Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2016.
Rachel Willis, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Carol Anderson about her book White Rage (Bloomsbury), which is among the final five selections in the category of Criticism for the 2016 NBCC Awards.
Rachel Willis: It’s my understanding that you were asked to write this book after an article you wrote for the Washington Post on a similar topic. What was your initial reaction to the thought of writing this book?
Carol Anderson: I was exhilarated. The Washington Post op-ed had allowed me to sketch out what White Rage was and how it operated both historically and now. But it was just a sketch. I wanted to be able to tell the tale and to show in exquisite detail exactly how policies designed to undermine black achievement (the Brown decision, the Civil Rights Movement, the election of Barack Obama to the White House) emanated not from the bowels of society but from the cool marble halls of the courts, Congress, school boards, etc. The book-length study would also give me the room to engage the reader with the horrific effects of those policies both on African Americans and the nation at large.
RW: You’re very thorough throughout the book citing where your facts and figures come from; the notes section at the end is more than 60 pages. How long did you spend researching and writing the book? Was the process simultaneous or did you have to do an immense amount of research before you sat down to write?
CA: In many ways, this book is a culmination of decades of research for my previous books, which then helped me know the broad outlines, many of the horrific stories – if not all of the details – and the key players in each era even before I began White Rage. That is what allowed the work to gel so smoothly over an intense nine-month research and writing schedule. In many ways, the process was deliberate, managed chaos. I knew the outlines but I needed to know what I didn’t know. The numerous books, articles, government documents, biographies and memoirs I compiled were key. I would research and often find a document whose details were astonishing. I’d then have a moment of “are you kidding me?!” as I would write those incredible gems of information and insight into a coherent narrative. Often the process of writing would require greater clarity and precision, which led to more rethinking, researching, and revising up until the very moment when I submitted the final draft.
RW: This book is full of heartbreaking and shocking stories about the gross mistreatment of African Americans starting with the Civil War. I was particularly disturbed by the story about the murder of Mary Turner and her unborn child. While you were doing the research necessary to write the book, did you find any of these stories or facts shocking? Or have you built up some level of immunity toward this kind of information?
CA: I have no immunity. I am a human rights scholar. I teach classes on War Crimes & Genocide, the Civil Rights Movement, and US foreign policy. I see in my work the most horrific things that human beings can and will do. And still, the Mary Turner story left me in tears. As did the Ossian Sweet case. On the other hand, there was anger at the injustice of closing down public schools, prosecuting ten percent of the black population in Tulia, Texas for drug buys that never happened and for which there was absolutely no evidence, and top policymakers ignoring U.S. national security to advance a horrific agenda.
RW: With such a racial and political divide in this country, were you at all scared of the kind of ignorant or negative responses you might get to the book? What kind of advice can you give to cultural critics or journalists who want to discuss similar or other controversial issues but might be afraid to speak out?
CA: I knew that racism has been an all-too powerful force in American society. Centuries of mobilization, organizing, and court cases have not eradicated this pestilence from our society. But fear didn’t enter into my decision making. I knew I had to reframe the narratives – those myths – that we have told ourselves as a nation to justify the unjustifiable; that’s what drove this book. The need to have a fact-based, historically accurate, and engaging account of the political resistance to black aspirations and achievement was the guiding star for White Rage. Because as loud and obnoxious as the racist venom can be, I knew that there was someone that I needed to and could reach. White Rage is for those who knew that something was wrong as they saw “bad schools,” mass incarceration, and a president who ticked every box but one – race-- get vilified and disrespected. Those individuals were not persuaded by the pithy soundbites that dominate the airwaves and political discourse. But, despite their unease, they did not have the factual knowledge to know how to enter the conversation on solid ground. The unforgettable and well-documented stories about Black Codes, the strangulation of public schools for African Americans, and voter suppression answered that call. My advice is simple to other authors: write from the facts. Mudslinging polemics play into the hatred that has been churned and nurtured for far too long and ignores the overwhelming majority of the people. There is this amazing glow from readers, who had been trying desperately to understand America and now, after White Rage, have the tools to do so.
RW: Did you anticipate the outcome of the 2016 election? Would you say it was a result or extension of White Rage?
CA: Yes, 2016 was like watching White Rage in real time. There was the culmination of the near frenzied hatred following Barack Obama’s elections, the willful gutting of the Voting Rights Act, the slew of voter suppression laws that “targeted African Americans with almost surgical precision,” and the dog whistles that made racism politically acceptable and rewarded.
RW: If there is one thing that every forward thinking American could do to help move the country in a more positive direction, free of systemic oppression and White Rage, what might that be?
CA: Imagine. And then hold our elected officials and ourselves accountable for creating and sustaining a nation that meets a much, much higher standard of decency, dignity, humanity, and democracy than we have had in the past.
Carol Anderson, Ph.D., is Charles Howard Candler Professor of African American Studies at Emory University. Professor Anderson’s research and teaching focus on public policy; particularly the ways that domestic and international policies intersect through the issues of race, justice and equality in the United States. Professor Anderson is the author of Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African-American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944-1955, Bourgeois Radicals: The NAACP and the Struggle for Colonial Liberation, 1941-1960, and her most recent work, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Nation's Divide, published by Bloomsbury, is a New York Times Bestseller, Race and Civil Rights of August 2016, and was a New York Times Editor's Pick for July 2016.
Rachel Willis is in her thesis semester of the New School’s MFA program in Creative Writing (fiction). She is working on a series of interconnected short stories about a Hasidic Jewish girl growing up in Brooklyn. Rachel has become more politically active recently and her writing is starting to explore questions of race, religion, and gender more critically than ever before.