As I read and taught P. Djèlí Clark’s Ring Shout, a lot of things stood out, specifically when thinking about the Gothic and the EthnoGothic. The sheer amount of themes that Clark packs into the novella is, at times, overwhelming, but it all adds to the rich and layered narrative that weaves its way throughout Ring Shout. While I could focus on any number of aspects in the novella from Nana Jean and her Gullah roots to the threads of Bruh Rabbit and Bruh Bear to the ancestral and generational connections flowing through Maryse as her and her companions battle the Ku Kluxes, I want to zero in on two very minor characters that appear fleetingly in Ring Shout, the white mother and son who Maryse encounters at Butcher Clyde’s shop and who she encounters again following the battle on Stone Mountain.
Maryse initially confronts Butcher Clyde at his shop, Butcher Clyde’s Choice Cuts & Grillery, a shop that caters to whites and that has the Ku Klux Klan as security. Within Ring Shout, the Klan becomes two entities, the Ku Kluxes and the Klan. Butcher Clyde and the Grand Cyclops infect the Ku Kluxes, turning them into devilish monsters that Maryse, Sadie, Chef, and others can identify. Not everyone can see the monster hiding underneath the human flesh. The Klan, though, are whites who have not turned yet. They still exist as humans, according to Nana Jean, and this have the ability to escape from the tendrils that attempt to dig themselves deep into the very fiber of their beings.
When Marsye enters Butcher Clyde’s shop, she sees that some Ku Kluxes man the door, letting whites into the shop to feast on the meat that Clyde serves them, meat that fuels their hate and works to turn them into Ku Kluxes. As Maryse makes her way into the butcher’s shop and takes a seat by the window, she sees “[a] white lady and her son sitting nearby,” both watching her with mouths agape. Maryse stares at them and they turn their gaze away. When Maryse puts her sword on the table in between herself and Butcher Clyde, the mother looks on and squeals, grabbing her son’s hand and exiting the establishment before they partake of Butcher Clyde’s infested meat.
The mother and son don’t reappear in the narrative until the conjuring ceremony on Stone Mountain where Butcher Clyde brings Ku Kluxes and Klans to the site to call upon the Grand Cyclops. Countless whites attend the ceremony, bringing their children along with them to the event. After Maryse and the others defeat Butcher Clyde and the Grand Cyclops, looks around and sees Klans around her, and she sees a woman “kneeling in her robes, hugging a little boy close.” She recognizes the woman and her son as the two who sat next to her in Butcher Clyde’s shop, the two who got up and left when she placed the sword on the table. Maryse thinks to herself, “Seems my interruption that day saved them a bellyache, and worse” because they did not eat the meat.
The woman looks at Maryse and gets out, “Monsters! . . . They were monsters! I seen them! I seen them!” The woman’s eyes open, and she can see beneath the surface to the hate that embodies the Ku Kluxes. She sees them for what they are, monsters filled with hate bent on destroying the world around them. Maryse and Chef exchange a glance, they they reply, “Bout damn time!” The leave the woman there, “to her newfound sight,” and make their way back home.
Even though the mother and take up, in total, less than a page overall within Ring Shout, their appearance at the conjuring and the mother’s words stand out. Her realization that the Ku Kluxes are monsters fed on hate highlights the importance of sight and knowledge, especially for whites. While we do know what happens to the mother and the son following the eye-opening experience, I’d like to believe that this moment sets them upon a path of self discovery, a path that leads them to examine their own whiteness and their positions within a society built upon the social constructions of race.
Their path won’t be easy because each must dig deep within themselves to uproot the years of cultural rot that has infected their very beings. However, the process is not impossible. When I think about the mother and son, I go to my own journey, one that started years ago and still is not anywhere near completion, and I think about Lillian Smith. While Smith writes about her journey in numerous works, I have never seen her write so pointedly and openly about it as she does in a letter she penned to fellow members of the Blue Ridge Conference in 1944 following their annual meeting. In the letter, which Smith wrote as a follow up to the meeting, she details her own path and encourages her fellow whites to persevere in their own journeys as they disentangle themselves from the whiteness that chokes their souls.
In the letter, Smith details what she sees as the core of democracy and Christianity, equality. For Smith, “The concept of equality, integral to our maturity, is like a brake on our egos,” allowing us to maintain our humanity and to uphold the tenants of Christianity and the ideals of democracy. As such, we must realize that our feigned superiority to others is nothing more than an illusion that strokes our egos and keeps us from achieving anything close to true equality. Smith points out that it has taken her years to reach this moment: “After years of fear and prejudice–the same fear and prejudice you, too, have felt–I have finally arrived at the place where I want to be sane, Christian, democratic. I know that I cannot be fundamentally sane as long as I think myself superior to others.”
Smith did not come to this realization out of the blue. It didn’t just occur to her one day that what she had internalized was wrong. No, she worked at it, allowing the experiences in her life and her reading to illuminate within her the absurdities of racial constructions. It took her years to come to the point where she cast aside the internalized cultural teachings and began to wrestle with them. Years later, after she had started this process, she was no where close to being done with it. She told the women, “Yes I know, getting rid of our prejudices, our need to feel superior to others, our hate, is a slow job–a life-time job.” Smith knew it’s not easy to open one’s eyes and start the work of uprooting prejudice. It’s difficult and takes time.
Smith knew that her feelings of superiority, the feelings she worked daily to exhume from her psyche, caused pain not only to those on the receiving end but also to herself. She states, “Feelings of superiority breed paranoia, and I know that such feelings, carried to an extreme, will make people mentally ill.” The hate that these feelings breed, as well, destroys everyone.She points out the ways that hate and these feelings infect an individual, continuing, “I am as afraid of being infected by white arrogance as I would be of a syphilitic infection.”
The mother’s and the son’s awakening will not change them overnight. In fact, it will not change them at all unless they actively work to change themselves. One’s awakening is merely the first step in the journey. As Smith tells the women to whom she writes, “All I ask of you, and of myself, is that we try to change, try to grow day by day steadily and consistently toward a full, rich maturity; try to get rid of our need to feel superior, our over-valuation of ‘whiteness’, our devastating panic and fear.” When we do these things, when we actively weed our own gardens, then we will be on the path towards equality. Unless we put in the hard work, and it is hard work, we stand still, rooted deep in the mire of hate, racism, subjugation, and oppression.
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