Throughout his career, Frank Yerby confronted whiteness and white supremacy in his novels. He looked at the ways that racism, xenophobia, nationalism, and oppression affected the oppressor as well as the oppressed. This is what Lillian Smith does throughout her work. It’s what Harper Lee attempts to do in To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s what Toni Morrison says we should do in Playing in the Dark. Yerby does this from the outset of his novel-writing career with Stephen Fox, showing the ways that Stephen’s ideas and perceptions on race change. He shows the transmission of racist thought through Stephen’s son Etienne, a characters that buys wholeheartedly into the myth of his own superiority.
In Griffin’s Way (1962), Yerby presents us with Candace Trevor, a nurse from Vermont who comes to Mississippi in the late 1850s. She views herself as liberal, hoping to help those in need, specifically recently freed enslaved individuals. However, even with her altruistic leanings, she has taken in racist images and ideas. She has bought in, as she realizes, to stereotypes. Through Candace, Yerby points out that even well-intentioned individuals succumb to the lies white supremacy constructs. Candace must untangle these lies, just as Stephen does in Foxes.
When Candace sees Hector and Roberta’s children for the first time, she becomes “[s]ick with shock” when she realizes that they “weren’t white.” They run to Paris, and he gets down off of his horse and embraces them. As she looks at the scene, Candace remains frozen, overcome by her own shame. She becomes ashamed because of the thoughts that begin to rush through her mind. She thinks back to her father, the “Reverend Llewellyn Matthews” and how he would react is “set down in this sea of black humanity.”
She thinks about how her father taught her that “all men are created equal in God’s image”; however, her brain and heart conflict with one another. She thinks,
Almighty, what good is knowledge against this–this revulsion? This repugnance? These children, now: my mind tells me they’re beautiful; but the message doesn’t get through to my heart. I can’t see them because my brain is too busy painting shocking pictures: a man like Hector, a fine man like that, lying naked in a black woman’s arms. . . .
While Candace knows that her thoughts are wrong, they still encroach upon the moment. She has to link her mind and her heart, but that process becomes difficult. Her heart has taken in the idea that is wrong for a white man and a black woman to engage in sexual intercourse, but her mind knows otherwise.
Candace continues by asking, “What good is intellect against these–visceral feelings?” The “visceral feelings” reside within the heart, even when the mind knows better. The “visceral feelings” are the fears that had been “implanted in the hairy thing that was our ancestor before he had become a man, or developed a mind.” Candace must overcome these “visceral feelings,” and throughout the novel, she works through them.
Later, Candace gets a letter from Ingra. In the letter, Ingra describes Doctor Bruce Randolp, and she writes, “An the best of it all s that he’s as black as night. I’m so glad he’s not a mulatto, because people always attribute it to their white blood when they’re smart. But Doctor Randolph apparently has no white blood at all . . . He ought to be able to convince these bigots that intelligence is not a matter of color–”
Candace does not share Ingra’s optimism that Dr. Randolph’s accomplishments, his degrees from Harvard, and his intellect will convince the bigots of anything. She even points out that they may not even convince her because, as she thinks, “these weapons are worthless against feelings seated somewhere in our middles, not in our heads.” Candace knows that the “visceral feelings” reside within her, and these feelings war with her own mind. They battle one another in a constant tug-of-war as she stares at herself in the mirror.
The important point with Candace is not that she harbors these “visceral feelings.” Rather, the important point is that she realizes that these feelings exists within her. She recognizes the myths she has learned and taken into her heart. She looks upon herself, reflecting upon what is inside herself. In doing this, she begins to reckon with her own whiteness, and she begins to disentangle the corruption that she has learned. This is the important thing we need to remember from Candace’s thoughts.
These “visceral feelings” are the same ones that Edwin Epps’ son learned in Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave. They’re the same ones Tracy Deen learned in Lillian Smith’s Strange Fruit. They’re the same ones we all imbibe through education, media, literature, and on and on. They are ingrained into the very fabric of our existence, passed down through the generations. We must confront them within ourselves before we can ever hope to move forward.
We must confront our own racist thoughts. Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist talks about this. In the introduction, he talks about a speech he gave in high school where he basically recycled countless racist stereotypes about himself that he had seeped into his own heart. He talks about the book being about his struggle and journey from “being raised in the dueling racial consciousness of the Reagan-era Black middle class, then right-turning onto the ten-lane highway of anti-Black-racism [then to] the two-lane highway of anti-White racism.”
Kendi’s journey did not end on the two-lane highway. He veered off and began to travel “down the unlit road of antiracism.” This is the path that we need to take to rid ourselves of these “visceral feelings” that have clawed their way so deep into our hearts. This is the path that requires us, constantly, to look at ourselves, to examine our own deep-held ideas and beliefs, to call ourselves out on our own racist thoughts, to confront a past that we did not create but one that we inherited and perpetuate.
By taking this road, as Kendi says, we “can come upon the clearing of a potential future: an antiracist world in all its imperfect beauty.” We can make this happen, he notes, “if we focus on power instead of people, if we focus on changing policy instead of groups of people. It’s possible if we overcome our cynicism about the permanence of racism.” As Candace, Edwin Epp’s son, Tracy Deen, Scout Finch, an countless others show us, racism is not inherent, thus it is not permanent. We present it as permanent because we fail to short circuit its transmission. We must short circuit it.
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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