Bumpy and flat

These days I tend to measure aggravation in degrees of social media. How pissed am I? Pissed enough to text a friend? Pissed enough to tweet? To tweet at someone? To post on my Facebook page? Or am I really, truly pissed enough to write an entry for the Antiracist Book Club?

I suspect that anger may not be the most productive mode for a white antiracist, especially one who does most of her work in her head. It feels like an indulgence, and is nothing to what people of color have to deal with (here’s Shay Stewart-Bouley, the executive director of Community Change, on the subject). On the other hand, it’s a cue to look more closely at what’s pissing me off. In the case of a new novel, Remember Me Like This by Bret Anthony Johnston, it made me think about the relative value American society places on white children and children of color, specifically those children who go missing.

Remember Me is about a Texas family, the Campbells, whose elder son Justin is kidnapped at the age of eleven. Four years later, after Justin returns, his parents and brother struggle with fear, distress, trauma and rage while trying to reintegrate as a family. I was first struck by this line of dialogue from Solomon Garcia, the district attorney who is briefing Justin’s parents:

We’ve got a hard road ahead, we surely do, but your boy’s home and we’re going to work like hell to do right by him.

“Do you need anything from me or my staff right now?” he adds. Throughout the book, the whole apparatus of local law enforcement is shown to be on Justin’s side. The younger brother, Griffin, illustrates this later:

He told Justin how some three hundred volunteers had done shoulder-to-shoulder searches in the dunes, and how the Texas Rangers had patrolled on horseback. He told him how the state police had, for a month, taken over the Southport VFW, and how the Coast Guard went out in boats and helicopters. . . . How, legally, parents had to wait twenty-four hours to file a missing-persons report, but their mother had come so unglued that an exception to the law was made [emphasis mine].

In another passage Johnston writes, “The state police combed the dunes with cadaver dogs; the Navy deployed divers; the Coast Guard sent out boats and a helicopter with infrared cameras.” The death penalty is even sought for Justin’s kidnapper, although in reality it is almost never imposed in the absence of murder. “Our office’s primary objective is a successful prosecution,” Garcia says at a press conference. As a social worker, Letty Villareal (the book is full of minor characters with Latino names), puts it, “He’s a good kid, a strong kid, and everyone’s working to give him the life he deserves.” And when Justin returns, the town is overjoyed:

Some saw it on television. The press conference broke in on each of the three network affiliates that came in from Corpus, interrupting regularly scheduled programming. “It’s a good day in South Texas,” the D.A. said into a bouquet of microphones. . . . Others heard the news on car radios. They rolled down their windows and hollered into the sun. They laid on their horns, they flashed headlights. Disc jokeys played “Mama, I’m Coming Home.” “Home Sweet Home.” “Amazing Grace.” Word spread through intercoms at H-E-B, Walmart, and McCoy’s lumber. . . . Camera crews fanned out through the town and reporters taped interviews with jubilant, wet-eyed residents. They gathered footage of merchants ripping down the flyers in their shop windows, and of teenagers spray-painting FOUND over Justin’s face on the billboard outside town. Drinks were on the house at the Black Diamond Bar . . .

By contrast, here’s how white America reacts when a young person of color goes missing:

Actress, writer and producer Brandi Ford decided to write “Muted” when she learned how inactive the media was in the searches for Mitrice Richardson, Phoenix Coldon and Romona Moore. Richardson, 25, was found dead in Malibu, Calif. in 2010. She had been missing for more than six months. Phoenix Coldon, 24, is still missing. She disappeared in St. Louis in December 2011. Her case has received minimal media coverage. Moore was 21 when she disappeared from her New York neighborhood in 2003. The police closed her case as soon as she vanished while she was being raped, beaten and tortured in a basement. Moore was killed four days after she was abducted.

Law enforcement and media outlets didn’t actively pursue these cases, leading Moore’s mother, Elle Carmichael, to file a civil case against the New York Police Department. She claims officers told her to wait 24 hours to file a report since her daughter was 21. When Carmichael phoned again, a detective told her, “Lady, why are you calling here? Your daughter is 21. These officers should not have taken the report in the first place.” The complaint was closed April 26, one day after Moore went missing and two days before her death.

That’s Evette Dionne at Clutch Magazine. See also “The missing women you don’t hear about: How the media fails Indigenous communities” by Lauren Chief Elk; “Caylee Anthony is not the only missing child” on Womanist Musings; “Young, black and missing: Why do missing blacks get less media attention?” from Madame Noire; and much else.

It’s impossible for me to imagine a Chicano or Black family getting the kind of support from law enforcement, media, and a majority-white populace that Justin’s family is granted in Remember Me Like This. In America (as I learned from the People’s Institute), people of color face worse outcomes in every aspect of life. This pervasive inequity is pointed up late in the novel, as a hurricane approaches the Gulf Coast: “If a hurricane hit—and with the heat and low pressure, the chances were high—inmates in the Nueces County Jail would remain in their cells because the city lacked the money and manpower to evacuate them.” Compare this to the resources spent on the search for Justin. In fact, Justin himself expresses the disparity, though not in racial terms. After his little brother is rescued from a violent incident by a family friend who happened to drive by, their relieved father reflects that it’s a small world. “For some people,” Justin says. His mother questions him:

“Do what, honey?” Laura said.

“It’s a small world for some people,” he said. “Not for everyone.”

But, you might say, Remember Me Like This isn’t about a family of color. It’s about a white family, and for better or for worse, this is their experience. I don’t argue with that. My argument is with what whiteness does to the story. Fiction thrives on complexity, and the exclusively white perspective lacks complexity. The first part of the book, about Justin’s rescue and welcome home, was dull to me. Clearly Johnston is setting up the next part of the story, in which the tenuous happiness of the reunited family collapses, but there wasn’t enough richness in the narrative to keep me interested. The texture of the novel was flat, except where it was bumpy—as in the jolt to my sense of reality when authorities seek the death penalty against the kidnapper. (Although, on the other hand, it did seem grotesquely plausible that the kidnapping of a white child would be a capital crime while so many missing “minority” children go unsearched-for.) As in the distraction I felt while reading because the plight of lost children of color stood out, for me, so sharply in contrast to the story.

Being white is about thinking you are special and having all of American society collude with you. That sure is nice for us white people, but it doesn’t necessarily make good fiction.

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