Let’s describe Tales of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation as an education—and education in class, poverty, racism and excellent writing.
John Freeman’s collection, written by some writers you’d recognize including Anthony Doerr (won a Pulitzer), Ann Patchett (won a PEN/Faulkner Award), and Roxane Gay (writes for the New York Times; all round bad-ass lady) combines essays, short stories and poetry fixated on these subjects. It’s not shy: it even goes right for white debt. It’s not an easy read. My brain hurt. My heart heart. My back hurt, but that might have been because I stayed glued to an uncomfortable chair, flipping pages.
What I’ve come to see is that most of us recognize racism and its impact on communities. We can mitigate its worst compulsions in ourselves, we can be kind, we can address it on personal level and make changes. We can, and do, have friends with diverse backgrounds. We can love people of all kinds. We’re just not sure what to do with the big racism, the institutional, governmental, buried kinds that we cannot see if it does not impact us. I’m not sure Freeman’s collection provides any answers to this either. It does shed some light on it, however. Exposes it. Makes you dwell on it. Therein lies the value.
Anthony Doerr’s story, ‘To the Man Asleep in Our Driveway’ probes the question of how we deal when confronted with poverty and race. The narrator comes home one night to find a car half parked on his driveway, a man passed out and unresponsive behind the wheel. The narrator is worried about his children and his wife, because he lives in an area where gun ownership is encouraged. He makes sure his family is safe upstairs, goes outside and calls the police. They come. The police come; they manage to wake the man up. They chat to him a bit and he drives away.
“I walk out to the driveway. “Something’s off there,” says one policewoman. “Something not right,” says the other… “Thank you for treating him so respectfully,” I say. “We weren’t sure what to do.” The policeman says, “You did the right thing.”
The narrator wonders if he did in fact do the right thing. He wonders if he’d have called the police if the man in his driveway had been in Prius and wearing a suit, not in a grimy car filled with trash bags. He wonders if the man had not been white if the police would have treated him so respectfully. The narrator thinks something is not right. He wonders if he should have been kinder, or let the man sleep, or welcomed him in. He doesn’t know what he could have done differently.
John Freeman was at Event 53 (Freeman’s New Voices) at the 2017 Vancouver Writers Fest.