The first white-authored southern novel I read when my family moved from Michigan to Tennessee was Olive Ann Burns’s Cold Sassy Tree. It told the story of a preteen boy named Will Tweedy whose family is thrust into scandal when his grandfather, newly widowed, marries a much younger woman. The action takes place in the early 1900s in northeast Georgia, but the book was published in 1984, the very same year I officially became a southerner. Smalltown gossip was still very much a force eighty years later, and that novel helped me understand the ways it traveled and changed narratives, especially in the Deep South.
In the vast majority of white-authored southern novels I read, nostalgia served as a harbinger for racism, and southern pride was a stand-in for white fragility. These books were tethered and intoxicated by a romanticized, anti-Black, and whitewashed history of the South.
Enter Harper Lee’s iconic To Kill a Mockingbird, first published in 1960. To use a term made popular by Spike Lee and sociologist Matthew Hughey, “It is the time-honored Magical Negro narrative.”
Many of us who grew up in the South know this novel by heart. White attorney Atticus Finch of sleepy Maycomb, Alabama, represents Tom Robinson, a Black man who has been accused of rape by a white woman, Mayella Ewell. In the book we learn a good deal about Atticus, his quiet, moral manner, his tenderness with his children, his kindness toward their Black cook, Calpurnia, and the lengths to which he will go to seek justice.
He is our hero. He is our white savior.
We don’t learn a whole lot about Tom. This is because Tom only functions as a device (a Magical Negro) to educate the white characters Jem, Scout, and Dill (as well as white readers) about injustice. We don’t know much about Tom’s family, his interests, his personality. All Lee needed from Tom was for him to be the victim, and for white characters to understand racism through his victimization. Hence Tom has no dimensionality or characterization.In the vast majority of white-authored southern novels I read, nostalgia served as a harbinger for racism, and southern pride was a stand-in for white fragility.
To Kill a Mockingbird’s descendent, John Grisham’s 1989 book A Time to Kill, fails in a similar fashion. Jake Brigance replaces Atticus Finch as the white savior to defend a Black man named Carl Lee Hailey who is on trial for killing the men who gang-raped his young daughter in Clanton, Mississippi.
Carl Lee has a slightly meatier role in A Time To Kill than Mockingbird’s Tom Robinson, but he is still a flat character whose primary function is to elevate the heroism of Jake Brigance and teach white characters about racism. Carl Lee’s child has been terrorized and traumatized, but it’s Jake who gets our attention. It’s his fears and future that are centered in the story.
Both To Kill a Mockingbird and A Time to Kill fetishize Black pain to redeem white characters, and in doing so they also redeem the non-Black readers who can celebrate an ending where justice is (supposedly) done. These novels then feed into an equally racist meta-narrative whereby the mere act of reading these books transforms white and non-Black readers of color into less racist people.
The consumption of these books is wholly performative. It affords readers the false sense that they’ve achieved a deep understanding about racist structures and racial distributions of power, so they can become the white savior in their own narrative about racism. I’m not like them. I’m not racist! I’m a good person! This frees them from more closely examining their own internalized racism and acknowledging their complicity in systemic racism.
I know this because I’ve heard non-Black readers say as much. In the 1980s and early 1990s, when I encountered these books for the first time, conversations with white southerners invoked a popular refrain. We need to remember our pasts. This ambiguous penance erased present-day racism and their own role in it. In the white imagination, the act of reading, followed by the act of remembering, served as the act of undoing racism.
This is the toxic life cycle that reading racist white southern literature continues to perpetuate.
Let me say here, briefly, that when I first encountered many of these texts as a teenager in the 1980s, I was incapable of parsing the white supremacy infused in their narratives. How could I? I was steeped in whiteness myself. All of my cultural references were white. My seemingly evolved white teachers, whom I loved, praised these books. I read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time at age twelve, and it remained my favorite book until my mid-twenties. I devoured Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind at age thirteen, and if asked, I would have likely deemed it the quintessential southern novel. After all, this is what I had been told.
Decades before movements like #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #OwnVoices, I believed that white southern authors who told stories about Black pain were performing a valuable service to the non-Black community.
So why shouldn’t their books be celebrated?
In the summer of 1990, I read Melinda Haynes’s debut novel Mother of Pearl. The book is set in the small town of Petal, Mississippi, in the 1990s. It tells the story of a friendship between a twenty-eight-year-old Black man named Even Grade and a fifteen-year-old white girl named Valuable Korner. The book has issues throughout, but the end in particular is wholly incognizant of the racist forces of the day. Spoiler alert: after Valuable dies giving birth to a son she names Pearl (whose father is no longer in her life), Even Grade decides to raise Valuable’s white son as his own. Apparently the white baby’s summer tan will cure anyone’s suspicion about whether this white child belongs to a Black man. End of story.Both To Kill a Mockingbird and A Time to Kill fetishize Black pain to redeem white characters, and in doing so they also redeem the non-Black readers who can celebrate an ending where justice is (supposedly) done.
Mother of Pearl was the first book that gave me pause about all of the white-authored southern novels I’d treasured before it.
When I learned that Oprah named Mother of Pearl as her next book club pick, I filled out an online form on her website to relay my sharp critique about the book. To my shock, a producer from the show called and wanted to hear more about what I thought. They were considering inviting me to be a guest on Oprah’s book club show. A second producer called a few days later for a more extended interview.
I was no critic back then. I was 25 years old, one year out of law school, and a judicial clerk for two judges in Family Court in Delaware. I didn’t possess the kind of language I have today to home in on exactly why I found the book to be problematic. I fumbled for words and repeated myself. The best I could do was describe the book as “unrealistic.” But even that word seemed wholly inadequate for the issues I found in the book.
Unbelievably, the producers found my responses worthy. They flew me to Chicago to discuss Mother of Pearl with Oprah herself, Haynes, and a few other readers. The limousine ride from O’Hare to the hotel downtown was my first ever.
Oprah is as luminous in real life as she is on television. After we situated ourselves on sofas, she breezed into the studio, sat on a sofa next to Haynes, and proceeded to conduct the conversation with grace and wit. At one point I managed to express my disappointment with the end of the book in a way that was more gentle than in my interviews with producers—Haynes was sitting right there, after all—but before I could fully state my case, Oprah interrupted me and moved on to another part of the book. That short clip is pretty much my only contribution to what later aired of the book club show. The producers wanted an episode that praised Haynes and the book, and that’s exactly what they got.
I flew back to Philadelphia wondering, for the first time ever, what it was that I loved so much about white southern literature.
Much has been said about Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 debut novel The Help, which has since sold more than ten million copies. The book tells the story of a white aspiring writer named Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan who attempts to improve the lives of Black maids in 1960s Mississippi, specifically those of Aibileen and Minny, by literally telling their stories in a book titled Help that Skeeter hopes to sell to a big New York publishing house.
In summary, a white author (Skeeter) mines the voices of Black maids (Aibileen, Minny, and several others) to sell her own book (Help), much as Stockett herself mined the voice of the Black maid who raised her (Demetrie) to sell her own debut book (The Help). By writing the book, Stockett herself becomes the white savior in her own real-life narrative where her debut novel rids the world of racism. And by embodying the voices of Black maids, she carries with pride the torch that Harper Lee and John Grisham have passed to her.Mother of Pearl was the first book that gave me pause about all of the white-authored southern novels I’d treasured before it.
I’ll defer to the wise critics—that is, the Black critics—who vigorously and justifiably skewered The Help. Roxane Gay’s brilliant 2011 essay in The Rumpus, “The Solace of Preparing Fried Foods and other Quaint Remembrances” (which focused on the movie as opposed to the novel), challenged the absurd fascination with a book and a movie that tried, and failed, to narrate racism: “In The Help, there are not one but twelve or thirteen magical negroes who use their mystical negritude to make the world a better place by sharing their stories of servitude and helping Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan grow out of her awkwardness and insecurity into a confident, racially aware, independent career woman. It’s an embarrassment of riches for fans of the magical negro trope.”
White critics, though, heaped praise. I will never be able to scrub my mind of the headline of one review in USA Today: “Good ‘Help’ Isn’t Hard to Find, Thanks to Kathryn Stockett.” The Help’s white critical acclaim catapulted the book into the zeitgeist, spawning what I’ll call The Help Effect. White readers, white critics, and white media anointed Stockett as the voice of the South. Her book gave the white savior / Magical Negro trope a shiny updated best-selling exterior.
Interviews with Stockett saturated the media. Many were nauseating. In the Guardian, Stockett described the Black maid who raised her. “Yes, she was called Demetrie. I started writing in her voice because it felt really soothing. It was like talking directly to her, showing her that I was trying to understand, even though I would never claim to know what that experience was like. It’s impossible to know what she felt like, going home to her house, turning on her black-and-white TV . And I’m not saying I feel sorry for her, because she was a very proud woman.”9 The interview becomes more unbearable as it goes on. When asked whether President Obama’s election is a sign that racism has decreased, Stockett turns to the theory of color-blindness. “I think if you’re president, colour goes away completely: you’re president and it doesn’t matter if you’re white, green or purple.”
This was not an isolated sentiment. It embodied a new, post-racial South, one that white southern readers were more than ready to pounce on.
There is an enormous range and depth of Black southern authors, and it is these authors who deliver, time and again, authentic, riveting stories about the Deep South. When I read Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, I recognized something in that book that I couldn’t articulate as an eighth-grader—that unlike white-authored novels I’d read, this novel didn’t exist to teach or show or prove anything to me. The same can be said about my first time reading Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Janie’s fierce independence and her unwillingness to conform to societal norms went against every stereotype I held about women in the Deep South. And after I first discovered Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I fell in love all over again with language. I carried that book around in my backpack for months.There is an enormous range and depth of Black southern authors, and it is these authors who deliver, time and again, authentic, riveting stories about the Deep South.
What I didn’t realize in childhood that I can see more clearly today is how southern literature has always been a genre of exclusion. Identity determines an author’s southern-ness more than the setting itself.
According to the 2000 census, 55 percent of Black people live in the southeastern United States. Yet there are not nearly as many Black southern authors as there should be, and white southern authors all too often pen southern stories that belong to Black people.
The Deep South first belonged to Indigenous people. Yet too few southern Indigenous books have been published. “It’s important that people in the South realize that they are living on Native land,” said Choctaw Nation author LeAnne Howe in an interview. “By ignoring or not knowing or never having thought of Indians before, you’ve really cut yourself out of hundreds and hundreds of years of experiences of the people that came before.”
I can only imagine the number of Black and Native writers querying agents and editors with their southern stories. Or, for that matter, the number of Cuban American writers in Mississippi. Or Cambodian writers in Louisiana. Or Venezuelan American writers in Tennessee. Or Iranian American writers in Texas. The South has always been far more racially diverse than southern literature has reflected.
For years I pitched a novel about an Indian immigrant family who ran a gas station in a small North Georgia town. The family’s lives were tangled in secrets dating back to a tragic accident a decade earlier. The book was about the bitterness that comes from unfulfilled dreams, the isolation one can feel when living far from a major urban center, and the toxic small-town gossip that can shape a family’s narrative. The novel was as southern as a southern novel can get.
I submitted the book for many years. Several agents said they weren’t sure how to sell it or didn’t know who the intended audience was. I had grown up surrounded by southern books. This was an authentic southern story. I myself was southern. Why couldn’t they sell it as such?
A few years later, a white southern author published a novel that featured white characters and wove in elements of Hindu mythology. The book embodied the perfect formula for the white gaze, southern sensibility, and a dash of Indian garnish to deem it both marketable to white readers and exotic. Here I was, an Indian southerner trying to sell a southern story about Indian southerners at a time when no other Indian southern author was publishing novels about the South. And a white southern author beat me to it.The Deep South first belonged to Indigenous people. Yet too few southern Indigenous books have been published.
In 2019 my reckoning took the form of another novel by another Indian American author from the South, Devi S. Laskar’s poetic debut The Atlas of Reds and Blues. Though she now makes her home on the West Coast, Laskar grew up in North Carolina and spent several years in Georgia working and raising her children.
The book tells the story of an Indian immigrant known only as Mother who is shot by law enforcement and bleeding in her driveway in a suburb of Atlanta. As Mother’s life slowly drains from her body, scenes ash before her shaped by the region where she and her family have made their home, a region that has never welcomed them, where they are seen as foreign, where they are watched and surveilled. “From the periphery of her eye she makes out the women, white on white and peroxide blond glistening in the Monday sun, aviators reflecting as they stand guard over the clipped grass and pressure-washed concrete, chess pieces waiting for the next move.”
Atlas is a reminder that there are many stories about the South that have yet to be told, and that the South is far more racially and ethnically diverse than the publishing industry has ever perceived it. It is a region rich in history, in people, and in the stories Indigenous, Black, and other writers of color are feverishly writing every day, waiting, hoping, that they will someday see the light.
From Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change by Anjali Enjeti. Used with the permission of University of Georgia Press. Copyright © 2021 by Anjali Enjeti.