This morning, cup of coffee in hand and enjoying an open window’s breeze for the first time since last fall, I finished up the last few chapters of The Store, T.S. Stribling’s 1933 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The book (the second in a trilogy) takes place in Alabama two decades after the Civil War, and centers on a middle-aged protagonist named Miltiades Vaiden. Vaiden is a man out of time; prior to the war he was a respected and wealthy plantation owner. Known as a fair man, he treated his slaves well.
He treated his slaves well.
Vaiden isn’t a particularly good man, come reconstruction, though not a particularly bad one, either. He has a certain insular honor and suffers from his many losses; post-conflict he finds himself relatively poor, married to a woman he doesn’t really love or admire, and generally wistful about the past. He misses the approbation he used to have, back in the days when he led the local chapter of the Klan.
When he led the local chapter of the Klan.
The plot of the novel revolves largely around Vaiden’s attempts to recover an old debt, to rekindle an old romance, and to adjust to a world changing under reconstruction—particularly with regard to the ways in which the white population suffers the reality of a negro population just beginning to comprehend its own freedom. The Alabama whites answer in their time-worn way.
Suffers the reality of a negro population.
Across the scores of Pulitzer winners there are many that touch upon war, and quite a few of those address the Civil War and post-Civil War eras. Andersonville, Gone with the Wind, and The Killer Angels are three of the most widely read, and all include—as they must—accurate renderings of the time’s racial attitudes. But there has always seemed a clear delineation between the depiction of racism as presented by the author in service of a story, and the sense that the author himself (or herself) was comfortably racist. Stribling strikes me as residing in the latter class, as when he casually has Vaiden remark how he intends to “jew down” the price of some goods he wishes to buy or, as in this example taken from near the novel’s end, when an octoroon (described in the book as a “white negro”) presses a legal point against Vaiden, something never before attempted:
A drunken cry floated through the open window.
“Lemme git to that black bastard, I’ll show him!” More controlled voices interposed, “Let him alone! Let him in! Time enough when he comes out again!”
There was laughter from below. It was on the whole a fairly good-natured crowd.
The crowd gets him eventually, and in the end he hangs from a tree. That fairly good-natured crowd.
The novel made me decidedly uncomfortable, and not only for the obvious reasons.
It’s easy to argue that such books and their authors are merely of their times. Stribling, after all, was born in 1881 and grew up in Alabama (later moving to Tennessee). His own family could have been the Vaidens, and there are certainly characters (including the young lawyer, Sandusky, who stirs up much of the plot’s conflicts) modeled on people Stribling knew. Nevertheless, reading the words results in a certain distaste.
It’s that “distaste” that bothers me today, that sense that we are somehow better, that we’ve grown beyond the world that Stribling unfortunately limns so well.
We’re not better. Racism remains essentially unchanged.
Just a little more than a week ago an African-American man, Walter Scott, was shot to death while running away from a North Charleston police officer named Michael Slager. Video clearly shows the salient points; Scott was in no way a threat to Slager, who shot the fleeing man in the back. Slager, justifiably, has been charged with murder.
The story had legs—as do all the numerous other stories of white officers killing African-Americans that seem today in constant eruption. Among the many stories cast across the 24-hour news cycle, one in particular caught my attention, this one just a couple of days ago on Good Morning America. The brief piece included the particulars of the incident (what we used to call the “facts”), but then went on to speculation, the modern media drug of choice.
We found out, for example, that Scott was well behind in his child support payments and may have been running to avoid arrest and jail. We also heard the news reporter’s expressed curiosity at the passenger in Scott’s vehicle, providing us with just the smallest of intonational hints that something unknown could very well mean something suspicious. No conclusions were reached, of course; like a faulty boomerang the ideas were just thrown out there, never to return.
And then the piece ended, leaving us not with final thoughts about the shooting, but final thoughts about what might have precipitated Scott’s flight, a different story altogether, and one implying that, perhaps, if he hadn’t run, he would still be alive. That it might be, just a little bit, his fault.
As if anything might justify an armed police officer shooting someone in the back.
The story should have ended with the facts. Shot in the back. No excuse. End of report.
But it didn’t.
It was at that moment when I realized there is essentially no difference between the post-Civil War racism depicted in The Store, and the post-modern racism depicted on Good Morning America. In both cases the stories go on a beat too long, a beat designed to remind us that when an African-American—or a black, or a negro, or a nigger—does something whites don’t like, then somehow he shares responsibility for his own downfall. His own assassination. His own lynching.
Racism remains, in very fundamental ways, unchanged from Stribling’s time. We just pretend more these days.
[Note: This essay is cross-posted from The Pulitzer Praises, a project about reading all the books that won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.]