Author Attica Locke: In America, We Walk 'Side By Side' With Our Past

Sep 14, 2017
Originally published on September 14, 2017 1:17 pm

Attica Locke's new novel Bluebird, Bluebird unfolds in rural East Texas along a stretch of U.S. highway 59. She describes it as "a thread on the map that ties together small towns like knots on a string."

During the Great Migration — the period during the 20th century when millions of African-Americans left the Southern U.S. — highway 59 was the road north: "That was the road to get out of Texas," Locke says.

The author is a Texas native herself and she wanted to write a story that took place on 59. "Every member of my family on my mother's side and my father's side is from towns along highway 59 going back to slavery," she says. "So I know this area, its red dirt, I like to say, it is in my veins."

Locke's own family's story was the flip side of the Great Migration — they didn't leave Texas, they stayed. "We are defined by the fact that we stayed," says Locke. "That we said: No, Texas is ours, too. Other people can go, we will not judge you for going, but we are going to stay and fight. This is ours.'

Locke's new novel is set in one of the small towns along the highway. One day, the body of a black man turns up in a bayou, followed three days later by the body of a white woman. The state police detective hero of the novel finds that odd.

"Southern fables usually go the other way around," Locke writes. "A white woman is killed or harmed in some way, real or imagined, and then, like the moon follows the sun, a black man ends up dead."


Interview Highlights

On the story's main character, a black Texas Ranger named Darren Mathews, and how he feels about his home state

I think he feels that it doesn't belong to its worst impulses, that the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, that the Klan, that people who hold racist views, don't get to decide what a state or a country is — that as long as he is present there too, as long as he is wearing a badge, there is a chance there is hope that he can define the state as being a place that is fundamentally hospitable to black life.

On her own feelings toward Texas

Darren's ambivalence about his home state is a mirror for my own and I also meant it to be a stand-in for black folks' ambivalence sometimes about where we fit in America — to what degree is this place truly our birthright and to what degree can we afford to feel passionate patriotism for a place that frequently shows us such disdain?

On the relationship between America past and America present

I remember after Donald Trump was elected — and I think I've been very public about my feelings about his administration — I remember thinking my book changed overnight. I'd already written it, but I knew without me having changed a word, the effect of this book was really different, that it was suddenly entering into a different country in some ways. We walk side by side in America with our past. We walk with these ghosts and I think I tried to capture the ways in which present-day drama, racial drama, is so deeply infused by the past.

Danny Hajek and Jacob Conrad produced and edited the audio of this interview. Sydnee Monday and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Attica Locke's new novel "Bluebird, Bluebird" unfolds in rural East Texas along a stretch of U.S. Highway 59. As Locke writes, it's a thread on the map that ties together small towns like knots on a string.

ATTICA LOCKE: It is a highway that runs through the country. And you'll see along Highway 59 everything from huge cattle ranches to women running beauty parlors out of their trailers. You'll see black men selling barbecue. You'll see people with roadside stands selling boiled peanuts and peaches. And it's just a country highway and a road that, I think, for black folks', when you think about the great migration of people leaving Texas, that was the road North. That was the road to get out of Texas.

MARTIN: Attica Locke wanted to set her book in the sort of town they were leaving behind. She, herself, is a Texas native. And she knows those places because her own family's story was the flipside of the Great Migration. While others left, they stayed.

LOCKE: And we are defined by the fact that we stayed - that we said, no, Texas is ours, too. Other people can go. We will not judge you for going. But we're going to stay and fight. This is ours.

And people don't think about black Texans. When they think about Texas, they think of Marlboro man and the Southwest. And people don't think about East Texas and farmers. But I come from agrarian people. I come from people who farmed cotton and farmed corn on their own land. So I know this area. Its red dirt, I like to say, is in my veins.

MARTIN: The story she tells takes place in a fictional town she calls Larke, Texas - one of those small towns along Highway 59 - a bayou to one side. One day, the body of a black man turns up in that water and three days later, another body - this one, a white woman. The state police detective hero of the novel finds that odd. Here's Attica Locke reading a passage from her book.

LOCKE: (Reading) Southern fables usually went the other way around - a white woman killed or harmed in some way, real or imagined, and then just like the moon follows the sun, a black man ends up dead.

MARTIN: Let's talk about the main character in this story. His name is Darren Mathews. He is a Texas Ranger - a proud Texas Ranger, as they are. But he went to law school in Chicago before his career in law enforcement. So he brings this perspective of both a native son and also sort of an outsider.

LOCKE: Yes. And I definitely meant Darren's ambivalence about his home state is a mirror for my own. And I also meant it to be a stand in for black folks ambivalence sometimes about where we fit in America. To what degree is this place truly our birthright? And to what degree can we afford to feel passionate patriotism for a place that frequently shows us such disdain?

MARTIN: How does Darren feel about where he is from?

LOCKE: I think he feels that it doesn't belong to its worst impulses - that the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, that the Klan, that people who hold racist views don't get to decide what a state or a country is - that as long as he is present there too, as long as he is wearing a badge, there is a chance, there is hope that he can define the state as being a place that is fundamentally hospitable to black life.

MARTIN: And we don't want to give too much away of the narrative. But he is - he finds himself in this town of Larke, and he ends up pursuing a mystery trying to solve two murders. And trust is such an issue, I mean, because he is this outside force. So immediately, there is distrust around him, even within the black community with whom he feels like there should be some immediate bond. They treat him with a certain amount of distrust. He's clearly treated with distrust by the white patriarchy that rules that town, yet he wears this star that commands so much significance in that place.

LOCKE: Yes. But I think, you know, the badge is this double-edged sword. The badge for the black folks in town is no different from the badge that a white ranger would wear - that black folks' uncomfortable relationship with law enforcement - it does not matter who's wearing it. And the badge then for the white folks in town - the badge on a black man is - can be kind of confusing. It doesn't quite fit the script or the stereotype of what law enforcement looks like to them.

MARTIN: Yeah. They don't know how to treat him. And this is where you're nuance with race in this book. I mean, you're tackling race from the big picture. It is infused in the very crimes that Darren is trying to solve. But then there are these moments where you slow things down in the mundane details of how racism infuses everyday conversation. For example, just when someone will slip in the word boy when talking to Darren, who is a Texas Ranger, who is a grown man.

LOCKE: Yes. And Darren has to decide, which times do I call that out or which times it is in my best interest to let a single voice slide in order to get to the larger victory - the larger moral victory?

MARTIN: I was also struck by how the past is so present in this story and in this place. And it's the same feeling in our country right now when we see marches like the ones in Charlottesville and the debate over Confederate statues. It is like the line between our past and our present is blurring. And that's what it felt reading this.

LOCKE: And, you know, what's crazy is I did not - I remember after Donald Trump was elected - and I think I've been very public about my feelings about his administration. I remember thinking my book changed overnight. I'd already written it. But I knew without me having changed a word, the effect of this book was really different - that it was suddenly entering into a different marketplace, into a different country in some ways.

We walk side by side in America with our past. We walk with these ghosts. And I think I tried to capture the ways in which present day drama - racial drama is so deeply infused by the past.

MARTIN: Thanks so much for talking with us.

LOCKE: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: That was Attica Locke. She is an award-winning author. She was also a writer and a producer on the hit TV show "Empire." Her latest novel is "Bluebird, Bluebird." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.