(REPOSTED from my 11.22.63 journal, December 8, 2011.)
Stephen King slapped my face a few days ago. It hurt a lot.
There I was, happily bopping through the late 1950's with Mr. King narrating away at about 80 miles an hour. I'm loving 11.22.63, and the blast from the past is a joy. Root beer, short hair, ties -- we'd all want to go back, right? Even the cars are something to long for. And about the time King has you totally off guard, thinking sentimentally about a by-gone era. . . WHAM! King gives a big, open handed slap to the face. Not a girly slap; a hard, "WAKE UP, FOOL!" slap.
I grew up in the 80's -- in California. I was a white in a mostly black high school. Race relations could be tense at times. My senior year was the Rodney King riots, and it seemed like everything erupted in the Los Angeles area. But my best friend was black, and somehow we navigated through some rough waters. There was bad stuff going on around us, but for the most part we came out untouched. My mom has said she was glad for my friend, because it protected me from bitterness.
Any tension in 1980's California cannot compare to what was happening in 1959.
As we bop happily along through the novel, King describes a stop at a gas station. There's a men's and women's restroom, and then a sign for blacks with an arrow. Follow the arrow around the corner, and you'll discover there are no indoor restrooms for blacks. I'll not share the exact nature of the indignity, King does it better than I can -- but it made me angry. Partly because it's not the world I come from. And partly because it IS the world I come from! Our entire nation has been touched by generations of racism. When King describes the bathroom situation at the gas station, it evokes a righteous rage. "That is SO WRONG!"
We exist in boxes; our eyes covered. Racism is a thing of the past, it doesn't affect us -- right? But when I felt that sudden anger at someone being forced to go to the bathroom outside, some things started to make sense. The anger in the students around me as I grew up. It didn't make sense at the time. Why were they angry -- things were better for them than they had been for the last generation, right? But the arm of injustice has a long reach.
Injustice, racism, hate can't be cut off in just one generation. We live with the scars.
Out culture and teachers have tried to slap us, but usually it didn't sting as bad as it needed to. Movies like "Driving Miss. Daisy" are painful, but sweet. King doesn't give any sweet to his open handed smack. I remember reading Native Son in high school about a black man who accidentally killed a white girl, burned her body, and went to the electric chair. That novel provoked the desired uncomfortable discussions in English class, but it did not deliver the sudden, unexpected, slap that 11/22/63 gave me. Even movies that drive the point home, like The Help, don't really slap you. Because you see it coming! But King doesn't announce he's gong to slap your face. Of course, everyone should know at some point he's going to edge up on racism -- but when he catches you off guard and causes emotions to rush, it's both painful and a joy.
King sometimes shows us things from our own culture we don't like so much. The angry, cussing, racist Baptist landlord we encounter in Dallas disgusted me. That's outside my experience with Baptist (for the most part. Anyone who has done ministry for long has encountered some pretty angry people). I go to a racially mixed church (whites, blacks, Hispanics Asians). Baptist would be quick to point out that Dr. King was a Baptist, as were many civil rights leaders. Billy Graham, who publicly took a stand against racism by personally removing the ropes that separated whites and blacks in his meetings was a Baptist. But that's not the whole story, is it?
I don't like the cussing, angry, nasty racist landlord being a Baptist. I would rather focus on the positives! The MLK's, the Graham's and so on. For a moment I found myself frustrated with King's writing. It seems he often chooses the Baptist to be the racist (Reverend Rose in Needful things is an example -- only he hated Catholics). And at least with rose, the character is not well developed. He just hates. But in 11.22.63, things feel a little more real. These feel like people you might actually meet somewhere. Not just a caricature -- but a true step back in history. And if I could go back in time, I'd like to take a swing at that landlord!
So I'd thank King for the slap in the face. Thank him for making it hurt. For stirring emotions I've actually never felt; not very deeply. Because I don't live in a culture where racism is so openly practiced, but we do live with the scars. But people respond to one another based on their scars, and we don't always understand why they act the way they do.