Tag Archives: Black History month

207. I Have a Dream

I’ve told my personal story regarding justice for black citizens several times, and I fleshed it out over a month and a half in February and March of this year. Here is a brief reprise for those who weren’t following yet.

I was born and raised in a small Oklahoma town with no blacks in sight. My father was a Baptist deacon and lay minister, and a dominating man. I never disagreed with him – out loud. He did not hate blacks – really, he didn’t. He expected to see many of them in heaven. He did think they had their place, ordained by God, and they would be happy if they only kept to it. He considered Martin Luther King an agitator and an evil man.

I agreed with his views of God and man when I was very young, but by my teen years I was beginning to question both. Silently question, that is. There was no discussion in our house, only my father’s statements ex cathedra and our silent nods. My final conversion away from his thinking on race came when black marchers were washed down the street by fire hoses in Selma and elsewhere.

This Sunday is the anniversary of the March on Washington, and Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech. When it happened, it passed me by. At the time, I was wrestling with my father’s views on God. My change of view on race was a couple of years in my future.

In our house, it was just another speech by that self-serving agitator King.

When I was doing research for posts earlier this year, I became aware of Philip Randolph, who orchestrated the March on Washington. Shamefully, I had never heard of him. At that time I said that I would find out more about him, and I did. His story is worth telling, but it isn’t mine to tell. I had planned a post detailing the March, but that isn’t my story, either. I’ve decided to leave both to those who fought the battles while I was still coming to realize that there was a war.

The story of the March on Washington isn’t mine to tell, but it changed my life, as it changed all of our lives, even if I didn’t know it at the time.

Voices in the Walls 34

6 of 6 of an outline of the remainder of Voices in the Walls.

One of the slaves is young, powerful, and pushy. He has always resented the whites above him; he is happy now to treat Matt as an underling. Matt is not about to buy that, and there is a lot of testosterone fueled head butting, complicated by black-white tensions.

Of course, this brings an image to mind – a white guy handcuffed to a black guy, running through the swamps ahead of the law. We’ve seen this show before, in any number of B movies. It will take careful writing to acknowledge that these emotions have to play out, without having the incidents take over the novel.

Eventually, Matt will have a climatic scene where he has to choose between the life of a white man and the freedom of a black man. The whole book points to this moment. It can’t come too soon, nor be delayed too long, but he finally has to take that pistol, given to him to protect his sister, and use it to protect one of the escaping blacks. Which white he shoots has to be carefully chosen. Not Meeker, that would be too pat. Not someone who is a complete innocent, nor a complete villain. The black he rescues is equally important. Probably not Alice – too easy and pat again, as well as being a sexual instead of a racial act. Not his black adversary among the runaways, that would be unbelievable. Probably Ben Sayre. Possibly one of the lesser characters among the runaways.

(Need I point out that this scene will be an obvious metaphor for the entire coming Civil War?)

This climax needs to come shortly before they all reach the Waterside area. There Matt will meet up with the old slave who taught him how to swing and axe and adz at his father’s shipyard. He has to experience again the servility that the old man offers him, and reject it.

Matt and his group steal a bugeye, an inshore vessel which Matt understands well. They work their way down to the Atlantic at night and out into a storm, then turn north and sail to freedom.

I’ve wanted to write this scene since I saw reference to an actual event years ago, long before I got the idea of Voices. A vessel designed for other purposes is exposed to a storm, and weathers it, to the surprise of those who thought they knew its capabilities. Like Matt. The storm is a massive threat from the outside, overshadowing white-black differences, and forcing them to work together or perish. And finally, the land is ripped apart by men in warlike contention, while the sea (aka nature) offers challenges men can overcome if they work together.

Yes, critics, writers are aware of the symbolism in their books. Readers, too. They don’t need you to point them out.

This also prefigures what Matt will do in the years to come. We find in the epilog, as he and Rachel and Sarah listen to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, that he will spend the war in the Northern navy and will be in command of a river steamer with a black crew which is lost at the siege of Vicksburg.

In the final scene Alice comes by with her child at her side and is embraced by Rachel. She and Matt face each other; he nods, she smiles, but they do not – cannot – embrace. Matt realizes, sadly and with feelings of personal inadequacy, that he still can’t treat Alice as he would a white woman, and he predicts in his thoughts – as Lincoln’s words echo in the background – that although the slaves are freed, it may take a hundred years before his kind can bring themselves to treat them as equals.

Voices in the Walls 33

5 of 6 of an outline of the remainder of Voices in the Walls.

I’ve even considered dumping the Alice altogether and having Saul be the one captured, but I can’t believe the story told that way. Maybe if Saul were five years old, but adult-saves-child is too easy a moral path for Matt.

I want Matt to change his feelings for a race, not an individual. Matt is young, good looking, and with a full complement of hormones. That means horny; it isn’t emphasized, but the reader knows. The girl is young, good looking, and forbidden fruit for two reasons. Young men of that era were supposed to save it for marriage, however often they didn’t. And slave owners – even ones like Matt and his father who strive for the moral high ground – would have been pulled two ways. Their “racial superiority” would tend to make them keep their distance, while knowledge that they could do as they pleased would tempt them to take those women who were unable to resist.

You could write a thousand stories out of that swamp of emotions: comedies, tragedies, or stories of moral affirmation and moral downfall. But those aren’t the story I’m trying to tell.

Matt is going to go into this rescue with massively mixed feelings. I want those feelings to be slave-owner vs. friend of a good, old black man. I’m afraid his inevitable sexual attraction to Alice will skew everything.

Nevertheless, logic notwithstanding, my gut tells me Alice needs to be in the story. The only way out of my conundrum may be to buckle my seat belt and write my way through the dilemma. If it fails, it won’t be the first couple of hundred pages I’ve thrown away.

So, let’s move on with the story. Alice gets rescued, and complications ensue.

For reasons I have yet to plot out, when Matt and Ben spirit Alice away, they are joined by a small group of other slaves who either have been planning an escape, or just take advantage of the situation. It may be that Alice invites them along, risking her life and freedom for strangers she had just come to know. That would be just like her.

Matt, Ben, Alice, and the others find themselves on the run. Matt has been found out. He can no longer pass as a southern gentleman. He has become a slave-stealer and his hosts know it. A hue and cry is raised. The road north is blocked.

They must now turn east and south, following a path that will eventually lead them to the tidewater region.

Here is a sidenote, concerning research: The journey from Gettysburg to the plantation where Alice is rescued has to take long enough for all the planned moral and personal dilemmas to play out. The distance from that plantation to the coast has to be be long enough for the remaining plot events to occur, but not be so far that the journey seems impossible for escaping slaves to accomplish. Beyond the linear distance, there is also the issue of time. Matt’s story begins with Lincoln’s election, and the number of weeks in Gettysburg, plus the trip south, plus the escape to the coast will probably push the end of the escape beyond the opening battles of the Civil War. All this has to be worked out in detail.

Accurate historical fiction is a lot harder than science fiction and fantasy.

From the beginning, I have planned for Matt to return to his own home, Waterside, passing through as a fugitive in the night. I want him to be fully committed to his new people by the time he gets there, and to fully realize what his change of heart has cost him; and to accept the change and the cost.

But before he gets there, he and his new people have to undergo a great deal of hiding, running, sneaking, a batch of close calls, a lot of fear, and a lot of interactions within the group, most of them harsh. Matt is no longer the man looking down from above. The slaves don’t know him and don’t trust him, and he is out of his element. He is not a city boy, but he isn’t Davy Crockett either. The knowledge the slaves bring with them is at least as useful as anything he knows.

Voices in the Walls 32

4 of 6 of an outline of the remainder of Voices in the Walls.

Eventually, Ben and Matt discover where Alice has been taken. Meeker and Bellows have sold her and left the story. There will be no shootout at the OK corral type confrontation with them. This is not a story about two evil men, but about an evil system. It would be fun for the reader, and Matt, and me, to shoot both of them, but that would cheapen the book.

Matt goes to the plantation where Alice has been bought, using his own identity for the first time on the mission, and is given the hospitality of the owner. This is a crucial scene. Matt is plunged fully back into his “real” life; he finds the plantation owner and his son to be kindred spirits. The father is nothing like the stereotyped evil owner; his son is a picture of what Matt would have hoped to become. Matt likes both of them immensely. They are so trapped in an evil system that they do not recognize it as evil. So was Matt, a month ago, and that old accomodation to slavery still calls to him. It was so much easier than the morass of emotions into which he is sinking.

Matt struggles with the knowledge that he is deceiving them and is about to betray their hospitality in a way that he would have found unthinkable a few weeks earlier.

Ben Sayre will discover where Alice is. Ben and Matt will plan the rescue and carry it out. The details of this will come to me as I need them.

Now we come to a crisis of conscience. Not Matt’s; mine. Once Alice is bought and brought to the plantation, being young and beautiful, she will be in danger of rape by her owners.

If a writer (typically) were to have Matt save a white girl from captivity, he would save her before she was raped. I am proposing to have him save a black girl from captivity after she has been raped.

Ugly. Ugly. Ugly.

It needs to happen this way for reasons of realism, and for plot reasons. This is how it would most likely have happened in reality. A good looking young slave woman would have been “sampled” by one or more of the whites, even if I paint the owner and his son as above that act. And when Matt sees her again at the end of the book, I want her to be raising the baby from that rape as a beloved child for whom she has no resentment, however much she may hate the father. That is how I see her personality, and part of my goal in Voices is to push the one-race idea that I hammered on throughout my Black History Month posts over in A Writing Life.

But it’s wrong. Logic and plot needs be damned, it’s wrong. It tastes like exploitation. A black woman author could write this story with the rape intact, but I can’t. At least, I don’t want to.

Turning away from the implications of her capture, simply writing the book without the rape, would dishonor our understanding of how helpless slaves were. Writing the rape, even though it occurs off camera, dishonors the young girl I have created and am responsible for.

Yes, characters in a book do become real for authors, as well as for readers. Alice, who didn’t even have a name two days ago, who has not yet appeared in the text, and whom Matt didn’t even know to exist at the end of what I previously wrote, is already real for me.

This is one of the sticking points that made me stop writing originally.

Voices in the Walls 31

3 of 6 of an outline of the remainder of Voices in the Walls.

Matt arrives at the Sayre home to find the front door ripped from it’s hinges. Inside, Sayre and his son are on the floor, badly beaten. Sayre is nearly unconscious and Saul is near death with a massive open wound on his skull. Alice is gone, taken by Meeker and Bellows to replace the slaves they have been unable to recapture. Saul was not taken only because he appeared dead.

The details of action will suggest themselves when I get to this point of the story. The essential part is that Matt is outraged, says to himself, “What can I do”, and then realizes that Alice’s capture into slavery is no different than what happened to tens of thousands of other slaves in Africa, and what will happen to her now is no worse than what happens to all other slaves, including the ones back home at Tidewater.

After a great deal of agonizing, Matt agrees to accompany Sayre as he follows his daughter. This means crossing the border into slave states. Sayre’s claim to be a freeborn man turns out to be untrue. He is an escaped slave who crossed into freedom before Matt was born. Discussion here of Dred Scott and how different things were twenty years earlier when the North still offered freedom for escaping slaves.

Sayre is going back into the land from which he escaped as a young man. He can’t go as a free black without papers (need to research this) and so goes as Matt’s slave. Playing the part of a slave owner is easy for Matt, but it affects the relationship he has built up with Sayre. Acting as if Sayre were a slave makes him think of Sayre as a slave. This slide back into what Matt normally would be is the first of several emotional reversals they both suffer as Matt is dragged back and forth between two visions of the meaning of slavery.

Matt talks to the whites they encounter, trying to find out where Alice has been taken, while trying not to raise suspicions. He hates the deception; it offends his sense of dignity. And he hates the silent disapproval on Sayre’s face as he falls too readily into easy give and take with those who have always been his peers, but whom he is now deceiving.

This emotional back and forth needs to be fully developed as the two of them work their way southward on Alice’s trail. There needs to be some humor and some adventure in these events as well. After all, this is a novel to be enjoyed. The modern reader should be in a position of watching Matt’s moral agonies without being sucked in to them. After all, the reader knows slavery is wrong, and Matt is just learning this. The reader needs to have some assurance that all will be well. At the same time, he needs to wonder what will be the cost in the end, and he needs just a little doubt. After all, things could go bad in a big way. Matt could betray Alice and Sayre. They could both be killed, or enslaved and left behind. The reader needs enough assurance that these things won’t happen to be able to enjoy the book, but he can’t be really sure, or he will lose interest.

Voices in the Walls 30

2 of 6 of an outline of the remainder of Voices in the Walls.

There is a major difficulty that has to be wrestled with throughout this book. Matt can’t be too pliant to change, or too politically correct by 2016 standards, or there will be no dramatic change in his thinking and no reason for writing the book. On the other hand, for a southern young man, son of a slave owner, to make the change to believing that the slaves need to be freed is absurd on the face of it. This unlikely transition has to be handled very carefully from two perspectives, timing and motivation.

This fragment has begun that task by making Matt the son of seafaring folk who are more universal in their outlook, by making his mother a Quaker, and by putting him into the orbit of an abolitionist aunt whom he admires, both for her own virtues and because she so closely reminds him of his mother.

Ben Sayre is vital to this transition, and I don’t think the fragment, as written, has done enough with him. Matt needs to spend more time with Sayre, bond closer with him, have spats and reconciliations, and (for plot reasons not yet revealed) to meet his family. This will probably change the timeline, perhaps adding another week before Sarah and Matt discover the slaves in the basement.

I need a reason for Matt to meet his Ben Sayre’s family. Perhaps Sayre can be injured, say by a foundation stone falling on his foot, and Matt has to take him home. In the present iteration of Voices, I intend for Sayre to live with a young man and woman, his son and his son’s wife, who are about five years older than Matt. Matt will be even more ill-at-ease with these two than with Sayre, and disturbed by how much their home life is no different than that of a young white couple. Let’s call them Saul and Alice, although I actually haven’t yet chosen names.

The night Sarah and Matt discover the hidden slaves, the story breaks out in several directions at once. Rachel comes down and confirms that this is in fact a station on the underground railroad. Matt says that they came down to the cellar because they both heard voices in the walls, which gives Rachel a chance to utter the line I’ve spent the whole book setting up —

“There ought to be voices in the walls in every house in America, while slavery continues.”

These are the runaways the slave catchers have been searching for and the body Matt found is their conductor. He was wounded getting them here and died in Rachel’s cellar. Another batch of slaves is due to arrive any day, so this group needs to go on northward. Rachel’s cellar will not hold them all. She has been trying to find someone to conduct them, without success, and is about to lead them north herself.

She has friends who will keep Sarah while she is gone. She sends Matt to bring Alice Sayre to take care of her house and be ready to show the new refugees how to hide in the cellar. He is not happy about Rachel hiding runaway slaves, and less happy about being asked to help, but he is willing to bring Alice to care for Rachel’s house. His emotions are in turmoil. He can’t betray Rachel, he can’t betray the blacks in the cellar because he simply couldn’t turn anyone over to Bellows and Meeker, and yet he can’t continue to help harbor runaways. As he rides to the Sayre home, he is planning how best to take Sarah and leave, but he can’t think of any place to take her which will keep his promise to his father that he will keep her safe.

Voices in the Walls 29

Chapter five, continued

“As soon as Amanda was able, she left home. She took a flatboat down the Susquehanna River from our family farm near Wrightsville, Pennsylvania, and ended up in Baltimore. She worked as a housekeeper there for a year, then moved on to Washington City. She told me in her letters that she was tired of farm life and looking for excitement. She took a job as a cook in a boarding house. That is where she met your father; he moved into that boarding house when he was first elected to Congress.”

This was all new to me. I had heard that Father and Mother met in Washington City, but that was all I knew of their courtship.

Aunt Rachel continued, “They fell in love and decided to marry. Your father made a trip up to Wrightsville to ask your grandfather’s permission. Your grandfather threw your father out of the house. He said he wasn’t going to have any daughter of his marrying a slave owner. So naturally, your mother married your father anyway.

“Through all this, I was the only one your mother kept in touch with. Your mother moved to Waterside and you were born. She was living with a husband she loved, and she had a child she loved. She thought she would be happy, but she wasn’t. Once she was actually in the South, seeing human beings enslaved, mistreated and given no freedom, she found that she was an abolitionist after all. That is when the fights with your father began.”

I said, “I never knew.”

“Amanda hoped that you would not. She tried to keep the fighting from you, but she was never sure. From her arrival at Waterside until her death, your mother was a tortured woman. She loved her husband and her children and could not abandon them, but she could not abide slavery.”

We talked for a few more minutes, then Aunt Rachel left me alone to think about what she had said. She had given me a whole new picture of my mother, and it would take a long time to decide what it would mean to my life.

*****

This is where the fragment ends. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. At this point in the story, the background has been established and the main events are about to begin. They will occur in two strands.

(The fragment was written in the late eighties. The outline that follows has been in my mind since then, but has not been written down until now.)

In Aunt Rachel’s house, probably on this same Sunday night, Sarah will come to Matt’s room again because she is hearing voices. Actually, he discovers, she has been hearing them for days but, not really knowing Matt or her Aunt well enough to trust them, she has remained silent. Now she is deeply frightened. Matt goes to her room with her to sit with her until she goes back to sleep, but instead he also hears the sounds she has heard. He is not sure that they are voices, but he thinks they are coming from the cellar. To silence Sarah’s fears he takes her quietly down, carrying a lantern. There is nothing in the cellar, and no noises, but there is a strange, unpleasant smell and a discolored segment of the dirt floor. Matt digs there and unearths a human hand and, tugging on it, realizes that it is attached to a freshly buried corpse.

Needless to say, Sarah is terrified, but Matt suspects that he knows the reason. The walls of the cellar are stone, but built against one wall is a cupboard filled with this season’s pumpkins and squash. The dirt in front of the cupboard appears to have been  disturbed, then brushed out. Matt takes the cupboard in hand and pulls. With a mighty squeal it moves away from the wall and behind, shining in the lantern light, are bright eyes in black faces.

Aunt Rachel’s cellar is a station on the underground railroad.     the outline continues tomorrow