454. Another Man’s Shoes

Another Martin Luther King day has rolled around. They always pose a problem for me.

What? You don’t care about my problems? Well, there is really no reason you should, except that this one is about trying to write honestly, which makes it a problem many of us share.

I grew up white in a conservative Oklahoma where blacks were not favored. That puts it gently. I watched the civil rights marches of the fifties and sixties on TV and decided I was on the wrong side of history. And humanity.

Then I became a writer, and that all needed to be explored. I did so in posts. Look at any post in A Writing Life from mid-January through the end of February of 2016 if you are curious.

I also tried to explore that story in a novel called Voices in the Walls. I began it in the eighties and made it through about seventy pages before I ran up against the essential issue — there was no way I could write about slavery from the inside, yet I had to in order to make the book work.

Matt Williams is a young southerner who is torn both ways at the outset of the Civil War. I put him through a series of events which sends him south to rescue a free black woman who has been recently captured. I pulled that part off without straining credulity, but once he is there I need for him to interact with escaping slaves and to see slavery from their perspective.

I had no problem with Matt’s perspective, and the overall novel is from a white viewpoint. However, he has to come to see the south from a slave’s viewpoint and when I reached that point in the book, a voice in the back of my head began screaming, “What right do you have to write that?”

Intellectually, the voice is bogus. It is the job of a fiction writer to crawl inside other people’s heads and speak through their mouths. I’ve done it innumerable times.

Emotionally, this particular voice is too loud to ignore.

Matt and his slave counterpart (I never got far enough to name him) each has to experience the other’s understanding of the world. That is what the novel is about. If a black writer can’t take the white position, and a white writer can’t take the black position, the story can never be told. I don’t accept that, and since I am a sympathetic white, I should be able to proceed.

I can’t. The voice in my head won’t shut up. It has been yammering at me for decades. It may just be one of those things that I am too locked into my own generation to ever get straight.

No problem. One of you will write it, sooner or later. Maybe one of you already has.

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Voices in the Walls is still available in archives, but it would be impossible to navigate. Someday I will present it in another form, but for now, I am going to give you a set of annotated links in Wednesday’s post.

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