A funny thing happens when you write novels. As release day approaches, so too, does the anxiety. I’m not alone. In fact, most of my writer friends are familiar with this particular correlation.
Penning words that people in this broken world will read? It’s powerful stuff. Words hold the ability to shape and challenge and reinforce thought. And if I may borrow from Peter Parker’s uncle, with that power comes responsibility.
It’s a responsibility I feel profoundly.
So here’s where I get vulnerable.
Life After releases next week. I exhaled a giant sigh of relief when it received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly. Another Thank You Jesus when it showed up as one of RT Magazine’s Top Picks. Some early readers are saying its my best, most complex novel yet. All of which encourages me something fierce. Because I believe in this story. I believe in God’s ability to use it for His glory. I’m excited to get it into the hands of readers.
But recently, I was struck with an acute bout of anxiety.
All surrounding two lines of dialogue that occur in the book.
Two lines of dialogue most people will read right over and not think twice about. And that, right there, is what compels me most to write this post.
Over the past year or so, the Lord has been slowly and methodically removing the scales from my eyes. Scales that have made it easy to overlook the injustices so many people of color face in this country. God’s teaching me more and more each day, but I still have a long way to go. And sometimes, my ignorance smacks me across the face.
A la, these two lines.
They belong to Ina May Huett, an elderly black character living in Chicago. She speaks them as she’s flipping through one of her photo albums with the main character, Autumn Manning.
The first line comes after a photograph of her late husband and his family, standing in front of a clapboard house:
“Those were his brothers and sister. Smack-dab in the middle of the Great Depression. Black folk in America think it’s tough today, and I’m not discounting that. Lord know, there’s still plenty of injustice in this world, but, hoo-boy, it’s nothing like it was for a black family back then.”
I’m not discrediting the viewpoint. It’s one I’ve heard expressed before. Life was harder back then. When a black child could be tortured and killed for whistling at a white woman, and black men were hung from trees, and Jim Crow said black bodies could fight in our wars but they couldn’t have our same rights. It was most certainly harder.
But I cringe at the wording.
Black folk in America think it’s tough today …
That single word minimizes black pain now.
The racial injustice of today is not a figment of black imagination. It is real. It is pervasive. And we, the Church–a body that is called to stand against all forms of injustice–should be the first to address it.
The second line comes after a photograph of Ina May and her husband standing beside Martin Luther King Jr. before they marched in Washington. Ina May tells Autumn about some encouragement she recently offered a white mother who was having a holy terror of a time managing her three small children (two white, one black) in the middle of a grocery store.
“And all I could think was, you should see us now, Dr. King. You should see us now.”
Of the two lines, this one jars me the most.
All of us want to feel comfortable. We don’t like to squirm. I think it’s a big reason why so many of us steer clear of hard, honest conversations about race. We want MLK’s I Have a Dream speech without his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, where he calls out the white moderate. Because indifference, beloved, is the greatest enemy of love. And oh, how the blood of indifference has stained our hands.
White history in America is ugly, y’all. Ugly with a capital U. And when it comes to history, we have two choices. Just two. We can either learn from it. Or we can repeat it.
If Martin Luther King saw us now, I’m not so sure he’d be very pleased.
We might not have lynchings anymore, but we still live in a society that de-values and de-humanizes black and brown bodies.
Jim Crow laws might be a thing of the past, but we still live in a segregated America. We are a product of the past and until very recently, red-lining was a thing. I hear so many people talking about how “those people” just want government handouts, ignorant of the fact that our white ancestors took government hand-outs that our black ancestors were denied, essentially creating the urban ghettos and in effect, the grossly unfair distribution of opportunity we see today.
And this is just the tippity-top of the racial iceberg.
When we choose to look away? When we choose comfort and warm fuzzies over the very real cries of our marginalized brothers and sisters, we are the problem. We become the white moderate MLK called out in that letter. We become Jeremiah 8:11 …
They have healed the wound of my people lightly,
saying, ‘Peace, peace,’
when there is no peace.
When I wrote that small snippet, my intention wasn’t to perpetuate white comfort. My intention wasn’t to add to this rose-colored mentality so many of us want to cling to. My intention came from a personal experience, wherein I was that struggling white mama, and a black woman became my Ina May.
But at the end of the day, the intention behind our words does not matter more than the impact our words have.
Hence, this post.
About how sometimes, we don’t recognize our own biases until later, when they are staring up at us from the pages of a novel. One that you happened to write.
One I hope you will read.
Perhaps when you get to that particular scene, it will serve as a reminder. A challenge. To pause and pray for the scales to fall. For eyes to see. This is how I’m combatting the anxiety. Through prayer. That God would bring good out of my mistake.
Essentially, this is my prayer for every book I write. That He would take my paltry offering of words, and draw hearts closer to Him.
May He do the same now.
If you’d like to learn more about the issues facing black Americans today, here are just a few of many, many invaluable resources:
Pass the Mic, the official podcast of RAAN (Reformed African American Network)
Truth’s Table, three black Christian women who love truth and seek it out wherever it leads
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria by Beverly Daniel Tatum
13th – a documentary on Netflix