A joint interview between Jason McCall and BJ Hollars
Judge Us Not By the Color of Our Skin, But the Content of Our Books: Interviews On Race, Writing and the Limits of Subject Matter, Jason McCall and B.J. Hollars
Authenticity was at the core of many of the AWP 2012 panels. At the panel for A Face to Meet the Faces, the new anthology of persona poetry released by University of Akron Press, the panelists discussed what limits, if any, authors had to acknowledge when writing in the voice of another. The panelists for Angles of Ascent, a forthcoming anthology of contemporary African-American poetry, worked to decide what subject matter was necessary for literature to be considered African-American literature.
These are questions I struggled with when I used Norse mythology in Silver, my first collection of poems, to describe my experience of growing up as a black male in Alabama. I also couldn’t help but think about BJ Hollars’ Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence, and the Last Lynching in America. Hollars uses three Alabama murder cases—including the 1981 murder of Michael Donald, which is often and controversially referred to as the last lynching in the United States—to discuss the racial and class complexities that grip not only Alabama and the Deep South, but the nation as a whole. Hollars is not a Southerner; Hollars is not African-American, so I wanted to ask him how he approached issues of ownership and authenticity in his work.
Likewise, he wanted to ask me about my book; specifically, what role my own race played when writing on the white-centric world of Norse Mythology. It had become obvious that we’d both settled on somewhat unlikely writing projects that, arguably, might be better told by someone else. All of this left us wondering: What credibility is lost by the author photo?
Join us in a frank dialogue on race, writing, and the boundaries of subject matter.
Jason McCall Interviews B.J. Hollars
Jason McCall: In Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence, and the Last Lynching in America you trace Michael Donald’s footsteps, but you don’t walk in his shoes. And I don’t get the sense that you want to walk in his shoes. How did you decide where to place yourself as a narrator in the book?
B.J. Hollars: You know, that’s probably the biggest question I faced when trying to write this book. Of course, there were all kinds of ethical questions as well—the fine line between exploitation and documentation, among others—but at the root of many of these ethical questions is an unequivocal truth: I am a white Northerner trying to write about racial violence in the South. I often joke that my race and “geographical shortcoming” makes me a “no-good-carpetbagger,” and while the terminology is a bit anachronistic, the fact is, there’s a bit of truth to it, too. While my heart remains in the South, my four-year stint there hardly qualifies me as a “Southerner.” No one has ever called me a Southerner—though it’s a compliment I hope to one day receive.
To answer your question directly, after several drafts, I soon discovered that I had virtually no place in the narrative. I felt that if I were to weasel myself into the various scenes, then I’d be doing a disservice to the book, and more importantly, to the lives of the people I was writing about. I simply do not know what it’s like to be an African-American male walking the streets of Mobile in 1981. As such, I don’t want to give the impression that I do know, or that I might know, or that I even have an inkling of this experience.
The only instances in which the first person “I” appears in the narrative are in the rare moments in which I was “on-scene” so to speak. As I walked a Birmingham cemetery searching for the grave of a fallen police officer, the “I” made a brief appearance. Likewise, in the book’s final chapter, I return to Michael Donald Avenue—a street now named in Donald’s honor—and the “I” infiltrates the text momentarily, allowing my own emotional toll to peak out. Arguably, even these very brief appearances are too much, yet I included them because I wanted the reader to understand that while I can’t fully grasp the emotional toll endured by the victims and their families, I, too, became haunted by these stories. Nonfiction is not fiction, even when the violence of this world is unfathomable.
My book is a hard book to read, and it was a hard book to write. But I understood from the very first page that I did not live this story personally, and so, I needed to keep myself mostly out of it.
JM: What was your biggest fear or anxiety when you began to put this book together?
BH: I wanted to tell it right, and I wanted to do justice to the families of the victims. As I’ve found, no two people tell the same story, and so, it’s often the author’s burden to grapple with the in-between, trying to parse the fact from the fiction in an effort to tell it straight. The hard truth is this: It’s impossible to please everyone. For instance, I don’t think the United Klans of America will select my book for their book-of-the-month club. I don’t mean to be glib. I’m simply trying to make clear that throughout the book, the United Klans of America are likely depicted in a somewhat unfavorable light. This was not necessarily I conscious choice on my part; rather, I allowed the stories to tell themselves. I dealt with the facts as they were made clear to me, and the strength of the undisputed facts—those proven in the courtroom and agreed upon by witness testimony—seemed to drive the tone of the story.
My fear was never really about any kind of retribution by the UKA. I believe I only quote its members from previously published testimonies, and I do my best to avoid my personal bias. My biggest fear was unintentionally disrespecting the families of the victims. I never wanted to feel like I was exploiting their stories. As such, I chose to work with the University of Alabama Press, a non-profit university press that specializes in Alabama civil rights.
JM: We Southerners are famous for our stubbornness, for being set in our ways, and for being protective of our traditions. When I mentioned things like my religious upbringing in Silver and how that upbringing was unhealthy from both a social and mental standpoint, a part of me felt—and still feels—like I was opening a door I wasn’t allowed to open. At any point, did you feel like your research and your interest in the subject became an invasion?
BH: I suppose that’s one way of explaining it. When I started the project I was just graduate student who could not let the story go. I was so drawn to it that I have a hard time remembering a single, specific memory that occurred during the year I first drafted this book. This book consumed me. I was reading redacted FBI files every night before bed. It probably wasn’t healthy.
If I “invaded” the South by drawing attention to racial violence, then I think I’m comfortable with that outcome. I wanted to draw attention to the victims, but also to the heroes who helped defend the victims’ civil rights. For instance, as a result of Michael Donald’s murder, the Southern Poverty Law Center sued the United Klans of America for seven million dollars and won, essentially bankrupting them. Likewise, Michael Donald’s family—and Michael’s mother, Beulah Mae, in particular—showed enormous strength throughout the ordeal, and I wanted the world to understand this strength. There are so many heroes, and while the “bad guys” are also highlighted, it was far more important to me to recount the stories of the victims and the heroes, both of which are often forgotten.
In short, I hope my book is viewed not as an “invasion,” but rather, an opportunity to keep pressure on an important debate.
JM: From Phillis Wheatley’s poetry to Uncle Tom’s Cabin to The Help, race has always been a central theme in American Literature. Was this intimidating to you in any way? What are you hoping to add to the conversation?
BH: Well, for one, I hope my outsider perspective might contribute to the conversation.
But to answer your other question, yes, of course it was intimidating. Equally intimidating was that throughout the spring of 2011—my last term at the University of Alabama—I was assigned to teach two sections of African-American literature. I’d requested the classes, and the department was quite generous to give me a chance. I can’t describe some of the looks I received when my students walked into the classroom to see me standing behind the podium. What’s that white guy doing here? they likely wondered. I literally watched students double check the room number to make sure they were in the right place. During this time, I was in the midst of my second book about race in Alabama—this one about desegregation and the civil rights movement in Tuscaloosa—and I think I requested to teach African-American literature in an attempt to fully engulf myself in works that might resonate with my research.
While writing books about race is surely intimidating for a white male such as myself, I do it with an open heart and honest curiosity. Also, as previously mentioned, I have made it a point to work with non-profit, university presses. I’m not interested in becoming a millionaire from these books (and don’t worry, I’m far from becoming one). My primary goal is to record these stories for future generations.
JM: Who were you thinking of when you wrote Thirteen Loops? Southerners? Older readers who lived through the events described in the book? Younger readers who are coming of age in a “post-racial” America?
BH: That’s tough. To be honest, I’m not sure I had an ideal audience in mind. I think I just wanted to tell it to the best of my ability. I knew the murder of Michael Donald was known by many, but I was surprised at how little was known about the events leading up to his murder. I was anxious to try to fit Donald’s murder into a larger context, comparing three race-related murders (two of which were directly linked) in an effort to better understand the serendipity, happenstance, and lunacy that led to Michael Donald’s death.
But if I had to pick an audience in retrospect, I’d agree with my earlier statement—these stories are for future generations. Of course, I hope this book might also appeal to “post-racial” America (good use of quotation marks, Jason). I wasn’t alive when Michael Donald was alive—not for a single second. And somehow, throughout all my years of schooling, I had never even heard his name. It’s important to me that future generations might know him, as well as the other victims. Likewise, I hope we remember the heroes as well.
JM: How did your understanding or appreciation for Southern race and culture—and by extension, American race and culture—change after working on this book?
BH: I’m still trying to figure that out. It’s amazing how much information is out there. My hard drive is filled with saved microfiche clippings from newspapers between 1956-1971. I read old newspapers the way most people read daily papers.
To be perfectly honest, I still don’t consider myself an authority on Southern race or culture (or American race or culture, for that matter). I’m just a curious guy who spends a lot of time marveling not only at the events that occurred in recent history, but how they were reported as well. I’ve become quite interested in how Southern newspapers, in particular, reported news on racial violence. There’s a great book called The Race Beat by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff, which basically tells the media’s history of reporting these issues throughout the Civil Rights movement. I teach a class called “Race and Rhetoric,” now, and each day I can pull up a random newspaper article from a random day, and we can always analyze the peculiarity of the reporting—what is highlighted and what is overlooked, what is described and how.
To conclude, I’ve always had a great appreciation for issues pertaining to Southern race and culture, and while I only spent four years there, I hope, one day, I might lose my “carpetbagger” status.
Join us next week for Part 2 when B.J. Hollars interviews Jason McCall.
B.J. Hollars’s book reviews appear in LAR Issues 10 and 11, and Jason McCall’s poetry appears in Issues 8 and 11.