White Girl, Black City

My current WIP is set in Detroit. It’s a murder mystery but it’s also a fish-out-of-water story about a white girl who lands in a black city. I write from the pov of the white girl, and as a white writer who found herself in a black environment when I attended a small private college in Detroit in the 80s, I have direct experience with that fish-out-of-water theme.

I’ve written successfully about being white in a black city before. At school, I won a fiction competition for “Cherry Vanilla” a short story I wrote about a white college girl who dates a black college boy, and the repercussions it has on her family–and his.  I didn’t want to ignore the race issue, but I didn’t want to “write about race” either. So I just focused on what I knew about–being a fish-out-of-water. I didn’t insert racism as a theme, I just showed the way people in my  real world behaved.

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The judges for the competition were our professors. The cash prize was a fat check and other accolades (publication in the college’s literary journal, a personal meeting with the famous author on campus that semester, special guest status at the banquet in her honor) came with the prize. There were four judges: two white women, a white man, and a black woman. The majority of the prof/judges were white, which was a problem even then for a lot of people at the college, particularly the black profs. It wasn’t right, they said, to have a majority of black students and so few black educators.

After the story was published, some of my African-American classmates said I should not have won the competition. They liked the second place story better, also published in the college journal, and written by a black woman. I’d only won top prize because I was white, they said, even though the stories were all submitted anonymously. At the time, I put the black students’ rancor down to sour grapes.

But what if it wasn’t that simple? But what if my three white professors related more to my character because, like her, they were also white in a predominantly black milieu?  What if the lone black professor/judge felt a subtle pressure to agree with her white colleagues? Or what if she dissented, even then? I never considered these things at the time, but the truth is I need to consider these kinds of questions now.

And not about the past, which is gone, but about my current work-in-progress and its particular need to look past easy answers and stereotypes, both white and black.

 

 

Am Mom, Will Travel

me&boys.DSC_4885-300x199 I’m not sure if this is a problem outside of Detroit, and I hesitate to dare call it a problem because nobody needs more Mom guilt. Even before Detroit hit the skids, my older son moved to California for grad school, fell in love with the west coast, and never came home to Michigan except to visit.

I felt sad, but I was happy he was happy. He’s made a new life and has new friends and I have had some great vacations. Mike lived in working class Culver City for his college years, but when his wife moved out to join him (the photo is of Mike’s wedding, me and my boys) they  got a great apartment in Beverly Hills. Built during the studio system years, these houses were “mansions” in the old sense of the word. Like you could walk out to get your paper and wave at Rock Hudson. Those mansions are too small and too public for movie stars now, so they’ve converted some to apartments. Beautiful neighborhood, and I stayed at a boutique hotel, once owned by Lillian Gish, around the corner. Wow was that a fun trip. The wedding was in the hills above Malibu. Another great vacation.

For a few years, we still had our younger son home in Detroit. He’d gone into engineering, which was a guaranteed job here for as long as anyone could remember. Then he got his degree and sold tires at Sears (with no health insurance) for two or three years before he said “Mom, I’ve got to submit my resume out-of-state.” For the first time in memory, maybe the first time ever, engineers were not being hired by the autos that support this town.

Tim got a great job out-of-state and my husband and I took some more wonderful vacations to Louisiana, Texas (Dallas and Midland) and then to California, where he and his wife made their final move. For now. They bought a house in a cute beach town about an hour north of L.A. so you’d think it would be easy for us to visit both boys at once. Nope. Mike’s in Seattle now. He & Jessica bought a house, got a dog and the three of them seem quite settled.

Making the best of this life we’ve been given, Al and I  turned the west coast thing into another sweet vacation a few years ago when we flew into California, saw Tim and his wife, drove up Highway 1 through Big Sur (been on my dream destination list forever) and into Seattle. To top it off, this year we are slated to visit both boys, on separate trips, and it will be the first time we’ve seen their new homes. Also a first: we’re staying at an ocean front hotel with a balcony and a view of the Pacific. On our Seattle visit, we are around the corner again at a B&B that bills itself as a farm in the city. There are live chickens and things.

I’ve almost talked myself into being okay with a far-flung family that looks nothing like I imagined. To add to my occasional feelings of desertion, my parents live in Florida. Upside, they are five minutes from the Gulf of Mexico. Too many great vacations there to count. When I think of family, I think in snapshots. Before, when my dining room table was full of family and food every Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. And now, when we travel to see our loved ones and fit in some just-us-two time as well.

I see this type of family situation as a world pattern, with grown children moving where the jobs are and forming their own social circles. It’s a good thing. But I’m oh so glad this is also the age of Skype and Facetime:)