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Notes from a Native Grandson
by Jeff Stetson, author of Blood on the Leaves
Many years ago, as a young university administrator, I asked a group of academic vice presidents if they were aware of "Bigger Thomas." When they answered no, I responded that since they had no knowledge of Richard Wright's fictional character perhaps they possessed an academic bias or ignorance that might undercut their claims of supporting a system based on excellence and meritocracy. Far more importantly, the reality that these leaders were unaware of Bigger might contribute to his creation and perpetuation within their own communities. This modern day representation of Native Son wouldn't be ignorant or afraid but rather highly educated with a rage hidden within the language of the articulate. I was always fascinated by what this contemporary "Bigger Thomas" might look like, what would be the target of his rage and how he might express it.
James Baldwin once wrote that a "black man who saw the world through the eyes of John Wayne wouldn't be a hero but a raving lunatic." I thought it a remarkable statement. Did it mean there were so many potential enemies that the sheer number would drive a black man insane? Or more likely, did it suggest that the inability of a black man to act as a man would eventually cause his madness? Equally significant, how would whites react to John Wayne in black face? This last concern raises questions about how we define "heroes" and "terrorists" based not on their actions but rather on their politics or culture or race or religion, the very issues confronting much of the world today.
This nation has defined manhood as the ability to protect family or community or country from external danger or hostility. Children look to their fathers for protection. What price does a black child pay for his father's inaction in the face of injustice? How does a child fully comprehend his father's "non-violent" approach to fighting discrimination and is that child capable of recognizing the courage it takes to withstand hate without succumbing to it. Ironically, has that non-violent strategy contributed to black-on-black crime by devaluing the importance and legitimacy of African-American life?
When O.J. Simpson was found not guilty of murder charges, concerted efforts were made to change the jury system. I thought about communities, primarily in the South, forced to tolerate jury nullification for decades, knowing whites would never be convicted of crimes committed against blacks, no matter how heinous the act. How did those communities manage to function under a justice system that never respected them?
Lastly, during the Civil Rights Movement a significant number of whites were involved in the struggle to eliminate discrimination and in the process risked their livelihood and in many cases their lives. Years later, many of those same whites felt rejected by the very movement they helped to shape. How would those whites confront the same issues today and how could they cope with the hypocrisies of race relations?
I wanted to explore these five themes in a novel that would build on the tradition of Wright and Baldwin while utilizing the genres mastered by Grisham, Turow and Patterson, authors I admire for their storytelling skill and dramatic pacing.