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Monday, May 7, 2018

How Can Writers Help Create a Safer Society for All?

by Linda Rodriguez

Friday saw Dylann Roof, who in 2015 murdered nine innocent people at a church prayer meeting in Charleston, South Carolina, sentenced to death. This brings back the horror of that event and so many since.

It ties into a current situation where two teen brothers from the Mohawk Nation (Haudenosaunee) were pulled from a college tour by police, warned to keep their hands in sight, searched (probably illegally), and questioned because a white woman on the tour called the police, saying they were “too quiet,” “creepy,” she “knew” they were lying, and they made her “feel sick.” The police uniform-cam video shows how tense this confrontation was and how frightened the teens were, fearing they'd be shot for a false move—as has happened so many times recently. The tie-in between these two events is the irrational fear and hatred of the Other, as well as genuine ignorance about anyone other than “their own kind,” to quote West Side Story.

I've been trying to move past anger, thinking and thinking and trying to come at this whole situation and the vast rise in hate crimes, and now, above all again, the massacre at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston from a place of love and understanding and a sense of optimism I've had to struggle mightily to maintain. This is what I've come up with.

I’d like to focus on the nine people whose lives were cut short in Mother Emanuel AME Church on June 17, 2015. I think it's too easy for us to forget them, especially since there have been so many others killed in the ensuing years. I fear that they all start to blend together, and I refuse to let that happen. I’ve linked to an article about the nine citizens whose lives were cut short at historic Mother Emmanuel Church here.

I didn’t know any of these people personally. I live half a continent away from them. But I feel as if I do know them when I read about them—their hard work, their devotion to family, their community leadership, and especially their devout Christianity—because they sound just like my neighbors and friends. I’ve owned a a home and lived in a predominantly African American neighborhood in one of America’s most racially segregated cities for over 40 years (and yes, it was already almost entirely black when I moved in). These are the African American people I know, the ones I never see in books or on television or in the movies, the ones who sometimes work several jobs so they can send their kids to a good private school since our urban public schools have become a disaster, the ones who are teachers and librarians and nurses and bankers and managers and supervisors, the ones who go to work during the week and to church on Sunday (and often Wednesday night prayer group or university night classes) without fail, day after day, week after week.

I have seen the long double rows of black men standing up before a packed congregation to pledge themselves to mentor and help all the young boys of the area, not just their own. These are the men who coached my kids’ Little League teams and helped dig out our car when it slid into a snow-filled ditch. These are the men I pass mowing their lawns and trimming their bushes and, sometimes, playing their musical instruments on their lawns, always giving me a polite, friendly greeting and wave. These are the men I never see on the media with its focus on the idea of the African American man as scary, violent criminal.

These are the women I’ve had coffee with and traded recipes with and joked with about our men and worried with about our kids. These are the women who bring casseroles and pies when someone’s sick or someone’s died. These are the women who work in the church food pantry, serving white and black families alike. These are the women who are professionals out in a world that constantly disrespects them as African Americans and disrespects them as women, and these women still carry themselves with dignity and pride through all of it.

I’ve been to AME churches and other black churches quite a bit in my life, and I’ve always been made welcome in the warmest, most loving, and truly Christian way. My heart breaks every time I read that the murderer said he almost couldn’t go through with it because the people he killed were so nice to him. I know those people. I’ve lived with those people for over 40 years.

And what I want to say is not to the white supremacists and vicious racists out there—because they’re mostly not going to change—but to the news media and the writers and filmmakers and television show producers and directors. Why aren’t you showing us these people? Why can’t I ever see wonderful people like these nine beautiful human beings and my neighbors in any of your productions? Why do you persist in showing only a negative minority of the African American population over and over, so that all the white people who live in all-white suburbs and work in all-white workplaces think your stereotypes are what African American people are and all they are?

And to my white friends I say, don’t let them do this any longer. Demand to see the reality of African American life, which is full of humor and music and parties and laughter and love, as well as all the other stuff of all lives. They do this to Natives. They do this to Latinos. They do this to everyone “different.” So that those white people (an unfortunately ever-larger number) who live carefully segregated, all-white lives only know these negative stereotypes about people from other cultures than their own. Don’t let them do this any longer. More than anything else, more even than the disgusting hate speech, this eternal lopsided presentation is what feeds the ugly racism that underlies America. Demand that it stop.

As writers and readers, we have the power to change this terrible racist rot at the heart of our society. We simply have to muster the courage to insist on truthful, varied portrayals of real human beings, the courage to reach outside of segregated suburbs to learn about people who are not just like us, the courage to call out false, bigoted remarks and portrayals when we encounter them. Let us be part of the solution and no longer part of the problem, actively or passively. Let us bring our society closer to the ideals we claim for it.

Writers shape the way our nation sees the world. Let us shape that perspective with truth and empathy.

Linda Rodriguez's Dark Sister: Poems has just been released. Plotting the Character-Driven Novel, based on her popular workshop, and The World Is One Place: Native American Poets Visit the Middle East, an anthology she co-edited, were published to high praise in 2017. Every Family Doubt, her fourth mystery novel featuring Cherokee campus police chief, Skeet Bannion, and Revising the Character-Driven Novel will be published in 2019. Her three earlier Skeet novels—Every Hidden Fear, Every Broken Trust, and Every Last Secret—and her books of poetry—Skin Hunger and Heart's Migration—have received critical recognition and awards, such as St. Martin's Press/Malice Domestic Best First Novel, International Latino Book Award, Latina Book Club Best Book of 2014, Midwest Voices & Visions, Elvira Cordero Cisneros Award, Thorpe Menn Award, and Ragdale and Macondo fellowships. Her short story, “The Good Neighbor,” published in the anthology, Kansas City Noir, has been optioned for film.

Rodriguez is past chair of the AWP Indigenous Writer’s Caucus, past president of Border Crimes chapter of Sisters in Crime, founding board member of Latino Writers Collective and The Writers Place, and a member of International Thriller Writers, Wordcraft Circle of Native American Writers and Storytellers, and Kansas City Cherokee Community. Visit her at


Kait said...

This is beautiful, Linda. Well said.

I am reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King when he spoke of his children and said that he prayed that someday they would be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their characters. Isn't that what we should be striving for? To look at our fellow human being as human beings. Honoring and respecting heritage, but not making heritage a focal point, rather making character a focus.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

Your essay should be a tv ad for tomorrow's Ohio primary.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Thank you, Kait. This is why people of color refuse to allow white people to say, "But I don't see color, etc...." Racism is so systemic in the US, which was literally built on the racism of genocide and slavery, that no one can say that. Perhaps sometime down the road, many years, if not centuries, from now. I hope for that.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Margaret, politics has become so openly racist and ugly in the past few years that our situation has become terrifying in this country. But it doesn't surprise those of us from marginalized communities. We saw it in many ways while white people were hiding it from other white people all this time.They're just not hiding it any longer, but proudly, brazenly flaunting it in public.

Warren Bull said...

I think all of us have the responsibility to do what we can to admit the racism built into the society we live in and to speak out against it.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Absolutely, Warren.

KM Rockwood said...

One small thing--when it was my turn to choose a book for my mystery book club, I selected Barbara Neely's Blanche on the Lam, whose protagonist is a black housekeeper in a white household in North Carolina. I felt it was important to introduce a different perspective to the members. Everyone loved it. Fiction can do a great job of helping to reset some perspectives.

So much of this is subconscious. Years ago I moved my family to rural Michigan from South Chicago. When I was trying to prepare my children for what to expect, I mentioned that most of the people they would meet would be white. My girls thought I was delusional; it was perfectly obvious to them that, in fact, most people in the world were black.

I think it's important to be aware of how whatever we experience becomes an unthinking "norm," and we need to give some thought to recognizing the need to be aware.

Shari Randall said...

Linda, I'm so glad you are remembering these wonderful people. How awful that most, thanks to the news, only know the name of their murderer.
And those poor boys who were hauled off by police while they were on a college tour of all things. The woman who called the police on them....I can barely comprehend a person like that. I'm so glad that my kids grew up in one of the most diverse communities in the country - right outside Washington, DC. They were lucky to have friends of all races and ethnicities.

Linda Rodriguez said...

KM, You are so right about people feeling that the norm around them is the norm for the entire world. We live in a sad time when, new studies show us, the United States is more segregated then it has ever been, even at the height of segregation and Jim Crow. People have retreated into racially pure enclaves without, I think, making a conscious effort to do this. But we are paying the price for that kind of isolation now in our public discourse and the behavior of citizens in this country.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Shari, yes, I really hate the fact that we do not remember the victims of these crimes, but everyone knows the names and faces of the murderers. In a way, we have given them what they wanted, notoriety.

Gloria Alden said...

Linda, I grew up in a township that was all white and never had anyone in my school that wasn't white, but I was lucky to have parents who were not racist at all. In fact, my mother's father did not want her to marry my dad because he his parents were Slovaks, and he was a Catholic and a Democrat and carried a lunch pail to work. I still laugh about that. It wasn't until I went to college that I made friends who were African American and now in my writers group we have two really cool black men. I feel so sorry for the migrants who worry about being deported. Especially the children who were brought here and don't even remember the place they came from. Another group of people I feel sorry for is the grown children of the California Killer who was recently found out. Could you imagine finding out that your father was a rapist and murderer? And yes, I do feel sorry for those who were murdered, raped or tortured in any way and there families. I agree with Shari, that it's horrible that so many people believe blacks or Mexican migrants are the bad guys. The two black men in our group write wonderful poems and essays and have the best sense of humor, too. I agree that politics has become rather racist now, too, especially with our current president. Back to my parents now. When they were driving through a town through an African American neighborhood, my little brother who was 21 years younger than me said. "I'm so glad I'm not black." My parents were horrified about what he said and asked him why he felt that way, and he said "Because when you have a white ice cream cone it would show up all over your face." We all still laugh about that.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Gloria, yes, that is a problem. So many people grow up and/or lives now in areas that are "racially pure." Whether they are gated communities or simply all-white suburb, they seldom encounter as equals in daily life anyone unlike themselves. This is why these negative stereotype on television, film, news media, and in books are so very powerful. There is nothing that these people encounter to show any other kind of image of the Other. They never see any other signs of people from other cultures being simple human beings in the same ways that they and their friends and neighbors are.