White people need to talk about race. White people need to read about race. White people need to write about race. Yet when white people engage in these acts, they make themselves easy targets. John Howard Griffin took too many liberties in Black Like Me (1961); Harriet Beecher Stowe relied on sentimentality in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). For each of these moments, there was a black writer highlighting racial injustices from their lived experiences. James Baldwin did not need Griffin; Frederick Douglass did not need Stowe. Or did they?
To bring about change, to engage the widest range of readers emotionally and to empower change, white complicity and responsibility must sometimes be centered.
In David Joy’s latest novel, Those We Thought We Knew, white readers are compelled toward self-examination within a murder mystery rich with complex characters and a deep sense of place. Joy manages to skillfully balance the narrative—which centers on a racially-motivated murder of a young black woman in the mountains of North Carolina—and an analysis of white responsibility that ranges from quiet complicity to active white supremacy. For Joy, each white character—as complex and varied as they may be—carries blame. And each white character has responsibility to do better.
Those We Thought We Knew is a novel of its time. Just as Native Son (Richard Wright, 1940) reflects the sponsorship by the American Communist Party at a pivotal political moment and just as In the Heat of the Night (Dir. Norman Jewison, 1967) reflects the uncertainty at an inflection point in the Civil Rights Movement, Joy’s latest novel pays close attention to and is deeply informed by the contemporary American racial landscape. Writing over several years leading up to the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, Joy is an astute observer—able to reflect back the layered and complex tensions in the buildup that finally engaged white readers with texts like White Fragility (Robin D’Angelo, 2018) and How to Be an Antiracist (Ibram X Kendi, 2019). Joy has written a novel that will not say anything new to a black reader with inherited racial trauma, but instead focuses on white readers who are too able to look away from their own roles in America’s racial tragedy. As one character comes to see, after each viral act of racial violence, white Americans have a way out: “You hold your breath. A minute goes by. The room goes quiet. You forget. You have no reason to relive or remember, and that is the fortune of your hand.”
The power of Joy’s protest piece is its simplicity as he holds up
a mirror to the white community—making evident the quiet
shrugs, the avoidant nods, and the unacknowledged prejudice
that enables the violent acts that we call racism.
Meredith McCarroll is a writer and writing teacher living in Portland, Maine. Her work has appeared in Salon, Bitter Southerner, Avidly, Southern Cultures, Still: The Journal, Cutleaf, Cleaver and elsewhere. McCarroll is the author of Unwhite: Appalachia, Race, and Film (University of Georgia Press). Along with Anthony Harkins, McCarroll edited Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy (West Virginia University Press) which won the Weatherford Award and the American Book Award. McCarroll is currently at work on a book project that explores lineage and inheritance, reckons with claims to place and culture, and explores what we literally pass down through blood but also what we inherit through proximity.