Black woman, and Caddie, a white immigrant girl -- are walking to the mill owner's house. This chapter is narrated from Jesamyn's perspective.
An occasional automobile puttered past a horse-drawn carriage as they walked on. One driver stole a furtive glance in Jesamyn's general direction, to steal an eyeful. When they passed a pair of old white women with stern expressions and drawn faces, Jesamyn stepped off the sidewalk to avoid any squabbles, but Caddie just shifted her suitcase to the other hand to avoid bumping into the crones. Just wrapped up in her feelings, and her sightseeing, and her childish notions about opportunity.
What's going on here? Well, as you probably know, the racist etiquette of Jim Crow required Black people to make room for white people on the sidewalk. They didn't necessarily have to step into the street, sometimes they walked near the curb. But Jesamyn can't afford any delays right now. She has to get back to work. She has this white kid with her. Et cetera and so forth.
It goes without saying that sidewalks in America are still intensely racialized spaces. Just last year in Georgia, white shooters killed Ahmaud Arbery, while he was jogging. If you can't see the straight historical line from 1906 segregation etiquette to the ongoing hellscape in which a Black man can't even feel entirely at ease on a roadway, exercising, then go crack a book.
When you have read as much about white supremacy culture as I have, you see these timelines everywhere. I can't go to our community pool, any day of the week, without thinking about how racialized that space is. Racist exclusions at pools and other swimming spaces throughout the twentieth century virtually ensured that swim clubs and teams stayed lily-white over time. And had deadly consequences for Black children, who still die at much higher rates than white kids from drowning. Five to ten times higher, depending on the age group.
So, while I DO sit poolside and I DO read Lucy Foley and I DO get acorn-bombed by squirrels, I also think about how white the pool still is, and try to ponder anti-racist strategies, and scrutinize white people's behavior like a Persnickety Poolside Poseidon. I sometimes talk to other people about it, too. Like my husband. But since "the pool is a racialized space" isn't exactly fun summer pool banter, I usually trap it in the realm of private rumination.
AND YET. Being a white historian and writer, my insight is limited. My experience of racialized spaces is informed by book learning, and by universal human empathy, and by my experience as a woman in patriarchal spaces. But it is also limited by my whiteness. I have the (white) privilege of walking into a pool and thinking about race, hypothetically and theoretically, rather than walking into a pool and living the racialized dynamics that still may exist for any given individual, whether those are psychological or physical or otherwise.
I wanted to foreground this issue, and I use this living example, because it came up for me in dialogue with one of my editors. Here's the scene setup: Jesamyn has run into her love interest, while grocery shopping after work on Brevard street in Logtown, which was the center of Black cultural life in segregated Charlotte. One relatively positive feature of segregation was that Black people did have some community spaces where white people left them alone (until they didn't). Had I considered how Brevard might have been a racialized space? Oh yes. But mostly in terms of its community. I read first-hand accounts of the neighborhood, researched the retail and cultural institutions there, studied the architecture, and initiated several exchanges with librarians from the Charlotte Mecklenberg library in order to retrieve pictures from 1906. Here's a bit of the scene:
Jesamyn paused for a moment, to tamp down the rising edge in her voice, but Desmond broke in.
“Well, that has to change.”
His attempt at sympathy came off sounding to her like a demand.
“Thank you for your interest in managing the situation for us,” Jesamyn frowned, “But I don’t personally believe it has an answer. I don’t think you can fix this, and I would strongly caution you against trying to repair me.”
Jesamyn stepped off the sidewalk into the dirt road. Before her weight fully shifted, Desmond caught her arm. Her neck prickled at the intimacy of this gesture.
“No, just -- wait – please?”
It's hard to get the full picture from a snippet. Bottom line: The editor didn't comment on the first sidewalk scene; however, she remarked specifically on this one. I found this very interesting. She asked me to think about how self-conscious Jesamyn might have been in her own skin. There she was on the street, both arguing and being held by Desmond. My editor said: What if the white woman she works with happened to be walking past? Yes, an incisive question, I thought. Whether or not random white ladies DID typically stroll down Brevard street in 1906 -- I think they mostly didn't, based on my research -- Jesamyn might have carried a sense of danger and caution with her, even into that one, relatively safe space.
I am still pondering this scene, and thinking about revision.
In my daily life, I generally assume that Black Americans experience almost every public -and many private spaces too -- as racialized. Whereas white people probably experience almost no spaces as being racialized. A department store, for example. A pool. A sidewalk. Maybe I am wrong. But in writing, as in life, we have room to grow.