Diane McWhorter, journalist and social commentator, has written much about race and social justice in America from her Pulitzer Prize winning book Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution to A Dream of Freedom. She has been a contributor to The New York Times, USA Today, and Slate.
SoR: With so much being written about the Civil Rights Movement, what made you feel like what you had to write would stand out?
McWhorter: I wasn’t at all sure my book would stand out--and am still in awe of the miracle that it did! Like most first-time authors (and maybe all writers), I was in a constant death struggle with self-doubt. Over the 19 years I worked on Carry Me Home, a number of other books came out about the civil rights movement, and I often wondered why I was bothering. On the other hand, when my peer group in Birmingham would ask me, defensively, what I could possibly write about the city that hadn’t already been said (and as if they had read every word), my inner reaction would be, “Oh, yeah, watch.” (Of course there’s Jeff Foxworthy’s cautionary version of that: the redneck’s last words—“Y’all, watch this!”)
SoR: As with writing most nonfiction, there is a certain line the author must be aware of and when you are writing about something as sensitive as race in America, how do you walk that line? And do you ever simply cross it?
McWhorter: It’s a minefield, no doubt about it. Probably one of the reasons the book took me so long was that I had to do a huge amount of research in order to feel confident enough to sally forth. And even so there’s always some nuance one misses. Also, white writers feel a certain inhibition about “appropriating” the black story—so I decided to exploit my dubious asset, as a product of the Johannesburg of America, and consider myself an expert on white people. I placed the story of the civil rights movement firmly in the context of segregation--the “process” of white supremacy. It sounds obvious, since without those segregationists there would have been no need for a civil rights movement, but in most accounts the “white” story is automatic, the given. A number of black readers told me they were stunned to learn how hard the white folks had to work to keep African-Americans down. The impression had been that segregation kind of just “happened.”
But to your question, I wasn’t really aware of any line to be crossed and basically strived for intellectual honesty, trying not to shy away from harshness if that’s what the truth demanded. One thing I found was that in dealing with subject matter this disturbing, by which I mean the racist violence, the writer feels an urge to editorialize about how awful it is. But you have to ignore that impulse—whatever disapproval you telegraph is inadequate to the deed in question. (I’m thinking here of the scene in Carry Me Home that describes some Klansmen ritually castrating a black man they had abducted from the side of the road.)
SoR: Your writing combines the truth of all nonfiction with the attention to the aesthetics and symbolism of literature. For instance, in the beginning of your book, Carry Me Home, instead of opening with any number of the numerous gripping scenes from the Civil Rights Movement, you chose to focus on the symbol of the Vulcan statue in Birmingham, Alabama. How much creative license do you take in writing nonfiction and what is the process you have for weaving in literary aspects of literature such as metaphor, symbolism, and vibrant detail? (In other words, what do you consciously do to keep your nonfiction from being boring?)
McWhorter: Gosh, Dylan, stop asking me such mean, tough questions! About Vulcan, you are obviously not from Birmingham because any native would understand that there could be no other way to start a book about the Magic City. We locals are obsessed with him. And the fact that Vulcan, the god, was a crippled immortal (who also created Pandora) seemed too good a metaphor to pass up. I don’t know if you would call this creative license, but there’s a passage in the book about how Vulcan’s sculptor, Giuseppe Moretti, had made a marble head of Christ as a companion piece to his pagan statue, but that when Vulcan was moved to his ultimate perch atop Red Mountain in the 1930s, “there was no room on the hilltop for Jesus.” Now that was a reference to “no room at the inn,” and simply a cute way of saying that the sculptor’s (reputed) wishes that the two pieces remain together had not been honored. But sometime after the book came out, a local elected official took literally what was essentially a throwaway line and decided that the shunning of Jesus had marked Birmingham for all its subsequent trials. So I guess that’s an example of creative license causing a bit of trouble. But thank you for appreciating the details. I worked hard to come up with just the right tidbit—like the toupee worn by Henry Wallace’s vice-presidential running mate in 1948—to lend some visual interest to the history.
SoR: What makes you choose to write about not only the Civil Rights Movement, of which you grew up in the heart of, but also matters of social injustice?
McWhorter: Well, actually I grew up in the heart of the segregationist resistance, which may answer your question! As a result I am keenly aware of the tricks human beings play to convince themselves that their worst instincts are their best, which is usually how the unjust are able to live with themselves. And since that’s universal, not just southern, the potential subject matter is endless.
SoR: Some writers, such as Harper Lee, choose fiction as their medium which allows them, in some opinions, more flexibility. What makes you write from a nonfiction perspective?
McWhorter: If I could have written fiction I would have. And if I could have written Carry Me Home differently, God knows I would have! I think your medium chooses you rather than vice versa.
SoR: What can be the hardest part for a writer to write a nonfiction story and what advice would you have for overcoming such an obstacle? Likewise, what is most rewarding for you writing in this style?
McWhorter: The thing you have to disabuse yourself of is that there’s some story out there waiting intact to be discovered, and all you have to do is open yourself up to it and it tells itself. I felt more like a sculptor who, in order to produce some comprehensible and interesting shape, first has to also create the huge slab of matter from which it is carved. I wish I could offer some advice about how to avoid doing that—but I’m going through that process again with my current book project. I guess the difference now is that I have more faith in the outcome.
The most rewarding thing is what I think of as breaking the code. When you’re about a third of the way into the project, everything starts to connect, and you begin to see the relationship among the various moving parts. There’s an apt line from one of my favorite novels, The Moviegoer by Walker Percy (a fellow Birminghamian): “As you get deeper into the search, you unify. You understand more and more specimens by fewer and fewer formulae. There is the excitement.”
SoR: If there was one thing you could teach yourself before you wrote Carry Me Home; some piece of advice to a younger you before getting fully involved in such an ambitious project, what would it be?
McWhorter: Probably, rationally, I would have said, Don’t do it! But I’m glad I wasn’t there to tell that to my younger self. And she wouldn’t have listened anyway. Stubborn!
I remember at my college in New England there was a very blond woman from Maine named Sally who was a black studies major, and that struck me as so odd. I thought of Sally longingly a decade later as I was beginning to master the subject—why couldn’t a blond woman from Alabama have had the imagination back then to choose that major! It would have knocked years off the project.
SoR: There are many people in the world today who feel the consequences of not only race, in its many forms, but prejudices of all kinds. Each has a story to tell: the victims, the perpetrator, and the bystander; each with their own unique perspective. If one of them wished to tell their story, what advice would you have for them?
McWhorter: I would tell them to read George Orwell’s essay “Shooting an Elephant” to see how to place oneself in the story in a way that is not self-justifying or unintentionally naive—but rather is knowing and honest about one’s own role within the system.
SoR: How did you plan to write Carry Me Home before you ever set a pen to paper?
McWhorter: I had intended it for it to be more of a “return of the native” memoir, ballasted by my interviews with the principals in the civil rights story. But the personal story ended up being dwarfed by the historical narrative. (The difficulty journalists have writing about themselves is something of a cliché in the business! Q.E.D.)
SoR: Did you discover something you never expected during the writing of Carry Me Home and if so, how did that affect your writing?
McWhorter: A friend of mine says good writing is that which is “processed through the unconscious.” Which takes a lot of sifting and repetition. Often, the first time you encounter material you don’t, can’t, understand it, and then you’ll learn something a year later that orders a whole raft of baffling facts. (For example, expanding on my answer to question 4, the “progressives” sometimes assume disguises as cunning as those of the reactionaries— the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s was the liberal-populist insurgent wing of the Democratic Party. That took me a while to fathom, but it explains why the great liberal Supreme Court Justice, Hugo Black of Alabama, was a political product of the Klan.) So if there’s one lesson that being a writer has taught me it is how to live with ambiguity.
SoR: What is the revision process like for you?
McWhorter: I hate, hate, composing, but semi-enjoy rewriting. At least it makes one feel like an artisan instead of a bricklayer. That being said, revising CMH was extremely frustrating. The original manuscript came in 3,400 pages, and I ended up having to go back to the drawing board any number of times to figure out a way to reduce it by two thirds without wringing all the life out of it. In other words, I couldn’t tell if something was going to work until I tried it—and often it didn’t. That was where I wasted a lot of time and effort, though I’m not sure there’s any way around it. Alas and ironically, the hardest part to get right in nonfiction is the thing which, if it’s working, the reader doesn’t even notice: the structure. I had many false starts before I landed on a narrative strategy that just disappeared.
SoR: Since publishing Carry Me Home have there been times when you wished you could go back and edit something? If so, what?
McWhorter: Constantly. Every time I pick it up. I’m a self-flagellating perfectionist. I notice the sentences that have pronouns referring to two different people, which I think is a no-no. Those I keep mentally fixing. I made a couple horticultural errors—crepe myrtle was blooming in the spring (I was confusing it with redbud), but that got corrected for the paperback. A more substantive regret is about not devoting more description to the actual explosion at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, since the whole book has been building toward that lethal bombing. Time needed to stand still a little longer in the narrative there. Physical description is something I have to force myself to do anyway, and in this case there was an urge to avert the eyes.
SoR: With racial issues still a threat to American society, as the recent, unfortunate incident between Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge Police so emotionally pointed out, how do you see current and future racial issues affecting America as well as your writing?
McWhorter: I’m finding it ironic that the public discourse on race has never been shallower as (according to that discourse) we approach the racial millennium—first black president, and all. Or maybe the ever-shortening news cycle just keeps the shallowness constantly in our face, on a loop. The Gates-Crowley incident was in so many rich ways the perfect national-soul-searching opportunity, and we even saw a flash of the President as a black man rather than a post-racial icon. But instead the story quickly converted into another opportunity for Obama to show how skilled he is at defusing flammable racial episodes—which, in fact, ends up taking legitimate topics off the table. Not that I would expect him, in his position, to be provocative. But the “commentariat” is not similarly constrained, indeed actually needs to come up with fresh material, and predictably the narrative settled on whether it was politically “good for Obama”—thank God for the occasionally amusing beer leitmotif. I can feel I’m about to get wound up now, thinking about a more recent contretemps—over Jimmy Carter’s comment that the race was behind a lot of the anti-health-care rage. So rather than revisit that, let me pivot into the inspiring aspect of having race at the nagging heart of our national narrative.
I lived abroad for several months a couple of years ago, and there’s nothing like being out of the country to make one realize what an incredible experiment is this democracy of ours. I found it almost poignant how much Europeans looked to America as a moral example (and how sorrowfully disappointed, rather than angry, they were about the Bush presidency). What I’ve realized is that race is what forces America to be painfully honest with itself; it keeps driving us to fulfill our founding pledge to create a “more perfect” society. If our country had not been born with this tragic flaw of slavery, then the “process” of democracy would be much more obscure and in a sense easier to game (though race is itself used to camouflage the class inequities at the basis of so much of social misery). I say tragic flaw—as opposed to a fatal flaw—because tragedy recognizes that the qualities that lead to the subject’s epic failure are the very same as those that produce its greatness. What America has so consistently been able to do is to keep the positive and negative in some kind of dialectic, so that the country tends to pull back from the brink of downfall and then take a tentative leap forward. Race has been the charge behind these spasms of progress, from the Civil War, to the civil rights movement, and now, one might argue, with the election of Obama. Not only does our own society advance, but we provide an example for aspirations of freedom and justice around the globe.
SoR: Lastly, is there anything you would like to add for either clarity purposes or for the benefit of having a chance to speak your mind freely about your writing?
McWhorter: Well, Dylan, I’d like to thank you for engaging me in this conversation. Sometimes we long-distance writers feel lost in the quick-hit culture of cyberspace, where it is increasingly difficult to discern the formulae in all the specimens. So the very fact that you are embarking on this literary venture gives me some hope about the future of the written if not necessarily printed word, and the exciting enterprise of the search. I wish Splash of Red a long and happy life.