The murky stew: ideas of race in the Waters of Time universe

Today is Loving Day, the anniversary of the 1967 Supreme Court decision in Loving vs. Virginia, which struck down all anti-miscegenation laws in the U.S. It’s also the birthday of Anne Frank, victim of another sort of racial bias. And there’s a brand new blowup about a person who self-identifies as black—but may not really be—running a NAACP chapter. So I thought it might be a good day to finally make that post about how ideas of race factor into my books.

This is not meant to be any sort of definitive essay on race in America (or anywhere else). For one thing, I’m really not an essayist, partly because I get bored going on and on about my own opinion, and partly because even though I love researching stuff, I’m lazy about building properly-substantiated and logical structures in writing. I’m a writer of fiction, and that’s where you have to look for what I think about things, hopefully buried under a good story.

And for another, I don’t consider myself the right person to write an essay on racial prejudice. Look instead for the many great pieces of writing by people who are affected by it every day. But as a white American writer, and especially as one who’s chosen to write about the past and future of our own world, I find it important and even necessary to address the issue in my fiction. Whether I’ve done it at all well is another matter, which readers have to judge; if I were starting out again now, I might make different choices. But I can go over some of my decisions and stratagems here, so that those who want to follow along can understand my thinking better. Laying them out will also help me as I move along in writing Book Five (now tentatively titled The Seed Time), which I think of as (among other things) “the American book,” and also the book in which I’ll stir up some of the murky stew that’s been bubbling underneath throughout: the American Arcadians and their notions of racist utopia, the problems in George’s family, the color bias that stains our nation’s history and whether it’s been stirred up by the practice of time travel or never really went away.

I probably should have written this book first, rather than introducing the topic and then sending my (white and white-passing) protagonists off on a trip to eighteenth-century England, where there were in fact plenty of non-white people, but few living in the particular part of the Hampshire coast where Time for Tea takes place. But I’m glad I can tackle it now, with improved writing skills and more knowledge.

So let’s talk about the other world in which Time for Tea happens, the twenty-second-century one where Olivia, George, and their colleagues were born. There’s a fair amount of naiveté, along with discomfort, in Olivia’s perspective on the Arcadians, the racist terrorists advocating a return to segregation (or worse): they’re just stupid and illogical, and we should let law enforcement get on with their job catching them and not talk about it. We’re better than that; it doesn’t affect us. On the surface, that’s generally true in my 2173: most Americans have a mixed-race heritage, bias based on skin color or ethnicity is not only illegal and disdained but basically impossible. (Is this where we’re headed? I hope so; I don’t think we have the right kind of crystal ball to see that future, though.) Very few people divide the population into white and non-white any longer, and those that do get called out for it. No one talks about “minorities” (unless they mean people like the Merrills), or “majority-minority,”  or “people of color”; for the most part no one gets defined by racial background at all. On the other hand, genealogy is alive and well, history in general is trendy (largely thanks to the time travel industry), and many people are happy to talk about their ancestors, while others prefer to ignore all that messy stuff. (Olivia has a “we don’t talk about it” moment when she meets Beatrice, whose appearance shouts out her Latina heritage in a way that Olivia’s only whispers. There are complications swirling around ethnicity and race in Olivia’s family too.)

And though my twenty-second-century people usually “don’t see race,” as the current I-am-a-proud-white-liberal phrase has it, they do certainly see color (of skin, of hair, of eyes) and use those descriptors, along with those that cover height, age, gender, etc. They’d find it silly to skip an obvious identifier; what they wouldn’t do, and what I try not to do as a writer, is to assume that the pale tan of “white” skin is the default and doesn’t require mentioning. (I also try, mostly, to avoid anything other than basic color words for skin tone description, and especially those tricky food and beverage descriptors; if some have escaped I suspect they have flocked around Andy, who seems to require elaborate metaphors not because he’s darker-skinned but because he’s strikingly gorgeous.)

It would have been easy to just leave things there: the future most of us would like to have evolve somehow, going well beyond the tokenism of Star Trek visions to the point where race is so mixed it doesn’t matter, except to those pesky few reactionaries lurking in the sewers. I could have left the Arcadians out completely, in fact. But—instinctively, I guess, because I didn’t have long-term plot goals in mind yet—I ended up putting racial politics front and center, and then realized that it had been inevitable all the time, not just because I’m writing (despite all the world traveling) about these United States, but also because I’m writing about time travel. I realized very quickly that time travel would be a profession where what you look like matters; you can’t infiltrate a past where color of skin was important if you don’t have the right skin color for the part you’re playing, and some skin colors are therefore more dangerous to have than others. Conversely, some are more practical than others. (The same thing is true of gender, but that’s another essay.) George gets more jumps than Andy because he’s white—or, to be precise, because he looks white; in George’s case he actually is, as exclusively as it’s possible to know, but others like Bernard and Olivia get by on appearance rather than purity of ancestry. And when they jump together, George plays the master and Andy the servant (or slave).

Of course this is because I’m focusing on jumps into places like North America and Europe that are majority-white in the time periods I’m writing about. I might well have sent my characters into other regions less dominantly Caucasian, and made Andy my central character instead of George. I didn’t because of my own education, identity, and preferences. It’s easier; it’s even lazy. And I think it’s incumbent on me to be aware of that and do something with that awareness. So what I did was give George not only a one-hundred-percent white ancestry, very unusual in his time and place, but a family who’s proud of it to the point of boasting. To the point of racism, frankly, not that George can admit that out loud for quite a while. (At the time I’m writing about now, he’s reluctantly vocal on the topic for, as we say, Reasons.) He can be a projection of all the guilt and confusion and resentment that twentieth-century-born white people like me have felt throughout our lives when confronted with matters of race, but he can do it in a place where he’s not the default, not the paradigm—and yet his job throws him right back into that place of privilege and advantage.

So that’s where I started with the books, and I’ve been trying—probably with frustrating slowness—to work out the logical progression of these ideas ever since. I know there are places I could have done a better job: I’ve mentioned geographic laziness, and I’m also guilty of cultural laziness. Throwing the occasional Spanish phrase into dialogue does not make up for Olivia gravitating toward English literature or Charles toward mainstream Hollywood films, not to mention all the Haydn. My racially-mixed, integrated world is probably way too bland, way too white, way too Anglo in terms of cultural standards. But I am trying to research, learn, redirect my ingrained steering mechanisms, and think. I also try to throw the occasional curveball to knock out readers’ assumptions—how many of you who’ve read Time Goes By thought Rose Franklin was white on first meeting her? (I invented her before Obama started running for national office, by the way. Not that it was a huge stretch of imagination.) How many have been thinking of Olivia as white, or Beatrice, or Charles? (Charles’s ancestry finally gets defined in Not Time’s Fool as Mediterranean and South Asian.) How many keep thinking of Bernard as looking Chinese based on his surname, even when you know he’s passed as a Dutchman in the distant past? What do those assumptions say about our ways of thinking about the world? How does one even define “white” (or “black,” or “Asian,” etc., not to mention “mixed-race”)? How much does self-identification matter, as opposed to identification by others? And I’ll admit that my out-of-the-box first-thought character tends to be pretty pale-skinned; I need to keep wrenching my invention into different configurations. Stretching and twisting, the yoga of imagination: it’s good for us.

We also need to squirm into some uncomfortable perspectives now and then. It’s easy to invent villains and bogeymen in fiction, less so to understand their points of view, but no one is evil for evil’s sake; we all have reasons for our actions, and I’ve taken long enough to try to explain why the Arcadians act as they do (the racist American ones as opposed to the European political ones, and yeah, maybe confusion on purpose wasn’t a great strategy, but I’ll try to make it make sense). It’s worth looking in depth at parallels in the past, not just at our legacy of slavery and racial bias as a whole, but (in the case of the book I’m currently writing) at the specific period of time we celebrate most in our history, the American Revolution, and the conflict of idealistic liberty and pragmatic subjugation. (I recommend Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America by Douglas Egerton as one overview. I’m also looking at fictional portrayals, and am currently in the middle of the CBC’s fascinating drama The Book of Negroes, based on the novel by Lawrence Hill.) But of course we should also look to the present: it’s hard to watch an abusive slave owner and find common ground, much more painfully easy to observe a twenty-first-century police officer draw a gun and shoot without any cause but deep-seated fear of darkness and difference, or habitual assumption of deviance.

And of course we need to know that we can be wrong, that we need to learn, that we need the flexibility of continual redefinition and the freedom of turning and branching paths in our personal and cultural histories. Writers carry the burden of having words set down in relative permanence (I mean, if we’re lucky), so if I’ve screwed up it’s in print to stay; but I need to try hard not to get defensive about my mistakes, and just reorient myself and move on. And to realize that it’s likely much easier for me to do that because of who I am and what I look like. Do tell me if I’ve screwed up, please; do read the books first, though. We all hope to get to the place where screwing up is an action and not a state of being, right?

I could write much more about this topic, obviously, though probably what I should do is take on individual characters and discuss each for a while, because as a writer I’m much more concerned about getting the characters right than about some sort of overall lesson being taught. If I get around to doing this, I’ll start with Andy, who’s very much the still center of this racial whirlpool (see, there had to be a water metaphor), until he recognizes that he’s necessarily caught up in the current. I’m also stuck with a kind of time shift where I’m at least two books ahead of my readers, which makes it hard to discuss character development without spoilers. So we’ll see how that goes.

Thanks for reading, anyway. It’s not all I could say, but it’s a start. All we ever really get to do is begin.

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One thought on “The murky stew: ideas of race in the Waters of Time universe

  1. Erica says:

    Great essay by Michael Twitty here on the Rachel Dolezal brouhaha: http://afroculinaria.com/2015/06/12/cutting-to-the-white-meat-the-real-issue-with-rachel-dolezal/. Food metaphors rule!

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