So, riff. (The editor) Thea says I can get all meta! Honestly, I’m excited. I’m going to interview myself, which I haven’t done formally before. I wonder if I’ll learn anything new about me?
I wrote the story before the election, but the election confirmed something I felt as I wrote: as American citizens, we are about half and half on what could not be more important issues. Truly we are a nation divided, approximating Lincoln from over 150 years ago, and further, “A house divided against itself, cannot stand.”
So Michael Brown and Brianna Taylor and George Floyd and the countless numbers of African Americans who have been mistreated—why is this so fundamentally ingrained? Had racism been baked into the structure of America? All these thoughts swirling in my mind.
As I learned more about systemic racism in an effort to make sense of what was happening, particular books (How to Be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi ), the documentary 13th, and the movie based on a true story regarding racism in the prison system, Just Mercy, all helped me understand the dark, buried underbelly.
I also listened to an NPR three-part series “Summer of Racial Reckoning.” One detail in particular wouldn’t leave me. A woman named Stephanie Square said that while George Floyd had seen his share of trouble earlier in life growing up in Houston, he had turned things around. “All he did was encourage everyone and tell you words like, ‘I’m so proud of you; you’re going to make it; you’re going to be an example to a lot of others,'” she said. This was a man who had been reduced to nine minutes pinned to the ground by his neck under the knee of a white police officer. With witnesses. And other white police officers standing around, watching. Crying for his mother. You know, we’ve all got a mother.
So where is our common shared humanity?
In fact, the narrator is in foster care, and when they were younger, a kid in school called the narrator an orphan, and Johnny punched the kid in the face. So, the narrator feels like he owes Johnny something.
In the past, the narrator hasn’t questioned Johnny’s racism, which is certainly easier in the moment—to say nothing—but the story is the question of whether the narrator will continue to be silent.
These boys are clearly not valued. I purposefully made both boys white, because that dynamic is a part of the equation I find central. How does the white person, who can’t understand in any visceral way what it is to be black, help people who are being marginalized?
The story answers the question, “At what point are we responsible for our own action?”—even behavior resulting from something terrible— at some point, we own our behavior.
Viewing that in a positive light, everyone has a voice. Even if you’re poor, young, in foster care, even if you aren’t usually listened to, everyone has a voice. The dynamic reminds me of the Edmund Burke quote, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
So the other part of the story is the narrator’s acknowledgement that silence is complicit. One takeaway for the white person wondering what can I do to be helpful is to realize that it is no longer okay just to think racism is terrible. It is now incumbent upon us as people of white privilege to step up when we see racism in any form and to call it out, especially because we’re in a privileged position to do so. To do something about it that isn’t just between our ears.
I also wanted to acknowledge the allure of power in the safety we feel from choosing to stay the same, even if “the same” isn’t “good.”
Near the end of the story, before Johnny has acknowledged his behavior, Johnny offers that his mom made gumbo. This is an invitation. Let’s just be like we are. You don’t have to be mad at me; let’s go home. Johnny uses the idea of home, that they are like brothers, the notion of family as not just biological—to tempt the narrator with love and belonging. The narrator acknowledges that it would be easy and comforting to stay the same. But to stay the same, to stay safe, is to deny emancipation.
You can’t unhear what you’ve heard. You can’t unknow what you know. But the narrator isn’t eloquent. He just says, “You can’t say that anymore.” It doesn’t matter; the power comes from giving the idea voice. That’s the narrator’s victory. Even if Johnny had not said, okay, I won’t do that anymore, it still would have been victory because it’s a change for the narrator from fearful about hurting Johnny to the virtue of standing up for what’s right, even if it means a personal loss, like an important friendship.
First in the story, the narrator is pushing Johnny across the water. But by the end, Johnny has put a hand up and the narrator is helping him stand. The carrot, so to speak, is the gumbo. After an act of enormous bravery on the part of the narrator, and an equally courageous response from Johnny, they get to go home together. They can remain brothers. No lies. They can return to their friendship with this important caveat as part of their relationship. It’s a point of growth for each of them, and hopefully Johnny carries that out to the rest of his world, and the narrator continues to speak about what he believes is right.