Politically Correct judgments freeze the pen. Whether writing an e-mail, a job resume or a novel, your internal censors pause the pen, aware of the self-appointed judges on either side of the political divide waiting to spot heresy. For a fiction writer, such judgments strike at the core, at imagination. It is imagination that gives us the ability to put ourselves in the other fellow’s shoes. To escape the bonds of our own culture and go elsewhere. It is why we read to our children; it’s why we “escape” into books. It’s the birthplace of compassion. For the writer, it is the key to creating characters that take command and drive the story.
“Sensitivity” readers are sentries crying “Stop! You can’t go there.” A Caucasian author can’t create an African American, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, Native American, or Asian character. To presume I can walk in their shoes is Caucasian arrogance. I’d be the last to deny that there is plenty Caucasian literature with bad portrayals of minorities—with characters who are nothing more than incarnations of the author’s prejudices and stereotypes. John Gardner, in On Moral Fiction, distinguishes between such “straw” characters and those of moral fiction. Authors, he says, must love their characters—must walk in their shoes. Will prejudices and cultural attitudes sneak in anyway? Probably. Is some knowledge of other cultures necessary? Of course. And I think success stems from a core belief that human nature is the same everywhere. But to say it is racial arrogance to try is to lock out the compassion essential for any racial progress. I was crossing racial lines in my fiction before the left put the sentry at the door, so I imagine I’ll keep doing it.
Below is an example: Chapter 3 of NOWHERE ELSE TO GO, published by Florida Academic Press in 2012.
Labor Day Weekend, 1968. The tension following the assassination of Martin Luther King is still high as the college town of Norton Bluffs prepares to open school.
Charlie Johnson woke, as usual, to the barking of the Stevens’ dog and lay listening to the plop of newspapers on the porches along the street and to the other dogs taking up where Pinto had left off. The world making believe it was just another day. The occasional thong of a basketball hitting a ring somewhere was the only other break in the afternoon quiet. He rose and peered out the window. He never much liked this waking up as the rest of the world fell quiet; always felt as though the world had shoved him out of the way and gone about its business while he slept. Today, it was worse; today it made him angry. Mrs. Stevens was working in her front garden and Pinto had gone back to sleep on the porch. The lone basketball player had stopped shooting and was aimlessly dribbling about in the drive—as though bored with all of this peace. Today, he needed the racket of the boys and their friends. They were nowhere to be seen. He turned the fire on under the coffeepot, then prowled the empty house behind him. Carefully he studied the unmade beds littered with comic books, swimsuits soggy in the bottom of the bathtub, the stack of dirty dishes in the kitchen. Another summer day. The required note lay on the kitchen table amidst the dishes. “Playing ball.”
He didn’t like summer in the best of times. Couldn’t get used to not knowing where the boys were, what they were doing. He heated up the morning coffee, shaking his head. They were good boys, like Maggie said, but by the end of the summer, with no one sitting on them … Well, it was over; they’d be back in school tomorrow. He trudged back to the bedroom with his coffee and stood staring out the window; pretty soon cars would start coming home, and children would be collected from the ball diamond and the river. The daytime world would start gathering itself to end the day as he got ready to begin his. No. No, they wouldn’t; this was a holiday out there. They’d be coming home from a day of picnics, or rolling out of backyard hammocks. And he and Maggie, they’d be left—like last night—to clean up the mess. Maggie would be tired tonight. Short fused. Another holiday on the emergency ward. He pulled his night watchman’s uniform from the chair and headed for the bathroom. The front door slammed and stopped him in his tracks.
“Uh—oh. We are late.” Jim’s words came one by one heavy with meaning.
“Quick, Jim, you get the bathroom.”
“Nuh-uh. I got the bedroom yesterday. You git.”
Chortling with relief, Charlie decided not to give himself away; he slipped back into the bedroom, laid his uniform back on the chair, and stayed listening quietly from behind the door. The bustling and hissing had begun to take on the tone of relief, when suddenly Jim gave a pained and startled roar.
“Shut up! Quiet!”
“How come that pot is hot?” Jim grumbled. The silence in the kitchen became heavy. They turned as Charlie came to the door. Waiting for him to start yelling, he realized. That was the trouble with worrying; you yelled too much. Humbly, he looked around. The kitchen sparkled, the table was rubbed to a high polish, the suits were gone from the tub; the vacuum stood in the middle of the living room where Jesse had been about to turn it on. He liked being wakened to the vacuum; they knew that.
“Hi.” Charlie smiled. “Who won?”
They exchanged looks and settled back on their heels. “They did.” Jim sounded as though loss was inevitable. He was growing again—had almost caught Jesse.
“Jim hit a homer, though,” Jesse said.
“Yeah. Right at the end when it didn’t matter anymore.”
Maggie came in a moment later, her practiced eye approving the house before she plopped wearily at the table, kicking off her white shoes and rubbing her feet.
“Whew, that feels good. It was hot on those wards today!”
Charlie eyed her with approval. Even bone-weary, her solid body did not lose form as she relaxed; age wasn’t going to bring fat for Maggie. The line of her jaw was stubborn. She could be trouble anytime, but she never dragged her weight. He set a glass of iced tea in front of her.
“There. Put your feet up.”
But instead Maggie shot upright, staring at the floor. “What—James Johnson, where on earth have you been? Look at my floor!”
Charlie hadn’t even looked at the floor. It was littered with chunks of dried mud, matching the ones on Jim’s sneakers and jeans.
Jim stared at both his shoes and the floor for a long moment before he remembered. “Oh. I forgot. I was at the pond—I forgot, Ma, honest. I played ball after. I’ll clean it up.”
“No, you can’t be washing the floor now. I’ve got to get dinner. You just put those clothes out to the porch and hose ’em off. You can get the floor after dinner.”
“Aw—they’re all dry now.”
“You’re not sitting at dinner in those. Git.”
Jim obediently shrugged out of his clothes and headed for the porch. A guffaw from his brother brought him back to hastily pull on a pair of old shorts that were hanging on a hook; then he slammed out the screen door to the back stoop.
“We let Rocco go today.” His voice floated back to his mother over the sound of the hose.
“You did? Why’d you do that? Rocco the frog,” she explained, answering her husband’s questioning brows.
Then she leaned her head against the wall and closed her eyes, listening, as Jim told her about it. This much news from him was rare anymore.
Charlie looked through the screen door at the figure industriously scrubbing at the jeans; Jim seemed so lost in his own tale that he was hardly conscious he was talking. He was like that. Not as smart as Jesse, maybe—schoolbook smart, anyway. But when he was doing something, he did it so hard the world dropped away. If only he wasn’t so big. He scared kids off and didn’t know it. There had been too many “Jimmy-did-it”s and too many teachers too ready to believe. Then the story itself began to sink in, and Charlie frowned.
“What’s wrong?” Maggie asked.
“Don’t like it.”
“He oughtn’t be down there messing around with that girl.”
“Messing …? What are you talking about?”
“It don’t look good—him down there in the woods with a white girl!”
“Oh, now look, Charlie, that’s—he’s played with Di all his life.”
“They’re not children anymore.”
“They were playing with a frog! What does that sound like? Look, Charlie, you can’t stop Jim from going to the woods. You just can’t.”
He sighed. “I don’t want to keep him from the woods, Maggie, you know that. What are they thinking of, letting a white girl run like that?”
“Yeah, letting her run wild like a boy.” He shook his head. “Woods aren’t safe for girls—never heard of it.”
Maggie burst out laughing. “Good thing you didn’t know me when I was her age. Come on, Charlie, what’s bugging you? What’s the harm? They’re only twelve.”
Charlie pushed his chair back and got up. He crossed over to the sink and turned the water on hard. “Well, that ain’t the way it’s going to be understood, and it’s going to be your son that gets it—no matter if he’s building a dam. So you’d best come to your senses, woman!” He turned the water off and slapped his rinsed cup down on the counter.
“You come to yours! I don’t know anyone who’s gotten into more scrapes defending Jim than Diane—including you!”
The kitchen fell silent. They stared at each other, remembering the spring, the end of a year of Jim forever getting into some trouble or other, as though he was punching back, defending himself against the pictures of stolid blacks and sneering whites that filled the TV screen each night. “He made me mad so I hit him.” Head down, fists jammed in pockets, refusing to look up at either of them. “He called me a spade—a nigger.” How often they played that scene? But always the same scene and always with the same kids—Colonel Stone’s boys or the Stoltzes—kids who they’d had no trouble ignoring before, but now were fired up by newscasts of Southern police with their billy clubs.
But then Jim had been accused of stealing. That wasn’t the same. Charlie hadn’t really believed Jim would steal. It was just that he’d had to sit there in that principal’s office—a new principal he didn’t know—looking at that screaming little white face that had lost her lunch money—and Jim just looking at the floor, saying nothing. So Charlie’d started yelling at him—just to get him to talk. Shouldn’t have. He knew that even as he was doing it. Then little Di came rushing into the middle of them.
“He didn’t steal it! I saw him. After Susie found it was gone—I saw him go over to—somebody else’s desk and take it out and hand it to her—it wasn’t his desk!”
“Jim?” the principal asked.
Jim nodded, saying nothing.
“How did you know it was there?”
There was a long silence before Jim finally mumbled, “Saw him take it.”
“’S mornin’ while the girls were at gym. Told him to put it back.”
“Who was it?”
Neither of them would say, of course. But the principal believed them. That’s all it took, Charlie had thought bitterly, one little white girl. Jim had given him one look, turned on his heel, and walked away. He’d tried to tell the boy he believed him, but it was too late. And there was Maggie now, just looking at him. No sympathy there.
“Okay, okay, she’s a nice little girl. But it ain’t goin’ to change the world, Maggie.”
Maggie rose heavily, and started dinner. Charlie gazed out the window at their ever bigger, ever blacker, ever more defensive son. Jim had to cross the bridge tomorrow, and Charlie was scared for him. The night shift was pulling him away from them. Worse, the three of them were getting used to his living alone in some other world.
“What’s happening to you, Charlie? Something happen at work?”
He didn’t answer.
“Something did. Tell me.”
“Bunch of kids tried to steal some tires.”
“All doped up. Had to shoot a couple times—into the air o’ course.”
He turned away from the window and faced her. “Sammy was one of ’em.”
“Ah God…” She stopped with the potato knife in midair. “You sure?”
“What did you do, Charlie?”
He stared at his hands. “I turned him in, Maggie. What else could I do?”
She looked at him without speaking and finally went back to paring potatoes. “I don’t know. Nothing. Nothing else, I guess.”
He watched her, reading her thoughts. His own nephew. He told himself he’d done all he could for the boy, but it wasn’t true. Essie wouldn’t let him do more. Wouldn’t let him anywhere near the boy. Essie hated him for being alive when Sammy Sr., her Sammy, was dead. Trouble was, he could never much argue with her about that. Sammy was the smarter one, son of the smarter father, their mother always said. But then she’d always shake her head. “Smartness never did a nigger any good.” She saw how it was going to be, saw that Sammy wasn’t going to live inside the world the whites allowed him.
By the time he was in high school, Sammy had it figured out. “You watch, Charlie. The minute you walk into that high school, you watch how those little clubs form, the ones that run the school paper, get elected to the Student Government, the clubs that run things. You go ahead and try to join one. They’ll let you. They’ll just go off and form another club as soon as you join the first one, that’s all.” So he dropped out of high school and went to work full time for old man Hatchet, the auto junk dealer where he’d spent every afternoon since he was eight—every afternoon he wasn’t out exploring the town, that is.
By the time he was twelve he could get almost any engine running, if Hatchet would let him have the parts. By the time he was twenty, he was building cars out of junk and selling them. Jackson Jewels, he called them, and they were the talk of The Flats. Sammy himself owned the biggest, shiniest one. He didn’t need the Man, and he was out to show the rest of The Flats they didn’t either. He paired up with Essie, who’d graduated top of their high school class and gotten herself on the cheerleader squad in spite of them all. A pair bound to prove Mama wrong, they were. They laughed at her for her head shaking ways; even Charlie, who usually sat on the sidelines, began to believe they would get away with it. They had long since stopped expecting him to do anything but listen, but for a while there, Sammy had him thinking he might, just might become as bold as they. Mama begged him to stop listening, stop talking tough, but Mama died before Sammy proved her right.
She died before cancer got old man Hatchet and Sammy got his big chance. He bought the business—or everyone thought he had. Essie said old Hatchet, when he knew he was going fast, warned Sammy not to deal with the people who really owned the shop. White people. But Sammy didn’t listen, and Sammy’s rebellion ended when his car had brake failure one night and ended in the Blackwater. “No car of Sammy’s ever had brake failure that way, let alone his own!” Essie screamed. But it turned out Hatchet and the whites behind him ran a numbers game from the back of the shop, and dope, too. Sammy had been working there too long not to be a part of that, the police maintained. And a whole lot of folk believed it too. “What do you expect?” they’d said and shrugged.
“Essie’ll likely be by, Maggie,” he warned.
“More ’n’ likely, you mean.” Maggie sighed as she dropped the potatoes in the water. “What’ll I tell her, Charlie?”
“Tell her it’s a first offense. They won’t go too hard on him.”
She didn’t answer; didn’t need to. That was no answer Essie was likely to accept. From the day the crowd left Essie standing in the cemetery clutching her baby and walked away, she’d had nothing to do with Charlie or much of anyone else either.
“You didn’t believe in him—you nor her either,” Essie’d muttered, nodding to Mama’s grave. She’d turned away, nuzzling her boy’s cheek. “But his son is gonna. There’s another Sammy coming. You just watch.”
Over the years, The Flats came to look on her as crazy. She cut them down with her glare, slammed her door on them, and grabbed her boy out of the hands they held out to help. For ten years, she’d refused to have anything to do with any of them. Including Charlie. Particularly Charlie, who was alive.
They called the boys to dinner, and ate in silence. The boys didn’t notice; all they seemed to hear was Johnny Matthews outside, slapping his mitt against the fence, yelling for them to hurry.
Jim, who’d started by wolfing his food, began to slow down, at first a little, then a lot. He eyed the yard and then his brother.
“Dunno. Don’t feel like playin’. You go ’head.”
“Hey, come on!” Jesse protested. “You gotta play first base!”
Jim waved a hand. “Naw. Those girls’ll be up there messin’ it up again.”
“That doesn’t bother anything, Jim. They’re just having fun. Why’d you have to let them get you in such a funk anyway—throwing Janie around like that.”
“What do you mean, throwing Janie around?” Charlie barked.
“I didn’t do nothin’. Just getting her out of the way. Runnin’ all over the field with her…” He broke into a comic imitation of Janie’s rolling eyes and giggles.
“You were mad,” his brother accused.
Jim shrugged. “She was bad-mouthing Di,” he mumbled.
“And Di is Jimmy’s girl friend,” Jesse taunted.
Their father was banging for order, but Jim answered doggedly through his father’s noise.
“I don’t like no girls.”
“Jim! You don’t lay a hand on those girls!” Charlie barked. “You hear me? I don’t care what they’re doing—you stay away! If I ever hear …”
The doorbell interrupted, and Charlie watched Jim make a thankful getaway to open it. He had the door open almost before he came to a halt; then his heels hit the floor.
It was Mrs. Miller, come to collect the rent. They’d offered to mail it to her to save her the trouble, but she always insisted it was no trouble at all.
“Hullo, Mrs. Miller. Ma, it’s Mrs. Miller.” Jim pulled back to let her enter, standing against the wall, his head turned toward the kitchen.
“Oh, hello Mrs. Miller, be with you in just one minute.” Charlie hastily tucked in his shirt tails.
“Oh, that’s not necessary, Mr. Johnson, I’ll just come on back,” sang Mrs. Miller. Smiling tentatively at Jim’s sullen face, she proceeded down the hall, looking into each room she passed.
Charlie stood watching, noticing the shade that hung crooked in the living room, that Jesse had never gotten back in the living room to run the vacuum. He ran his hand down the dirty streak along the hall where the boys’ hands always trailed as they passed, no matter how Maggie yelled at them. Well, the bathroom was all right; Jesse’d done a good job of that, if you didn’t count the place where the linoleum was humped up and broken around the toilet. Mrs. Miller stopped to move Maggie’s shoes out of the way before she entered the kitchen. Not that there wasn’t room to get by, of course; Maggie had just set them beside the door so she’d remember to take them when she went to the bedroom.
“Jim, you take those shoes and put them where they belong,” he snapped, then turned to Mrs. Miller. “Well, Miz Miller, how you be today?” he beamed. Behind the landlady he saw his son perform a mocking pantomime, then turn glum, reading the command to behave in Maggie’s eyes.
“Oh dear, I’m so sorry; I’m afraid I’ve interrupted your dinner.”
“That’s all right; we’ve just finished.”
Charlie detected laughter in his wife’s voice. Mrs. Miller always came at dinnertime. He shook his head as he looked around the kitchen at the litter of dirty dishes, food scraps and pots and pans. And the boys had knocked themselves out polishing the place an hour ago. But Mrs. Miller’s attention was on the floor. Maggie looked grim, waiting. Mrs. Miller wasn’t going to mention it, though; she smiled brightly at his mother instead.
“Oh, you worked today, I see,” she sang.
“Why, yes, Mrs. Miller,” Maggie replied, with equal brightness.
Charlie saw Jim hunch his shoulders to restrain his giggles.
Mrs. Miller’s voice went up a notch, as though she sensed she was missing something. She turned instead to Charlie, who wore his old yard working jeans and a T-shirt. He still had on his bedroom slippers. “Are you working at the moment, Mr. Johnson?”
“Been working ’bout as long as I can remember, Mrs. Miller. ’Scus me if you will, an’ I’ll get you that rent.”
“Oh. Well, it was just that I thought I saw you around the other day, when I happened to pass by.” Mrs. Miller smiled.
“Yes’m, I’m around. Work the night shift.” Mrs. Miller couldn’t ever seem to remember that.
Now she wandered over to the window and was looking out into the yard. “Oh dear!” Mrs. Miller gasped suddenly. But she smiled timidly, when Charlie returned to the kitchen.
“I’m so afraid one of those boys will get hurt, balancing on the fence like that.”
Maggie wiped her hands slowly and went over to the door. “Jesse! You and Johnny get off that fence.” She turned without another word and went back to the sink.
Mrs. Miller cleared her throat, “Well, it does loosen the posts. I do so like to keep my houses in good condition, you know.”
“Mmm,” Maggie said. “While we’re on the subject, I’d like you to look at that toilet, Mrs. Miller. I think I told you last time you were here that there’s a leak somewhere, and it’s ruining the floor.” Calmly she led the way. Mrs. Miller examined the floor.
“Mrs. Johnson, I’m sure if you had put something down here to catch the condensation, this wouldn’t have happened.”
“It’s not condensation, Mrs. Miller,” Charlie said. “You just put your hand on that tank, and you’ll find it dry as can be.”
“Oh? Well, it seems to be, at the moment,” Mrs. Miller said, running her hand around it. “I’ll send Carl out to look at it.”
“It needs a plumber, Mrs. Miller—not Carl,” Charlie said firmly. There wasn’t anything he, or even Jesse, couldn’t fix better than Carl. But Mrs. Miller just nodded vaguely and returned to the kitchen.
“By the way, Mrs. Johnson, I did give you lines for drying in the basement, didn’t I?”
“Yes.” Maggie looked blank.
“Yes, well, I thought I had. That really looks so untidy, you know.” She waved her hand toward the porch, “with things hanging all over the banisters that way.”
“Jim?” Charlie exploded, fed up with it all. “Git that stuff in like Mrs. Miller says!”
She gave him a look of gratified understanding, but Jim did not move. She shot him a nervous glance and bit her lip. “I—I really must be going now. Thank you, Mr. Johnson. See you next month.” She waved the check and hurried toward the door.
Jim stared at him for one long moment, and then turned on his heel. “Jess do like the honky sez,” he muttered, exaggerating his black accent, then slammed the door hard behind him.
Charlie started after him.
“You let him be.” The syllables were measured out carefully.
He let his arm drop and stood for a moment doing nothing at all. “Maggie, I just don’t want it to be one of them in the beam of my flashlight some night.”
The fire died out of her eyes. She looked tired. “I know, Charlie. Git. You’ll be late.” She went on into the bedroom to get out of her uniform, and he followed to change into his.
He kissed the back of Maggie’s neck as she stood in her slip, then collected his holster and cap from the hook in the front hall, said goodbye to his sons in the front yard, and drove off. When he reached the end of the one way street, where it joined the main street through the Delta, he looked back. The last of the Jackson Jewels, a battered hulk now, had pulled to the curb. Essie Jackson was going up the walk. She was a heavy, shapeless woman now, her breasts sagging beneath the old shiny silk blouse, but no matter how bitterness-ruined the body might be, it would be carried above a pair of high heels. Once, back when Sammy Sr. was alive, she’d hennaed her hair; no more. She wore an afro now, wild around her puffy face.
He should go back and help Maggie out. But Essie would only start raging at him, making matters worse. The face of his brother floated in his head, the way it had floated into the beam of his flashlight last night. Sammy Jr. carried the face and figure of a man he’d never known.
He watched the screen door open and hoped Essie would spare Maggie her rage when she found he wasn’t home. It was all too easy to imagine. He was an uppity nigger wearing a gun, guarding for the Man—he’d heard all that before, but now he’d turned in his own brother’s child.
To his surprise he saw Essie emerge and head back down the walk to her car. A moment later she gunned the motor and sped toward him. Spying his car at the curb, she rolled down her window.
“You just wait honky-man. Those fine babes o’ yours are goin’ to have to leave this cradle one day and you’re gonna find out they’re just as black as me!”
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