A passing nor’easter made the wind howl. I snuggled under my flannel sheets and thought about Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward, the book I had just finished reading about a black family in rural Mississippi during the days leading up to hurricane Katrina.
The protagonist is a fifteen-year old who is pregnant. She has three brothers; their mother is dead and their father drinks. The local boys, including her brother, Skeet, fight their pit bulls for bragging rights. Near the end of the story, the family struggles to survive the hurricane. It’s tense and moving, and I was engaged in their struggles, but it was not until I read the author’s afterword that I cried.
Jesmyn Ward is black. She graduated with an MFA from the University of Michigan in 2005. She was back home in DeLisle, Mississippi, with her family, when Katrina hit. In the afterword, she described fleeing from the house with her family as the water rose and seeking shelter with a white family that turned them away. I was shocked and I felt shame—for being white.
Surprised by the strength of my response, I spent some time puzzling it over. Here’s what I came up with: A book is an invitation to suspend your life and step into someone else’s world. Everyone is welcome, because the author wants the reader to share what they’ve written. The afterword was something different. Those pages were to be read at your own risk, as if the author knew a dose of reality would hit harder. She shared her personal experience and I felt exposed, as if she was saying to me, and other white readers, “check your privilege.”
In an interview Ms. Ward gave to BBC News she said, “When I hear people talking about the fact that they think we live in a post-racial America… it blows my mind, because I don’t know that place. I’ve never lived there.”
Then she said, “If one day, [people] are able to pick up my work and read it and see … the characters in my books as human beings and feel for them, then I think that is a political act.”
Today, more than ever before, it is important that books like this are read by everyone, everywhere. We are so limited by our own experiences that even those of us with the best of intentions may sometimes appear careless in deed or thought. It’s time to be hyper-vigilant, as we resist those things that we deem unacceptable, to remember that our view is not the only one.
The nor’easter made the wind howl, but the heaviest rain, sleet, and snow happened elsewhere. I was safe and warm, wrapped in flannel and my white privilege.