Confronting Racism in Fact and Fiction

tim parrishWhen Tim Parrish talks to other white people about racism, he says, their reactions, like his, literally come from a racist place. Racism in the United States is institutionalized, he says, but many white people are reluctant to talk about how they've been influenced by that.

"White people, including me, often find it hard to talk about how racist institutions in American may have wired racism into them," Parrish says. "Plus, talking about how you might have racist impulses -- and I know that I do -- seems like a no-win situation because of the absolutes people in the U.S. use to talk about race. The conversation usually goes, You're either 'pure of heart' or 'wearing a white hood.' The reality is a lot more complicated than that, and we need to talk about it in a more nuanced way."

Parrish, an English professor and director of the creative writing program, and a native of Baton Rouge, La., takes a hard look at racism in his two new books, both published this fall: Fear and What Follows: The Violent Education of a Christian Racist, a Memoir, and The Jumper, a novel, winner of Texas Review Press’s 2012 George Garrett Prize for Fiction.

Parrish says the idea for The Jumper came from a man he tutored in Baton Rouge in the 1980s. “He was in his mid-30s and he was illiterate,” Parrish says, “I was teaching him how to read.” Parrish asked the man about his life story and learned that he had grown up on a west Texas ranch thinking he was an orphan. But one day he received a telegram from his biological father saying, “come back to Baton Rouge.”

This man’s story was the inspiration for Parrish’s novel’s main character, Jimmy Strawhorn. The Jumper takes its title from Strawhorn’s urge to jump from high places, but the trope of jumping also goes back to Parrish’s 2000 book of short stories, Red Stick Men, also based in Baton Rouge.

Parrish describes The Jumper as a plot-driven novel and “kind of a crime novel.” One of the judges for the Garrett Prize wrote of the book that it is “so shockingly good that readers will abandon their favorite authors . . . and rush to read all his work.”

Both The Jumper and Fear and What Follows are underpinned by racism, Parrish says. The racial and class politics portrayed in the novel echo the real world of 1960s and ‘70s Baton Rouge that Parrish writes about in his memoir. “Race riots and vicious street fights were all I knew,” says Parrish, who grew up in the years of desegregation in Baton Rouge.

Parrish says he started toying with the idea of writing his memoir when he was in graduate school, but he brought it out again after 9-11. “There was a lot of apocalyptic talk after 9-11,” he says, “and it started stirring up all these emotions about my life.”

Parrish says he and other members of his generation in the South “grew up in a time and a place where racism saturated everything that was going on,” but nobody in the white community really talked about it. Parrish feels that in writing about this period in his own life, he could confront his own demons while also saying something meaningful about the toxic thinking that surrounded him in his youth.

About his own experience with “fear and what follows,” Parrish writes of his personal spiral in his teens into racist violence and irrational behavior. “When you get scared, you look to a brute to protect you,” he says, “and you believe you’ll be safer if he does.” His book portrays his choice to ally himself with a vicious, charismatic racist. Under this bigot’s sway, Parrish turns to violence in the street and at school. “I tried not to hold anything back about myself in the book,” he says. “I wanted to give an unvarnished look at what happened. I wanted to show how true fear informed a lot of atrocious behavior.”

He describes the atmosphere at his desegregating high school in the mid-‘70s as “extremely violent” and discusses a shootout in the streets between members of the African American community and Baton Rouge police during which five people were killed. “It was kind of like gang war,” Parrish says, but the white press was not covering such events. It was an extremely complex racist and violent environment, he says, yet there was no assessment of the psychic or emotional toll this environment took on the people who lived in it.

Ultimately, with this book, Parrish says, he wants to engage people in a conversation. He says he didn’t set out to write a pedantic book but just wrote about what happened to him. He does say, though, that he would like this book to speak to white people in a way that encourages them to investigate what he calls their “racist wiring.” “People are conditioned to be racist in our culture, but they are terrified to admit it.”