Story Statement: Women defy a racist and sexist society to forge their own destiny.
Antagonist: The antagonistic force is Philip Michael, a descendent of a slave-owning Mississippi plantation family. He has fallen on hard times and maintains his white supremacy by demonizing African Americans. His young daughter dares to choose a Black girl as her best friend, plunging the family into conflict. Collective antagonists also appear in the form of a mob that attacks the Black girl; the police who club and arrest our protagonists; the white bigoted dean of the University of Mississippi. In a reversal of oppressor/oppressed, a Black preacher is unmasked as the perpetrator of sexual violence against our Black protagonist’s daughter. Ultimately, the most powerful antagonistic force emerges in the conflict between the two protagonists: the white woman for her internalized white superiority, and the Black woman for her bitterness and pride in the struggle to befriend a person of white privilege.
THE HOUSE IN THE EBONY TREE
UNBENDING WOMEN OF THE LONG ARC
THE COLOR OF THE HEART
MUDBOUND by Hillary Jordan. (Algonquin books of Chapel Hill, 2009) “Love is a kind of survival,” writes Ms. Jordan in this beautiful novel of the discovery of love across racial barriers in the South. The legacy of slavery looms large in these pages, a story of ordinary people bonded by the extraordinary force of love. The threat –or actuality—of violence is never far away. A bigoted white father never lets us forget the hatred at the core of racism. It is the power in the hearts of women, bolstered by a love of the arts that opens a crack in the legacy of prejudice and fear. My novel also navigates the human heart in a racist/sexist society. Like MUDBOUND my story engages the reader through the passion and self-discovery of the characters in an America struggling to transform its racist legacy with love.
THE VANISHING HALF by Brit Bennett (Riverhead Books/Penguin Random House, 2020) is the story of female twins raised in a small Southern town. Being of “sandy” colored skin, they go separate ways, one passing for white, the other having a “blue-Black” child with a dark-skinned African American. Each twin is restless to forge a life beyond the prying eyes and prejudice of the small world around them. The spirit in the hearts of women impel them to make their own choices, in defiance of the norms of their culture. The closely-bonded women in my novel are not literal twins, but they cross racial lines and share a blood-sister ritual in childhood. They come into conflict, not only with the racist society of their small Southern town, but with the prejudice it has instilled in their own hearts. My novel, like THE VANISHING HALF will appeal to readers who want to engage with the complex emotional landscape of those who struggle for belonging and racial identity in American life.
A Black girl and a white girl in 1950’s Mississippi forge a lifelong friendship in defiance of the prejudice in the world, and within their own hearts.
Other Matters of Conflict Inner conflict dogs our female protagonists throughout the story. Dorothy, our Black protagonist, struggles with the question: can I be friends with a white girl? This becomes more poignant when Dorothy is attacked by white supremacists. Her inner conflict progresses throughout the years of their friendship, as her white friend, Winkie, marries into wealth and becomes a woman of “clueless privilege.” And they are conflicted in the matter of faith. Dorothy is raised in the Morning Glory Gospel Church. Winkie cannot abide religion, and this schism in belief further taints the way Dorothy perceives her old friend. For her part, Winkie struggles with the shame and guilt of being a white Southern woman whose ancestors owned slaves. The conflict of faith shows up when Dorothy’s teenage granddaughter, Olivia, discloses that she is carrying an unplanned child. Winkie, an avowed feminist, stemming from repression and a “coat hanger abortion” in her own past, is appalled at Dorothy’s faith-bound view that the pregnancy should not be terminated. Winkie now sees Dorothy as a “right-to-lifer”, and Dorothy sees Winkie as a “murderer.”
Outer world conflict abounds for our core characters. The story begins in 1955, before the passage of the Civil Rights Act. “Colored” bathrooms, churches, schools, shops, restaurants --- every aspect of community life is replete with the scourge of segregation. This shows up in family relationships, with Winkie’s racist father, Philip Michael. Dorothy’s parents are protective of their child, fearing the friendship with a white girl could be dangerous.
Setting Tupelo, Mississippi is the hometown of Elvis Presley, just down the road from Oxford, where governor, George Wallace stood on the steps of the University of Mississippi, vowing that no “Negro” would ever cross the threshold. In this way, setting is story, referencing historical figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., Alvin Ailey, Maria Tallchief, Rosa Parks, up to our contemporary BLACK LIVES MATTER. The history of the struggle for racial justice in America is both a protagonistic and an antagonistic force. On a different level, the non-human aspects of Tupelo, the nearby woods, creeks, and nature trails roll out before the reader with the sound of birds, insects---the wind whipping in to cool a sweaty face--the moon rising above the girls’ special house in the ebony tree of Winkie’s backyard. The beauty of the earth experienced first through the eyes of children, later through those children who have become aging adults, A magic that transcends the warring ways of the world, for our characters, and our readers.