Face Values

Why are people STLL in a tizzy about racial identity in the 21st century?  Is there anything else that Americans talk about and talk about and talk about? However, until now, the topic of white skin privilege was never put on the table. Passing judgment on the racial identity of others is a traditional American sport. A great many people imagine they can do an adequate job of doing the math on race. How much yellow, brown, red or black skin color does an individual have relative to the default white? And myriad other calculations help us decide on a person’s racial identity.

Alfred Clarke

Passing across racial boundaries is a longstanding theme in American fiction.

In the imagined 19th century town of Russell’s Knob, which is the setting for the novel, Angels Make Their Hope Here, race identification is fluid. In a town of amalgamators, race mixers – the complex national and racial identities of the inhabitants do not hinder their cohesiveness, community and camaraderie. But the maroons of Russell’s Knob hector white skin privilege in this small community because of their ancestors’ experiences of the First European Contact, the Middle Passage and chattel slavery in the Americas. In Russell’s Knob you are some combination of what your parents bring with them. You are, in appearance, a blend of the physical characteristics of all of your forebears. If being white-skinned confers no special privileges in this tri-racial town, forays into the wider, whiter world are fraught with danger.

“Maybe you could get in, Pet,” Jan said.

“What? Oh, shut up, Jan! You probably could, too.” Pet    said. “You got the price.”

“But not in the Alta Club. That’s a place for pale white-skinned men like you and your father,” August said to Pet, “only.” August looked straight into Pet’s face. He had the eyes all the Vanders have that people call molasses bullets because they’re the color that molasses becomes in the deep wintertime and they are hard like ice.

“What does it matter?” Pet asked. He felt the one glass of whiskey he’d drunk sear his stomach and roar to his head. He chose to be dumb to August’s provocation. But a realization crept up on him that his pale face had kept him from knowing some deep tenets that Jan knew – that August knew – because their faces said something different from his face in the town. And he didn’t know what they knew, or did he? 

 “I ain’t white,” Pet said.        

“Well, you look white,” Jan came back at him.

You and your papa.” Again August spoke in a sly voice of instigation. “You the only ones look white enough to pass through those doors.”

“I aint no white man,” Pet said as he’d said so many times before. 

“Pet, don’t be dumb about it. You know what you look like. You know what people take you for.”

from ANGELS MAKE THEIR HOPE HERE

Now available in paperback with Reading Group Guides including a Conversation with Breena Clarke http://bit.ly/1K09XEZ

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