By Nathan McCall
Atria, 352 pages
The setting in Nathan McCall’sdebut novel, Them, is a tree-lined street in Atlanta, but the racial drama that unfolds echoes a territorial friction occurring across American cities wherever gentrification takes hold.
The novel takes place a few blocks from Martin Luther King’s boyhood home and Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King was ordained and served as pastor. These serve as reminders that two generations later interracial community remains an elusive dream.
McCall presents instead a perverse mutation of that dream–a world where affluent whites with a naïve and vaguely missionary mentality bypass Atlanta’s Virginia Highlands and Peachtree Avenue and filter into an historically Black neighborhood, satisfied that they are investing while upgrading a seemingly dilapidated community. Physically, the distance between newcomers and established residents is slight, often just the next yard over. Psychologically, it is a chasm. McCall has been exploring that chasm for more than a decade, beginning with his stunning memoir, Makes Me Wanna Holler, and a follow-up book of personal essays, What’s Going On, that confront Black-white racial dynamics with a searing and unsparing tone that recalls James Baldwin. In a
conversation during his current book tour, the soft-voiced author explained that he chose fiction for his next exploration of race in part to widen his mental lens and remove himself from the spotlight after years of "feeling like a lab mouse." He investigated the inner workings of Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Richard Wright’s Native Son, as well as the work of South African novelists Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee.
"One of the things I like about South-African writers is that they take race head on," McCall said. "There seems to be an unspoken rule that you can’t do that in America."
Them ambitiously attempts to directly enter the confused minds of both whites and Blacks struggling to navigate a contemporary conflict: gentrification. The novel alternates between the viewpoints of two protagonists: Barlowe Reed, a ruminating 40-year-old Black man hoping to buy his longtime rental property, and Sandy Gilmore, a sheltered white liberal perplexed by the wall of coldness that greets her and husband Sean when they move in next door to Barlowe.
Gentrification is painful in real life and in this novel. Sean assumes a drunken Black man urinating on his lawn is a mugger. Pickering, the demagogic Black preacher who
fancies himself a spiritual heir to MLK, incites a crowd to resist white intrusion. Tyrone, Barlowe’s live-in nephew, assaults Sean in a property dispute. The violence that ensues feels inevitable.
In the six years that McCall spent constructing this drama, he oddly found himself drawing the privileged Sandy more easily than the indignant Barlowe. "With Barlowe, I made a conscious effort to create a character as distant from myself as possible," McCall said. "But Sandy I knew. I’ve had so many conversations about race with white friends and colleagues where I know their heart is in the right place but they aren’t aware of the unconscious racism."
He describes Atlanta’s Emory University, where he has taught journalism and African American studies, as an institutional prototype of surface liberalism, characterized by white faculty who lead self-satisfying diversity initiatives but fold the moment a racial conversation becomes uncomfortable.
"One of the incidents I drew on in shaping Sandy’s character was a colleague of mine who prided herself on valuing diversity. She got into a conflict with a Black employee who said she called her a racial name. My colleague was offended that I didn’t just take her word for it and told me, ‘You seem pleased I have to go through this.’ I felt like, ‘Well obviously you need to go through this. You wake up every day and have a choice about whether to deal with race. I wake up every day and have to prepare myself to deal with it.’"
In the novel, Sandy gets her initial exposure beyond the comfort zone when entering the Black-owned neighborhood mini-mart to buy a bottle of shampoo. She discovers, as locals look on, entertained, that the store carries no hair-care products for white women. Confused, she absurdly convinces herself that she is breaking through a racial barrier. She imagines herself transposed to the historic place of the Little Rock Nine in 1957: "White people, their faces brimming with hate, lined each side of the walk, shouting obscenities as they were restrained by state troopers…Now, walking through the mini-mart with the spirit of that girl’s courage nudging her on, Sandy knew what she had to do." She approaches the check-out counter, purchase in hand, determined to stake claim to the market.
Regardless of Sandy’s intention to build bridges, like other sheltered, liberal whites in Them, her inadequate reference point for dealing with race is a sentimentalized scrapbook of civil rights-era images. And ultimately she and the other incoming whites can escape ongoing discomfort because the momentum of gentrification protects their interests, symbolized when a white proprietor buys out the mini-mart and turns it into an espresso bar.
The Nathan McCall who enters white liberalism’s logic in Them has evolved radically from the white-hating, troubled youth in Portsmouth, Virginia, who dominates the early pages of Makes Me Wanna Holler. In his 1993 autobiography, McCall describes a brutal struggle to decipher and negotiate the complex codes of Black macho and white mainstream culture enough to attain sanity, integrity and a measure of peace.
On the surface, the Barlowe character in his new novel might appear to be based on McCall’s own past. Barlowe faces ongoing abuse from figures in the white power structure, a condescending and manipulative boss and a disingenuously chummy landlord who evades Barlowe’s offer to buy the rental property. But McCall said that beyond an aversion to flags and a shared background in the printing trade, the two have little in common.
"I decided to have Barlowe as someone with strong natural intelligence but little formal education," he said. "I figured that otherwise people would look for me in the character." McCall’s primary goal was to capture the inner thoughts of Black city residents seeing whites move into their neighborhoods, an aim he first began to conceive soon after moving to Atlanta in 1998 and observing widespread gentrification.
McCall also became interested in exploring whether inter-racial dialogue could occur and offers a sprig of possibility through the cautious exchange Barlowe and Sandy develop across the fence as they garden. Gardening is the only interest the two communities share in Them, a faint vestige of an old South where the relationship to soil itself could serve as a metaphor for the complex connections between the races.
The talks between Sandy and Barlowe generate only the most paltry of insights. No one has a breakthrough. Hope lies more in the authenticity of the interchange, the faintest kindling of trust in a world where everyone sees everyone else across an invisible boundary as "them." But, in the end, their shared effort at good will cannot survive gentrification’s relentless mental and physical disruptions.
"For me, there was no other credible way to end it based on what I see in this country as it relates to the complexity of race," McCall said. "On an everyday basis, Blacks and whites and others work together and never really get to know or trust each other."