Birthday Dinner #5

O.K., a little more awake now–

I’d like to continue down the path I started down in the last post–the theme of race relations in the wake of the civil-rights movement as explored in Birthday Dinner ( Before writing this novel, I would’ve considered myself one of the last people to explore the subject of race relations. But as the subject arose in Birthday Dinner, I realized that I’d experienced various levels of racial interaction and tension throughout my life, and documented those experiences in my heart and soul; and now they were reappearing, in very different form, in this story. So whether I thought I was qualified to discuss the subject or not, my heart and muse were telling me I needed to follow their lead. So the subject permeates Birthday Dinner.

First, there’s the challenge before Becca as she struggles against their early 80s world’s impediments in trying to help her charges, most of whom are African-American. Here’s a tirade from early in the novel:

    “Maybe I’m not ready for this job, Zach.”
    “Yes, Jonah; but it’s more than just him. It’s the whole system, Zach—these people, most of them anyway, just want a chance at improvement, want a little ray of hope. But they meet roadblocks at every turn. And if you find your way past one, there’s another just around the corner. It’s no wonder they get frustrated and give up and turn to dope or alcohol or welfare. I’m frustrated and I’ve been at it less than a month. I’m used to solving problems, Zach, to putting my head down and figuring something out and fixing it. That’s not an option in the lives of most of these folks. Their lives are unfixable; and it’s not their fault, it’s the system—the way things are set up.”
    “Tell me where things stand with Jonah.”
    “He’s screwed—one more lost soul.”
    “Any details behind that optimistic summary?”
    “The school system’s hands are tied; any actions they could take require time and they’re running up against the summer break. Child Welfare’s hands are tied due to the lack of any verifiable report of abuse. Mrs. Brackett is the only one who could document such abuse, and she’s not going to take any official action against her granddaughter.”
    “Why not?”
    “She’s not going to do it, Zach. She’s lived her whole life being oppressed by the white establishment; she’s not going to join that side now against her own flesh and blood, not even for Jonah.”
    “Have you asked her?”
    “No, and I’m not going to. Jonah means a hell of a lot to me, but I’m not going to throw his great-grandmother into the social services meat grinder in hopes that it might help him. I’d end up destroying two lives rather than watching one fall by the wayside.”
    “Still no word from Latonya?”
    “No word, no sighting, no trail. She’s disappeared into the vast and impenetrable underworld of the Shefford projects, taking Jonah with her. Worst part is, I forced her hand. At least before, we knew where he was—safe with his great-grandmother. Now he’s gone and will remain gone long as she wants him to be.”
    “A little melodramatic, don’t you think?”
    “You want to try to find them? Let’s go right now, drive into East Shefford and start knocking on doors—wonder how long we’ll last? You could turn the National Guard loose down there, and they couldn’t find them if she didn’t want to be found. They call East Beirut a living hell, but it doesn’t have anything on East Shefford.”

But opposite this social intransigence are glimpses of hope, hope that grows directly out of the brave acts of civil rights heroes and martyrs, hope embodied in Solomon Murphy, an old black farmer Becca meets through her outreach ministry. Turns out that Solomon has more to give Becca than she to him. Here’s an excerpt from the middle of the novel:

    Solomon finally spoke, straight ahead to the rows of pale-green plants. “Don’t get folks like you out this way.”
    “Like me?”
    “Young white women.”
    Becca laughed. “Run them all off?”
    Solomon paused to let her laughter fade before responding. “There are men in this county, almost within shouting distance of where we sit, who would put a noose around my neck just for talking to you.”
    Becca met his words head-on. “Mr. Murphy, if my presence is endangering your well-being, I’ll leave this minute and not return, send someone better suited to the task of finding out if the Ministry can help you.”
    This time Solomon could chuckle. “You bold, young lady, I’ll grant you that. But I guess I knew that already, soon as I saw you drive up and get out of that car like you ready to take on the world and all its injustices.”
    “I thank you for that compliment, sir; but you give me too much credit. I’m neither bold nor near ready to take on all the world’s injustices or even a few little ones. I’m just doing my best to try to figure out how I can help a few needful souls. But you don’t appear to need any help, Mr. Murphy. And even if you do, if my presence is of potential harm to you, I should leave.”
    “Stay put, child. I was just telling you the world ain’t near as far along in its changes as some might hope. Hatred dies harder than a kudzu vine. But I stopped living in fear twelve years ago; ain’t going to backslide now.”
    “How’d you stop being afraid?”
    “Not how but when—the day Reverend King was shot. I told Lilith—my wife, may she rest in peace—that if Reverend King could face a white man’s bullet I could stop being scared. And I did.”
    “Just that fast?”
    “Wouldn’t say seventy-seven years to get there is fast.”
    “But the change?”
    “Been building all my life—took Reverend King’s murder to bring it out.”
    “And no problems since?”
    “Not a one. Still knocked up against blind hatred and ignorance now and then. That didn’t suddenly disappear because I changed, or because one good man took a bullet. But now I saw it for what it was—their burden, not mine.”
    “Will it ever change, Mr. Murphy?”
    “Young lady, my father was born into slavery. He shed those chains for the shackles of bigotry and intimidation, died in a bondage not far removed from that into which he was born. But his son was born free and grows freer by the day, thanks in no small part to the courage of many people black and white—people like you brave enough to see a better world.”
    “And like you—strong enough to stop being scared.”
    “I’m just a farmer, child—grow fine tobacco for sale to the white man back since I can remember. I tend my small corner of God’s good earth and let well-educated folk like you save the world.”

Now I certainly wouldn’t claim these characters or my short novel go very far down the road of exploring the complex and ever-evolving subject of race relations. But what I would tentatively assert is that the example of these characters reflects where and how the relationship between different races is being evolved–in the hearts and minds and conversations and humble actions of people like Becca and Zach, Jonah and Mrs. Brackett, Adam Tucker (a young black man paralyzed from the waist down in a drive-by shooting) and Solomon Murphy. The rules might be written in Washington DC or Raleigh NC, but they’re being enacted, or not, in the lives and in the hearts of these people on the ground, in the crucible of the struggle.



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