Racism in Fiction or Mike on His Soapbox

Recently, one of my readers posted a review on Goodreads questioning why I had set my story in 1952. The racism and homophobia of the era made her feel uncomfortable. Guilty as charged your honor. If your family is anything like mine, then you have a parent or uncle that was racist or homophobic. Racism and homophobia were rampant then. I specifically set the story in that era because I wondered how ordinary folks in 1940s or 1950s dealt with those prejudices. And in turn how do people of color and gay and lesbians dealt with those pressure. If you write stories set in that time, then some of your characters will be racist and homophobic. Consider Hemingway’s The Killers.

“Hey, bright boy,” Max said to Nick. “You go around on the other side of the counter with your boy friend.”

“What’s the idea?” Nick asked.

“There isn’t any idea.”

“You better go around, bright boy,” Al said. Nick went around behind the counter.

“What’s the idea?” George asked.

“None of your damn business,” Al said. “Who’s out in the kitchen?”

“The nigger.”

“What do you mean the nigger?”

“The nigger that cooks.”

“Tell him to come in.”

“What’s the idea?”

“Tell him to come in.”

“Where do you think you are?”

“We know damn well where we are,” the man called Max said. “Do we look silly?”

“You talk silly,” Al said to him. “What the hell do you argue with this kid for? Listen,” he said to George, “tell the nigger to come out here.”

“What are you going to do to him?”

“Nothing. Use your head, bright boy. What would we do to a nigger?”

George opened the slit that opened back into the kitchen. “Sam,” he called. “Come in here a minute.”

The door to the kitchen opened and the nigger came in. “What was it?” he asked. The two men at the counter took a look at him.

“All right, nigger. You stand right there,” Al said.

Sam, the nigger, standing in his apron, looked at the two men sitting at the counter. “Yes, sir,” he said. Al got down from his stool.

“I’m going back to the kitchen with the nigger and bright boy,” he said. “Go on back to the kitchen, nigger. You go with him, bright boy.” The little man walked after Nick and Sam, the cook, back into the kitchen. The door shut after them. The man called Max sat at the counter opposite George. He didn’t look at George but looked in the mirror that ran along back of the counter. Henry’s had been made over from a saloon into a lunch counter.

The Killers was written in 1927, but the same almost casual racism was still prevalent in the 1950s – well,  not that racism is casual. It’s very hurtful to African Americans, but racism back then had became so ingrained in American culture that is was taken for granted. In The Killers, the bad guys don’t want to hurt Sam.

“Nothing. Use your head, bright boy. What would we do to a nigger?”

The racial epithets were their manner of speaking. Back then, many white folks didn’t question racism, it was the way of the world.

In Harkness, the protagonist fails to see an African American, Thomas Stewart as a real person. Thomas cries out, trying to make Harkness see him for who he is.

“I’m not a complication,” he said, waving his arms. “I’m more than a complication.”

An effective way for writers to combat prejudice is to shine a bright light on it. Make people aware of the impact. In the first half of the 20th century, thousands of rural communities from Ohio to Oregon to Arizona had enacted ‘sundown’ laws. People of color couldn’t remain within the city or county limits past sundown.

Here’s an excerpt from Harkness.

We ran back roads looking for signs of Joey McIntyre.  Addison nestled in between us with his ugly muzzle propped in Stewart’s crotch. After a couple of hours of eating dust and enduring doggy farts, we headed back into town. At the city limits, I pulled up and stopped.  The sign read:  “No Colored Folk within the City Limits After Sunset.”

“I don’t believe it,” Stewart said.  “You folks up here are crazy.”

“Not my sign, not my law.” I tried not to feel guilty.  “City ordinance, so I don’t have to enforce it, but I figured you should know what you’ve fallen into here.  You should have listened to me when I told you to turn around.”

“This ain’t right,” Stewart said.

“I agree, but lots of cities and towns in the West have sunset laws. The laws were enacted right after the first war when black folk started to move up north looking for work.  Lots of white folk got nervous.  Funny part is, most folk in these parts have never seen a negro before.”

 “Nothing funny about it,” Stewart replied.

The law made Harkness uncomfortable, but not enough to challenge the status quo. People are flawed. To be realistic, our characters must have those same flaws.

Hoping to redeem Harkness, I have him regret his stand in my novel in progress, Thunderhead.

“Not you.” She jerked back as if I had slapped her. My body weaved and I put my hand on her desk to steady myself. “Back when Coach Conroy rampaged through this country, I stopped a Negro man just passing through. Family man. He was heading up to Portland to work in the shipyards. Once he got established, he was going to move his family up there. Nice feller, real nice feller. Expect his family was just as nice, too. He would have fit right in here. Been solid in the community. He’s the kind of feller that anchors a town. But I had to move him along, hit him up along side the head with my sap and run him out of town like some petty vagrant. You know why?” My hands fluttered about and my will couldn’t still them.

Love looked frightened. “Wrong color.”

“Exactly. Wrong color. Some redneck would have burned him out. Dagos and micks and polacks and jerries can live in Barnestown, but not niggers or spics or japs. Why? Because they’re the wrong color. So, why do you all tell folks that Bull’s an Eskimo?” When she didn’t answer, I said, “Because he’s an Injun. A god-fearing Injun and we sure can’t have them kind of folks around here, even if they are good people.” I gulped air as if I were drowning. “There are good God-fearing folks here, but sometimes I hate this town and most everyone in it.”

The racism and homophobia in Harkness are an accurate reflection of the times. To my critic, I can only say that things may have changed, but our society is still racist. Oh, the redneck assholes are cleverer in expressing their hate, but the effects are just as devastating. Set in the present day, my novel would still have elements of racism and homophobia.

To writers out there, you need to stand up for what they believe. If readers feel uncomfortable about your prose, then you’re doing something right.

I will now descend from my soapbox.



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