Tag Archives: shame

Telling the Truth: Slavery’s Descendants

A.B. Westrick holding Slavery's Descendants

My essay “So Many Names” is out this week in an anthology from Coming to the Table: Slavery’s Descendants: Shared Legacies of Race and Reconciliation, edited by Dionne Ford and Jill Strauss (Rutgers University Press).

It’s an honor to see my words among so many thoughtful pieces, but there’s no honor in being a descendant of enslavers—generations upon generations of them. Instead, there’s a lot of shame, and that’s what I reflect on in this essay.

It’s hard to write about shame. Along the way, I revised my essay repeatedly, and moreso than with fiction, the writing process felt like therapy. At times, I trembled. I cried. But I put truth into print, and that felt good. I revealed facts that I imagine some of my relatives would prefer I’d left buried. Some might say to let bygones be bygones and embrace what’s good and noble in our Southern heritage. But one of the goals at Coming to the Table is “researching, acknowledging, and sharing… [history] with openness and honesty,” and with that, I’m all in.

I yearn for America to evolve from the hypocrisy of our founding fathers into our stated ideal that all are created equal. My roots are Southern, but I grew up in the North and have heard Northerners deflect criticism, essentially ducking their complicity in our racist past (and present) by blaming the South. Many would have us believe that in order to heal from the wounds of slavery, we must continue to shame Southerners and those who live in small towns in the midwest, like Ferguson, MO. But that sort of spin lets off the hook everyone in every city with a low-income housing project and every suburb where African Americans have at one time been red-lined out. It’s a denial of the systemic nature of the problem of racism in America.

In this anthology, while many essays have a Southern flair, others reflect on slavery’s reach from New England to Oregon. This is an important book, and I hope it will inspire more folks to work toward racial reconciliation and the transformation of our society.

If you’ll be in central Virginia this coming weekend, please join me, Bill Sizemore and Karen Stewart-Ross for a conversation about Slavery’s Descendants:

Saturday, May 18, 2019
6:30 – 7:45 PM
Chop Suey Books
2913 West Cary Street
Richmond, VA 23221

Funding for the production of Slavery’s Descendants was provided by Furthermore, a program of the J. M. Kaplan Fund.

And P.S.—The New York Times featured Chop Suey Books a few weeks ago. All of us in Richmond are pretty proud of that, but then, we’ve known for years what a great place Chop Suey is.

Don’t Shy Away from Conflict

If you read only one book this summer, make it Something Must Be Done about Prince Edward County. Part memoir, part journalistic exposé, this sensitive and compelling book explores the history of a Southern town where local history wasn’t taught even though a suit filed on behalf of black students in the county was one of the five consolidated into Brown vs. Board of Education. Author Kristen Green alternates between memories of growing up there, enjoying time with her family’s black housekeeper, extensive research and interviews, and dreams for her own children, who are multi-racial.

I couldn’t put it down.

It struck me that in terms of craft, journalists can teach novelists a lot. So I caught up with Kristen (she lives in Richmond, VA—lucky me!) to get her insights into writing about tough topics.

 

A.B. Westrick: Kristen, welcome! And thank you for doing this blog interview. Your book has so many layers—such complexity distilled down to about 300 pages—that we can’t do it justice here. But we sure can talk craft…

You tell us how University of Mary Washington professor Steve Watkins (who happens to be a novelist now, just sayin’) helped you hone your journalistic grit. After you got “worked over” by a “nice” administrator, “‘The hell with nice!’ Watkins snapped. ‘Nice doesn’t mean good!’” (pg. 90). In another anecdote, you tell us that your former history teacher shut down your interview with the message “loud and clear: She’s done talking about this, and she thinks [you] should stop, too” (pg. 198).

So let’s discuss the born-to-be-nice problem. How do you handle tough moments like that? When an interview gets uncomfortable, what do you do?

Kristen Green: I think it’s like writing. Don’t give up too quickly. It’s tempting, when things start getting interesting, to pack up and say you’ve got enough information. But that is the time to push a little bit harder. I’ve been a journalist for a long time and confrontation is just part of who I am. I do not shy away from conflict.

I tend to keep asking questions, to follow a natural succession, to want to go deeper with each question. People expect writers to ask the hard questions, so my advice is just go for it. Assume that whomever you’re interviewing wants to talk about the tough stuff or is at least expecting you to ask about it. If you do it respectfully, and if you’re patient, you can get really good information you never expected to get. But don’t be in a hurry. And keep going back to the person over and over to ask follow up questions. New information will be revealed. One really great trick is to just be quiet at various points in the interview. Leave some space for the person you’re interviewing to fill—sometimes the interviewee will be so uncomfortable that they just talk to avoid silence. Continue reading