White Girl, Fine Girl by Shirley Ann Grau, 1955
The magic trick:
A story about race and gender that points the reader’s distrust toward the systems in place, not the characters
Yikes, brace yourself for a messy story. Jayson is just getting out of prison when we meet him at the start of the story. It’s a story set and written in segregated Alabama. All of its characters – Jayson chief among them – are black. The author is white. So even as I think she does an admirable job at crafting a multidimensional look at race and gender, there is no denying it’s messy.
Even from a literary standpoint, Grau is trying some ambitious stuff here. The story takes a sudden turn into an imagined (and italicized) past about halfway through. I’d argue that it doesn’t really work and halts the story’s momentum. But it’s certainly an interesting idea. This story is full of ideas. And it’s brave.
Just when you think, “Well, no way it goes there,” …. It does. Violence, anger, poverty.
Whereas some white authors – accidentally or otherwise – of the era might portray black characters as angelic models of stereotype-breaking perfection, this story just boldly takes aim at creating a monster.
The result isn’t an audience confirming its own racism – we hope. Instead, the reader looks deeper and considers the more complete culture and systems that have made this story a reality.
And that’s quite a trick on Grau’s part.
He walked over and took hold of her shoulder. He shook her so that her body struck into the hardness of his thigh. She was perfectly limp; even her arms flapped.
“You ma say for you to follow me?”
She shook her head but did not answer. The pressure of his arm was steadily increasing. She kicked at his shins sharply and pulled free; he grabbed at her as she slopped back out of reach. He grabbed for her again and his hand brushed her dress, but she was too quick. She stood just beyond his hand, body bent forward slightly, waiting, ready.
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