Ingrid Wassenaar met up with David Bradley, winner of the second Notting Hill Editions Essay Prize for his essay ‘A Eulogy for Nigger’ for a conversation.
Tell me your story!
Well, what do you want to know? I’m the kind of age where I’ve got as many biographies as Maya Angelou. So… I come from a family of ministers. My father was a minister, so were my grandfather and my great-grandfather. I was supposed to be a minister. I grew up in the African Methodist Episcopal (that means we had bishops) Zionist church – it’s one of three black Methodist denominations. It was founded in New York.
That was the tradition I grew up in, and it was partly due to that, partly to my crazy grandmother, that the only real version of the Bible for me was the King James, not the revised. That’s what got me into Shakespeare – he wasn’t that different. So I read the Bible, and I went to church every Sunday, there were textual readings there, and hymns – they were my introduction to music (my favourite English composer is still Vaughan Williams). It was my introduction to almost everything.
What was your education like?
I come from Western Pennsylvania, and had a typical US school system education — pretty traditional, we were taught the basics, like spelling. I was basically born at the right time. I was born in 1950 – I travelled in the South with my father and saw the signs warning you where you were and weren’t supposed to go, but in 1964 the Civil Rights Act was passed, and I came of age in a different world from my father. He was born in 1905. His reactions were based on the past, mine were based on not knowing the past.
As a kid there were expectations about homework, but not anything else. Even though everyone in my family was a minister, and they did kind of expect me to be a minister, God has to call you. And it became apparent that God had not called. My father didn’t want to be a minister, but Circumstances called him – scholarship money to study for the ministry was the only money he could get. After he did his degree in theology, he talked the scholarship people into letting him get a Masters in History. He wanted to be an academic. So when I started teaching, he could accept that. My mother just said, ‘have a good time’. Grades were important, but what you studied, they didn’t care.
In the late 1960s, there was lots of money for black people to go to college, to places they would not have gone to at all had it not been for the atmosphere of the time. I went to the University of Pennsylvania. They sent a recruiter to Philadelphia, they weren’t looking for me or people like me, they wanted people from small rural towns, rather than urban centres. They came back with me. There was a lot of discussion about which of their diversity categories I should fit into. That’s been quite a feature – me not fitting into categories. I had access to support that almost everyone else should have had. They put me in an Honours Programme. Almost by accident I had an excellent education: I went to a non-progressive high school and a traditional university.
You came to England, how did that happen?
After that, there was this exchange, the Thouron Fellowship — a student would come from a UK university, and a Penn student could go anywhere in the UK. So I came over on that, in the mid 70s, but I couldn’t get in anywhere, so I ended up at the Institute of American Studies in London, doing a Masters. I wrote up the dissertation in Spain. I just wanted to get out of Philadelphia, I wanted to come to the UK, I had spent most of my time reading literature about this place. The first thing I did was go and look at all the places in London that Dickens mentions – Lincoln’s Inn is amazing! Bleak House is my favourite Dickens.
My father had come here, but he was looking for the birthplace of John Wesley. Whole different thing. I knew I had come from a small town, I wanted to get out – I thought I would die there. My parents were ok about me going – we were traditional black people, so, you know, anything with Education attached to it was OK.
My parents were terrified about everything that happened to me because they didn’t understand. My father went to a small black church school — he had a scholarship for men to enter the Ministry. They hadn’t really thought about a black man applying for it, but there he was, he applied, and they couldn’t see a reason not to give it to him, so they did. That wasn’t quite how the Ku Klux Clan saw things, and they said they’d murder him, so he escaped up to North Carolina. Eventually he came back. And in the end he settled back in Bedford, Pennsylvania, built a house. There was a lot of moving about with the church before that, but he came back home. I could never figure out why he came back.
What happened after you came back from England?
My second novel starts with the older child returning to the small place. When I got back from Spain, I too went back to Bedford. My parents wanted to see me again, naturally enough. It was a strange feeling. They were seeing an imagined me. I was old enough to let my father live with his illusions. My father thought that I would move back there. In fact I was rewriting a novel, and had an advance. It would have made sense to move back there. But ‘there’ made me tired. I wanted to go back to Philadelphia. I stayed four months; I had to stay until it became a consensus that I had to go. Actually, my mother never understood why I came back. She was born in New Jersey. Twenty years after they had settled in Bedford, someone asked her, ‘how did you adjust after the city?’. She said, ‘what makes you think I adjusted?’. My mother was a remarkable woman. She never burdened me with her expectations. She just wanted me to be safe. I once told her a story about being out late, and she said, ‘see, that’s why I don’t worry about you, because I just can’t imagine it’.
Actually there is a lot of literature about coming home, coming back. I love Marilynn Robinson’s work, about the need to belong – actually we were both nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award in the same year – she was up for Housekeeping – we were put up in a former plantation house, and as I was the winner, I got the room with a dumb waiter.
All that furore about Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman – it’s all about a woman who has left the south to go to New York, and comes home to see if she can discover the truth about her father. In the original manuscript for To Kill a Mockingbird, the one that’s now been published as Go Set a Watchman, a lot of the stuff about Atticus was in flashbacks. Lee was encouraged to write the children’s book version, the version that’s from the point of view of the child. That read better than the truth. She never rewrote the adult perspective. So when Go Set a Watchman was released, everyone jumped to the defence of Atticus – yet she didn’t invent him, the original story was the true one. But everyone has laid claim to Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird, they can’t let go of those illusions.
How did you become a writer?
I had a calling to be a writer. The calling was reading Faulkner. I arrived at college having tried to prepare ‘literary’ things. I had understood that academics were into specialisation, so I had decided to be an expert on Steinbeck, and had read everything by him. I get to university, and at the first cocktail party was asked what I had read. I said ‘Steinbeck’, and was immediately confronted with Faulkner. So I read him. This guy was preaching – he didn’t want to say the things he said, the characters were making him say them. He didn’t want to write about black/white confrontation, but he was forced to by the characters. In Intruder in the Dust, the main character, Lucas Beauchamp is accused of murder, and he hires a lawyer to get him off. At the end, Beauchamp, this black guy, walks into the white lawyer’s office, and says he wants to pay him what he owes. The lawyer is trying to be all patrician and waves him away, but Beauchamp insists, so the lawyer comes up with the figure $2. The black guy carefully counts the money out, and the lawyer just sweeps it into a drawer. Then he’s surprised to see Beauchamp still standing there. And Beauchamp says, ‘I want my receipt’. And all of the hurt and pain that he has suffered at the hands of his society boils down to this one word. Faulkner didn’t want to write this — the characters make you say what you don’t want to say. I had this epiphany – I don’t have to be holy, or better, I just have to follow the characters, it’s my job to channel them, it’s all about the words. That’s what I was supposed to do.
You know, I fight with my journalist friends, who scorn the idea that fiction writing is about following the characters’ words, and we argue about truth – I challenge them to tell me the truth about whether they are honestly recording their interviewees, or whether they edit quotes to suit their story. Everyone manipulates and tries to control – but what I’ve found about fiction is that if you manipulate too much, the characters do not sound like them.
And then readers also take over your characters – this is what happened with Atticus Finch, people had projected so much into him, and they got angry at the idea that he could ever have been different. And if the novel is filmed, it’s different again – because Gregory Peck played Atticus, and that is what most people actually remember of the book, they can’t accept another version of Atticus. Oddly enough, when you are writing creative non-fiction, you can see that someone is an arsehole, even if they don’t think they are.
How did you make money as a writer?
So I went back to Philadelphia to finish my book, but I had to eat, so I went back to the job I’d had in college, working in a movie theatre on campus as an usher, and was told I could run it. It paid for me to live like a student, and at the same time I applied for jobs, and ended up with a publishing job in downtown Philadelphia. And also at the same time, my agent rang and said she had a contract for my book, so that was a very busy time: 6 to 10 in the theatre, four nights a week, 9 to 5 Monday to Friday, and rewriting this book – for the first time in my life I had money but no time to spend it.
Then the publishing company moved me to New York, and that’s where I was between ’75 and ’80. I was there when my first novel was published. That was not a good experience. You know, I have always been mystified about why a husband would want to be present at the birth of his child – it was awful to witness the birth of my novel. You think you will be the exception, you’re expecting all these good things, then some good things happen, but not enough of them. I was actually working in publishing too, right? So I knew what the different signs meant – when they announced the print runs or it not going to paperback, I knew it wasn’t selling, I knew I was fucked. It got well reviewed, but that was partly because I was in the business. So it didn’t do what I wanted, but I could see why. I still think being in the business wasn’t the best idea. But I learnt things. And when you’re 25 and you have pain, I know now that you will still grow out of it.
Anyway, New York publishing was changing, I was trying to write a second novel, but I had no luck placing it, because of the first. It was the era of Roots and I was the wrong kind of black – it influenced a lot of things. I was trying to be a freelance writer, and I would get assigned reviews about black writers. And I got to a point where I couldn’t stand publishing, the frustration of it. I was an assistant editor, and people still had the idea that the editor will help a writer improve. But I just had to reject things. I was writing reports on how a novel didn’t work.
How did you find academic life?
When I finally got to teaching in a university, I loved it, because my job was all about how to improve writing. I got a job at Temple University in Philadelphia. It was a state school with a small ego, they were impressed that I had published. I was commuting from the East Village in New York to Philadelphia. I didn’t want to leave New York — I had these amazing landlords, two old gay guys. Eventually one got sick, and I couldn’t stand to stay, I knew it was time to go. I’m good at knowing when it’s time to leave. Those guys were wonderful. One of them said to me, ‘I’ve been queer a long time’. They had made their life there.
After a while, I took extended leave of absence from Temple and went to California to write for the movies. That paid extremely well, and I fell in love with California. In the end, though, I went back to Temple and Philadelphia, and then in 1982 I won an award [the PEN/Faulkner Award for The Chaneysville Incident].
In the end I taught at Temple for nineteen years – until they wanted to fire me: they decided they didn’t need to honour our contract. Now, I believe in contracts. We had a contract that agreed to me grouping my teaching into one semester, so that I could travel to take up other teaching offers. But then Temple decided to rescind this agreement. I complained, so they fired me, so I took them to court, and five years later, they lost.
But universities are risk-averse, and so they didn’t like that court case, and it was difficult for me to get another job in academia for a while. It turned out OK, because I did teach in other places, friends got me Visiting Fellowship jobs, and I went all over the place, Williamsburg in upstate New York, Wilmington, Austin, Texas – a semester at a time. Then I went to Oregon in 2000. I kind of decided, was kind of pushed, into retirement there, over a teaching investigation.
There’s this situation in American universities now, where the Department of Education lumps together all ages from grade school upwards when it’s deciding what is ‘appropriate’ or not, which gives administrations the opportunity to invade other academic areas. So, there was this investigation into whether or not I was creating a ‘hostile environment for gender and transgender’. I found myself being investigated for things I was talking about in class… that students themselves had created! So students were called in and asked what I did in class, they were asked ‘did he do this? Did he do that?’ – leading questions – and I was accused of harrassing students with my comments.
How do you see America at the moment?
After that investigation, I decided it was time for me to move on again. It is a troubling tendency in America at the moment, a kind of witch hunting, there’s even this very troubling conflation of rape and sexual harrassment. America is a strange country. We are worse educated than we have ever been, and yet the Department of Education seems only to investigate colleges for how they handle complaints, never to find out how well the teaching is going. The relationship between ‘criminal justice’ and ‘education’ in the US, in grade school, middle school and high school, is appalling. Student have no rights to privacy in their own lockers. They are sent to the police, and much more often if they are black. Now we have a situation where two students, who were in a relationship at 16, were sending naked pictures of each other to each other, and because they were caught at 17, they have been charged with disseminating indecent images, as adults! And then you find out the kids are black… You get quotations from women saying they are fortunate their rapist was black, because they got justice. Who in their right mind is doing this?
The Department of Education doesn’t ask what it is actually teaching children with all this patrolling – how will those children regard authority? With contempt. Maybe they are breeding another 60s generation. When I was teaching my last year, the kids I taught were maybe the best year I’d ever had, brilliant, interesting, writing kids. I realised that they had never known a period of peace. What is their view of life? Mine was shaped by the Cold War. These young people have been through a different kind of war, their view of life is the one that’s going to change the world in 50 years’ time.
I am working on a book about how stuff keeps coming back — all the different languages that are used, say about racism — it’s just symbolism. Now they are talking about ‘gun control’, but it’s still just symbolism. You find yourself thinking ‘thank God the Ferguson guy and the Charleston guy were white’, otherwise they’d just be saying, ‘See? Those niggers just shoot each other’. Now they will talk about ‘violence’, but it’s still only symbolism. There’s no action.
This is in the ‘Eulogy for Nigger’ essay too – the way American media and our national intellectual conversation cristallises around a symbol. So having ‘a public burial for the N-word’ means ‘we are going to bury the symbol… of a symbol’. It doesn’t mean anything. Black people use the word ‘nigger’ all the time (although never in front of white people). Maya Angelou points out in ‘Weekend Glory’ that black people – and she is implicitly referring to niggers – ‘have the luck to be Black/on a Saturday night’. Niggers listen to soul and blues – Negroes like jazz. Chris Rock does a riff – ‘I’m tired of this shit’ about niggers, arguing that they don’t ‘get a cookie’ for ‘bringing their kids up right’, because ‘that’s what you’re supposed to do!’. All this stuff is about the politics of respectability, this internal argument that black people have about how much to distance themselves from the Nigger. In the UK it would be a class argument. The people who write for Harpers talk about how it’s great to be respectable, to dress right, to speak to power, to be credentialised. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King dressed impeccably, but it didn’t stop them being murdered.
It’s all about this debate about whether black lives should matter. The point is that the people talking about the problem aren’t the people it’s happening to. They don’t live with the problem, they take a taxi to the problem. We’re talking about the younger people, the street people, the people who don’t see why they have to dress a certain way to have a voice. The Ivy League black people have the credentials, they tend to forget that the legal system is great if you have a degree from Harvard, but it’s seven years for a result, whereas you die in seven minutes. You can get that result of unlawful shooting in seven years, but he’s always going to be dead. They imply that if niggers were respectable – dressed respectably, behaved respectably, were educated respectably – they would be heard. But you have to make them uncomfortable. You are uncomfortable, because they don’t respect you, they don’t think that you are respect-able, so if you are not respected, as you are, why should you behave respectably? It’s a dichotomy forever, but it will never solve the problem.
The problem is the system. And the system they are all part of – the housing system, the banking system, the education system, the legal system, the policing system – that could be stopped tomorrow. The sub-prime mortgages disaster – a disproportionate number of people who had those unrepayable mortgages, and lost their homes, were black. They didn’t lose their homes because they were black, but because black people are disproportionately poorer than whites. When I bought my condo, I was having trouble getting a mortgage because I was making my money in the movies, so it wasn’t stable. But I was putting 50% deposit down. I pointed out that the best thing that could happen to them was that I default – they’d get everything, and I’d have paid 50% up front.
Black people are more in debt, because they tend as a group to have less money, but are just as susceptible to advertising as white people are. Advertising makes you want shit. But the system is that people – black and white – have been told that home ownership is what you should do, so they take out mortgages they cannot repay. Just change the system! Gun ownership is linked directly to capitalism. Guns are made for the military and the police. They are part of the military industrial complex. Once you are making that many guns and putting them out into society, you might as well sell guns in Walmart. Change the system! Put restrictions on making the guns, not the selling of them. Dry up the source.
What do you think about Obama’s presidency?
Obamacare looks good but it will not be rolled out at the federal level properly. Anything national has to go through so many levels of bureaucracy and legislation. No one has read the bill — it is 1000 pages long! The constitution is about 500 lines.
With Obama – he proves the idea that you can’t get far from your raising. He was raised in the weirdest of American states, Hawaii. They have a bad word for white people. I think he is befuddled — he does not understand what it meant to people for him to be the first black president. I don’t think he saw that as a responsibility. I think he was white — he went to private school, Columbia, Harvard — his connection with blackness was when he went to Africa. My expectation was that he would understand: if you are the first black anyone, you don’t forget the people behind you. He dissed his minister, for heaven’s sake! Who was a powerful spokesman with a social outreach ministry. Obama was happy to take phrases from that ministry, but when the party turned against him, he said the older generation was misguided — you don’t say that about your elders. When he invited a white cop to the White House, when that happened, the stage was set for Ferguson. How far would appeasement go? I expected leadership. The president cannot do very much, but he can lead. He has not led on race. Black people have learned to lose — to make the grand gesture — Our first black president should have been impeached, like Clinton got impeached. He tried to be liked — but you are not liked if you are black. I accept that the respectable folk are in charge. Don Lemon at CNN, who made the programme asking which was more offensive, the Confederate flag or the word Nigger, black comics make fun of him. But he is a TV journalist, he’s done what he can. I don’t watch CNN, but again the use of the confederate flag is similar to the word Nigger — attacking symbolism is just a panacea. What else are we going to do? How can you stop that ideology of ‘Do as we say not as we do’?
You’ve written about ‘Nigger’. What about the ‘C-word’?
Hmmm. I’ve heard men called ‘cunts’ — and I will use the word, usually with the adjective ‘fucking’ in front of it. Although if I think about it, I would more likely call a man an ‘arsehole’ or a ‘dick’. But there’s something inherently funny about those words. I think that every grouping has words that they can use amongst themselves, but that others, outsiders, cannot.
In Huckleberry Finn, everyone gets steamed up because Mark Twain uses the word ‘nigger’, but no one seems to notice that Huck never calls Jim ‘nigger’ – they have a friendship based on being runaways: Huck from an abusive father and Jim from the fear of being sold again. The book is really an examination of childrearing: Huck was himself a pariah in the village and had internalised that perspective, he thought of himself as the village thought of him. But it’s his abusive father who needs to carry the can. The character of Huck shows what Mark Twain actually thinks about child abuse and slavery. It’s made very clear towards the end: Jim is recaptured and thrown into a prison in chains because he comes forward to save his friend Tom Sawyer. The Doctor in the story points out that he came out of hiding to help, so the others agree not to call him names any more. But they are still going to sell him.
They are words at the end of the day. All this emphasis on whether or not you have been insulted by a word… you have actually chosen to be insulted. People who are insulting you are saying more about themselves. When someone says, ‘stop acting like a nigger’ – stop taking over, inserting yourself, acting up, not being in the right clothes – they are insisting that you have to be a certain way to be heard.
I was taught to call people who called me ‘nigger’, ‘trash’.
Do you have any final reflection?
I’d like to give Notting Hill Editions big credit. Those people have made such a brave decision: they put ‘nigger’ on the front cover of their book. I really hope it increases sales for them!
Dr Ingrid Wassenaar is the author of Proustian Passions (OUP, 2000), and is currently working on a book about how to recover from modern motherhood. She writes a blog at http://dutchcourage-kirkegaard.blogspot.co.uk, which has been featured many times on Mumsnet.
Read an extract from David Bradley’s prize-winning essay in our BookBuzz section, here.
Ingrid also talked to Professor Raymond Tallis, one of the judges of the Notting Hill Editions Essay Prize, in our previous issue, here.