This novel puts the “too often secreted issues of intraracial classism and colorism” up front and center, along with Black cop contradictions and color-coded witnesses.
“The author opens the door ‘fully for rich, complicated, messy, foolish, and celebratory black realities.’”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Karla FC Holloway. Holloway is the James. B. Duke Professor Emerita of English and Law at Duke University. Her book is A Death in Harlem: A Novel.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Karla Holloway: To the extent that our current politics are race bound A Death in Harlem is absolutely a primer as to how race attaches to political/social expression. However, A Death in Harlem probes deeper, and even somewhat provocatively in its suggestion that the history of our longing for an ideal solution to racial conflicts extends to dangling the allure of an imagined “race-free” sanctuary. (In the novel, this imagined paradise is Brazil.) Additionally, the problematic, and too often secreted issues of intraracial classism and colorism, are front and center. So when we wonder about current politics that frame questions like ‘Is Kamala black enough?’ – (a version of the question posed about President Obama), or why there might be a Rachel Dolezal, we see the kinds of color-coded idealism that produces racial mistrust as well as the economies and cultures that attached value in lighter skin. The consideration the novel gives to “black society” and tying society to complexion is another provocation. The Boulé, black Greek letter organizations and their particular codes of conduct, and the ways in which black society folk depended on black working class folks to maintain their economic privilege, come under enough scrutiny so that we see the way in which their influence is still felt in contemporary politics and black social life. I believe my novel also allows us to pose questions about the relationships between color and class that only a fiction would make possible.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
There’s certainly an narrative about Black policing that is particularly interesting to follow in my novel as we consider the ways in which today’s black officers are positioned between two color codes. It’s a version of Louis Armstrong/Ralph Ellison’s question: “How does it feel to be so black and blue?” Although we have targeted appropriate critique and concern about black policing, we’ve thought less about the cultures within police departments that encourage those choices. Weldon Thomas, Harlem’s “first colored policeman”—as imagined in this novel—experiences that divided loyalty, and also the pressures of racial representation. In my fiction, we might find a way to think about the evolution of a corps of black police who are torn between community policing, being a “credit to the race,” and managing the sometimes demeaning cultures of police communities. I hope we find ways of thinking through how race and representation manage the complicated histories of legal procedures – for example, how a jury’s expectations of witnesses are culturally produced. What I think most interesting in reference to activism is that the focused organization and prod to interrogate a district attorney’s ruling in A Death in Harlem comes from the “colored” working class women who gather to make the policeman do more than simply wear the uniform.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
What a fabulous question! I hope readers will un-learn some of the privileged value judgments we too easily assign to those who can claim membership in higher economic class. Being wealthy does not necessarily come with common sense. It would be particularly gratifying to see a discussion emerge about whether the social clubs and societies and organizations that form around those from a privileged social class do work that is as helpful as the mantras and pledges and highly cultivated memberships suggest. What if the presumptions of “social uplift” were the subject under interrogation rather than the communities to whom this uplift is directed? I think of VP Joe Biden’s offensive claim about which communities know how to care for children and why poverty is a stand in for inexperienced parenting. How is it that that kind of deficit thinking is not immediately under scrutiny!? Additionally we might un-learn the presumption that wealth carries a particular kind of safety. One of the features of A Death in Harlem is that the folk who are in need of help are the very folk who spend a goodly amount of time in “charitable” endeavors. Believing that wealth is a protection from harm or that it comes with a built-in safety net are presumptions that A Death in Harlem challenges.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
Gracious! I wish I could answer this in 200 words but it’s really quite simply Toni Morrison. Toni Morrison is so widely known, appreciated, celebrated, and appropriately awarded for her fiction; but as a scholar-before-I-was-a-novelist, I’ve been as inspired by her non-fiction. In works like Playing in the Dark and The Source of Self-Regard, readers will find her clear-eyed, incisive, unapologetic, and absolutely correct critique of American racism, whiteness, and its histories and consequences. Toni Morrison described how she became a writer when she was able to get “the white man off her shoulder.” This act of self-regard and authority allowed her to write without the white gaze disciplining her in any way at all. This is such a crucial claim. Toni Morrison’s literary imagination, fueled by her fierce and insistent freedom, is my lodestar. We all just want to be free.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
I believe A Death in Harlem makes it possible to imagine the interiors of black worlds as complicated, contradictory, humbling and celebratory all at the same time. It was necessary for me to write through and accompanied by this complexity of black identities…to imagine us fully human. There are madness and joy, envy and generosity, and especially narrative histories implied or explicitly engaged in my Harlem novels that are absolutely and fully worthy of imaginative play. The folks who populate A Death in Harlem are both familiar and unfamiliar to me. I’ve known them, and at the same time as a writer of fiction, I’ve offered them possibilities they might not have imagined for themselves. Because so much depends on color-line identities in this Harlem novel, I’ve imagined the origins for where dreams (or necessities) of passing, and skin-toned/color-coded access might emerge. I’ve thought about relationships between women, and the shedding of relationships that “might/could” have been prior to their taking on the labor of social roles and the ways in which racial roles nudged conformity to certain sexual expectations.
I know BAR most often considers non-fiction; but like Morrison, I believe our imagined lives are grist for the lives we experience. So in A Death in Harlem, the first of my “In Harlem” series, I’ve opened the doors fully for rich, complicated, messy, foolish, and celebratory black realities. We will know these folk. They are us.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He also serves as the Outreach and Mentoring Coordinator for the Political Theology Network. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the new book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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