On Writing Racist Characters
The charred corpse of Jesse Washington hangs from a utility pole. His ashen body is naked from the waist up, arms flexing like a body builder showing off his chiseled physique. A noose hangs around his neck. Two white men pose in front of the body, each wears a sullen face typical of photography subjects from the early 1900s. Dozens of stoic black faces look toward the camera’s lens from the background as though this wasn’t the first time one their own was paraded through their neighborhood by whites with a message. Nearly 4000 African-Americans were lynched in the US from 1882 to 1968. Most of these murders were clandestine in nature, overt statements of white superiority made by killers intent on keeping their identity a secret while reminding blacks of their place. Some of these killings, like Jesse Washington’s, were preserved by professional photographers and output as postcards. Lynching postcards were souvenirs that immortalized the dead and championed those responsible. Throughout the 20th century, the cards were routinely exchanged between white family members eager to spread their racist hate from one generation to the next. In the case of Jesse Washington’s card, the proud killer inscribed a barley-legible handwritten note on the back: “This is the barbecue we had last night my picture is to the left with a cross over it your son Joe (sic).” A lynching postcard is a central plot device in my short story, “The Exalted Cyclops” about an aging Klansman who begins to question his long-held racist convictions in the fictitious town of Jennings, Georgia in 1968. In the story, lifelong KKK member J.D. Schlocter is given a lynching card by his father when J.D. is a boy. A half century later, the card remains an effective motivator J.D. uses to rally his fellow Klansman in preserving the KKK’s creed of upholding the purity of the white race, fighting communism, and protecting white womanhood. J.D.’s flock, the Jenning’s chapter of the Klan, is a cross-section of aging working-class whites, most of whom, like J.D., show physical signs of wear from a lifetime of labor. These men, like their fathers before them, fought America’s wars, built her highways and homes, and assembled her machines. Now, as the 20th century reaches its fourth quarter, J.D. is realizing that America is turning her back on the working men whose own backs she broke to get where she is. “But it’s hard to hate America. Still, a man has to have someone to blame.” Opportunity comes when Beattie Sams, an out-of-towner, “with the looks of a Motown singer, the hands of someone who worked for living and the grip of someone who meant business” presents J.D. with a proposal born from integration. It’s Beattie who points out to J.D. that blacks and working class whites face the same plight; both form an underclass in unwitting support of the haves who are content to let the have-nots fight themselves. “Black and white together makes green,” Beattie says in support of her idea to integrate the local economy. In considering the proposal, J.D. examines his life and wonders whether the choices he’s made have been guided by virtue or marred by treachery. As the story’s author, I made it a point not to judge J.D. or any of the choices he makes. I leave that to the reader, who brings his or her own prejudices to the story, confronts his or her beliefs, and picks sides.
"The Exalted Cyclops" appears in Fred Smith's latest book of short stories, The Closet, available on Amazon HERE.
Fred Smith was born in the 70s, wore long socks and short shorts in the 80s, played drums in bands in the 90s, and became a husband and a father in the 2000s. This decade he's made a few movies and written a few books you can check out on this site. Stick around. Have a few rounds on the house. Then, you know...buy something.