What would a national dialogue on race relations look like?

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By SCOTT GRABER

It’s early and this morning I’m sitting in the lobby of the Marshall House having turned up the rheostat-controlled lighting and poured myself a cup in of complimentary coffee.

The Marshall House is antebellum in origin but it competes with a dozen new hotels that come with health spas, rooftop restaurants and lobbies where one might park the Graf Zeppelin.

The Marshall House concedes nothing to these newcomers — still comfortable with its uneven hardwood floors, narrow hallways and smallish, low-ceiling lobby.

Neither does the Marshall House make excuses for its Confederate ephemera: or make contextual comment under the framed uniform of the Savannah Volunteers (in its lobby) to quiet current sensibilities.

I suppose — in these days of of racial tumult — I am more sensitive on this score.

Several days ago I listened to a writer, Jeffrey Blount, talk about his novel, “The Emancipation of Evan Walls” (Koehler Books, 2019).

This was in connection with my book club and we were fortunate to actually get the author to participate in our discussion.

Normally I don’t like it when the author participates — sometimes when I read a novel I don’t like it. If the author shows up, common courtesy makes it impossible to criticize his writing or her storyline. (Years ago I did a review at “Books Sandwiched In” where the author and his wife sat in the first row.)

But in the case of Jeffrey Blount, I didn’t worry much about criticism because there is a lot to like about “The Emancipation of Evan Walls.”

Evan Walls, the protagonist in Blount’s novel, comes of age in Tidewater Virginia just as that state is beginning to integrate its public schools. Evan is African American, gifted intellectually and athletically, and discovers that he wants something better than the life being lived by his kinsmen. Evan makes it clear to his family and to his friends that ultimately he wants out of Canaan, Va.

For his ambition Evan is resented, occasionally beaten-up and vilified by his African American kinsmen. He is called “Snowball,” labeled an “Uncle Tom,” and spends a lot of time alone in a nearby forest wondering whether he is betraying his friends, endangering his family, doing something selfish and being a traitor to those he loves.

Evan Walls is an unusual exploration of the resentment that comes when a Black man, or woman, tries to escape his circumstances and compete in the so-called “White World.”

Evan Walls is also full of well-crafted characters who plunge the reader into the heads of the people who call Canaan, Va., home. In particular it gives the reader insight into the anger that is carried around inside (most) Black folk; the fear that is carried around in (most) White folk; the self-loathing that is carried around by all of us. It is, in short, a candid and painful portrait of the American South in the 60s, 70s and 80s. It may be as descriptive today and it was 40 or 50 years ago.

For years I’ve heard the lament that “We need a national dialogue on race relations.” And we have also seen demands for a “reckoning” after the killing of Black men in Minnesota and in Atlanta.

What, I’ve wondered, would this “national discussion” look like? Who would be sitting at the table? Would there be a table? Would it be televised? Would it make any difference?

I wonder these days if a “national discussion” would change anybody’s view about race. We seem to have departed the world of persuasion and entered into a time when raw force is the preferred method moving the heart from one belief to a different belief.

There was a time when we were known as a people who would argue, debate and compromise — but these days compromise is considered a bad thing, a weakness.

So I’m not altogether sure a “conversation” would move many hearts. But if we could somehow, someway stop the shouting, the vilification, I believe a discussion around the characters in “Emancipation of Evan Walls” would be a great place to start.

It would be good in the sense that one must get into the brains and inhabit the hearts of the key players in our national tragedy. William Faulkner did this with the characters that he created, as did Willie Morris, James Baldwin and Toni Morrison. Those who write novels usually go straight for the gut; and Jeffrey Blount doesn’t waste his time in the weeds.

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at cscottgraber@gmail.com.