Walking the American Landmine

By | August 9, 2012

There are two issues in contemporary America that are difficult to talk about without an explosion of feelings: race and sex.

Being the kind of person I am, I only was able to talk about one of them in my latest book, Stars in the Texas Sky, which is a book about growing up in East Texas in the 50s.

The protagonist, Henry Valentine, is white, freckly, and a good honest kid without a care in the world. He’s only 13, so what does he know? His mother and father, both loving, keep him from the dangers of life—which every parent tries to do, I imagine—and Henry does not face the complexities of his own society. People know their places, and keep to them, and that’s all to the good.

Living alongside him, though, are other Americans who are not white and freckly, who have as much a history as Henry and his family, but who are not given a place and an account in society. We’re talking about a host of people who were largely invisible to the America they not only lived in and died in, but an America that was literally built from the sweat of their brow and the stripes on their backs.

It took a wrenching Civil War to figure out that African-Americans were not just as equal as “real” Americans, but that they were “real” Americans. Over the course of the next 100 years black Americans struggled to claim their rights; only with the shattering change brought by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were they finally brought into the sunlight of American history and perception.

Now, I grew up in a land where TV was my education, in Southern California of the 50s and 60s. I lived not 10 miles from the towers of Watts and the streets of Compton, but knew not one black American, child or adult. I have a vague memory that our neighbors down the street had a black maid, but I can’t really remember her face or her name, or whether she really existed. Not until my late 20s did I have a single person in my life who was not just like me, and that was a fellow employee with whom I had a work relationship. She was the first person I ever met who expressed to me an alternate viewpoint about current political and social events—and she was not an African American. She was from Africa itself, and she had strong opinions about how we did things.

I have not really worked with or socialized outside my group, and only recently crossed boundaries to have relationships with people who are not exactly like me. I’m still working on my attitudes and my thinking, and every so often I get an inkling of how I might sound to someone who listens to me. I expect that I sound privileged and clueless and nice, as if my approval or insight is “helpful” or “comforting,” but in the meantime others are thinking “At some point he’ll shut up and listen himself.” I talk a great talk, but the working out of my changes in attitude is hard.

Race relations in America is hard. I don’t know if it’s this way everywhere, or only in America, but certainly there is a uniqueness to it in America. As far as I can tell, like other countries in the world America had slaves; we are unique in that we both freed them to incorporate them into public life and have also remained two worlds apart. Black Americans and white Americans have little in common except, perhaps, the same general state of residence, but in so many ways there is still a separate life and uncrossable chasm between blacks and whites. I cannot & will not speak for African Americans, but from my own viewpoint it seems that there is a lot of talking and lecturing being done by White Americans, often convinced that they are the aggrieved ones, that somehow their fellow citizens taking their rightful place in society diminishes their own importance and privilege.

Well, it does—diminish the privilege, I mean. White Americans, as has been said, are born on third base but treat their lives as if they hit a triple. White Americans take it as their due the ability to live pretty much where they will, take whatever job they want, have no fear of being unqualified for anything they want, and assume that their ownership of their society gives them the right to keep others locked in their places. Any attempt by non-whites to live out their own lives with that same freedom is seen as uppity and a challenge to normalcy. White culture is seen only in its good aspects, and other cultures are always seen in the extremes. White people are the default “good” people, and in nearly every case of something happening, it is the white audience that it treated as normal.

I don’t think I can change all of that, and maybe not any of it. It’s so ingrained in our culture it will take generations to burn it out. Some things might not ever go away—we still use phrases in our games that come from the original Saxons who invaded England a thousand years ago (“Alle Alle Ach Sind Frei” becomes “Olly Olly Oxen Free”), so the change in understanding and acceptance of black Americans might not happen for a few more generations.

But I can add to the impetus for change in what I do and say.

I didn’t set out to write Stars in the Texas Sky because I wanted to write a book about race relations. Far from it. I wanted to write a story about growing up. But the first line and first scene set the die: Henry is standing at the crossroads, STOP sign in hand, as someone comes roaring through, ignoring Henry and his law. And that sets off the discovery by Henry of what it is in life that is a “law” and what is simply “legal.” Why we have a Pledge of Allegiance and racial separation. Why we have Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness and the squalor and misery and humiliation of black Americans by white Americans. Why we love our kids and those who look like us but hate the kids of those who are different. How we will with these two incongruous sets of values in our minds, with the value of people in general and the devaluing of blacks as compared to white.

From the moment the car ran through the STOP sign the story was completed. All I had to do was write it. Scene followed scene, character followed character—people walked into the story, interacted with Henry, showed who they were, influenced him, until the moment when he finally decided what he had to do—and realized that he had already decided.

I don’t claim I’ve solved every issue, or that I got it right. I’m sure people will read the story and think there is a set of unexamined privileges and viewpoints, that I don’t really understand what it’s like to be black, or underprivileged, or Texan, or whatever.

I’m fine with that. It’s the best I knew how to do.

Take it as a story. Examine what it says. What would you do if you discovered that your principles and your life did not match up? What would change? Would you ignore your principles for the expediency of happiness and acceptance, or would your principles lead you discomfort and social ruin?

These are all hard questions, and if you don’t really look at yourself, you won’t be able to answer them.

More to come.

You can buy the book at Amazon.com.

Paperback: http://www.amazon.com/Stars-Texas-Sky-Stephen-Matlock/dp/1477458786

Kindle: http://www.amazon.com/Stars-Texas-Sky-ebook/dp/B008NNSU3U