West Point, Library of Congress
Characters are like children. They do stuff you don’t want them to do. Sometimes you choose to ignore the traits and behaviors that remind you that you don’t have all the answers . . . or much control, but sometimes you have to deal with flaws, hypocrisy or even a goody-goodness that annoys.
When Buck Crenshaw got in at West Point I expected to enjoy his stay. I didn’t feel like dealing with race relations at the academy in the 1880’s, but almost immediately while Buck and I were getting used to folding bed sheets just so and preparing for recitations a newly-minted black cadet appeared on the scene. Ugh. I blame US Grant. In real life his son went to the academy and gave one of the first black cadets a rough time. That damned idea stuck in the back of my head until my soon-to-be released Buck Crenshaw novel WEARY of RUNNING came along.
Quite the handsome cadet: Henry Flipper
And here’s the thing: Cadet Milford Streeter isn’t the perfect black victim. Just like Buck and his chums at the academy, he’s an immature jerk in a lot of ways. Unlike the black characters in Glory and 12 Years a Slave, Cadet Streeter does not get whipped for heroically stealing shoes or soap. He gets shunned . . . by everyone except Buck (here I was inspired by the true story of Henry Flipper who was shunned not brutalized). Buck plays the gentlemanly future officer (because he has ambitions, not because he particularly moral), takes pride in his behavior and becomes blind to the race politics swirling around him. Buck’s brutal brother Fred tries to warn him to get in line, but to no avail.
Buck is who Buck is: morally ambivalent and prideful. (and I love him)
Milford Streeter is who he is: just as arrogant as Buck, but more worldly and selfish. (and I love him)
Some things never change: reminiscent of a Lewis Hines photograph.
Black and white are always more grey. Holding fast to strict rules doesn’t always prevent children from muddying themselves. Holding fast to stories about perfect victims and evil racists prevents humanity for both. I hate non-human humans. We all rationalize and compartmentalize when we buy cheap clothing and toys knowing the slave labor involved in their manufacture even today.
It breaks my heart when I see the black and white coverage of brutality in the US (it exists worldwide, of course). These are the evil people. These are the good people. NO. THESE ARE PEOPLE. The good, the bad, the ugly and the confused all rolled up in each of us.
I think of the man in Baltimore. He’s black. He’s watching the black and white story play out, but he’s in the grey area. No exciting fire throwing or shooting from where he views the world. His voice is one likely to be lost in the super hero/super villain simplicity of crap journalism. The man says quietly, “I’m not proud of the shit y’all doing, for real. It ain’t got nothing to do with no Freddie Gray or black power. You n****a’s all acting stupid.”
Most black and white people live in the grey areas. In our fear and moral ambivalence we stay quiet. We let the same old story mask the truth. I think of my favorite Bible verse: There is no Jew or Greek, servant or free, male or female: because you are all one in Jesus Christ.
We are in this shit together.