In the flurry of discussion about the Rachel Dolezal story, people have overlooked one big issue. I haven’t though. This issue has made me think of how much, in one hundred years time when I set A Virtuous Ruby, how little has changed. Dolezal is clearly a pathological liar, but the reception of her deception is what interests me. Many have gone out of their way to treat blackness with complete and utter contempt.
Media figures have postured that the blackness that Dolezal sought to appropriate could not possibly be something that a sane person would want to take on as worthwhile. I witnessed this treatment in the quizzical voices of journalists as they interviewed her parents. Their treatment reminded me of how my light-skinned character, Ruby Bledsoe chose to work and live as a black person in 1915 and of how she convinced her man, Adam Morson, to do the same.
When Ruby was on the contest circuit about three years ago, I would get comments saying things like, “Why shouldn’t she choose to be white?,” and “She should be proud she can pass.” And whenever I would express my surprise at these comments to other African Americans, sometimes they would say things like, “Yeah, Ruby had to be a little crazy.” Or “Why not pass as white if you can get away with it?”
So the overall narrative we are supposed to swallow from the Dolezal case seems to be, when in doubt, choose white. Never, ever choose black. That’s the losing team. Except Ruby knew a few things. She knew that the world she lived in would punish for choosing to be something she wasn’t. She knew that choosing white would mean distance from the family that she loved and was raised in. Ruby also knew that choosing whiteness would not help at all in her desire to stop lynchings from happening in the south. As a Christian, most importantly, she also knew that choosing the path that God put before her in the way she was perfectly knitted from Him , was the best way to accomplish those goals.
Part of A Virtuous Ruby was inspired by the soul-killing struggle of the main protagonist in James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. Johnson’s point, way back in 1912 allowed his protagonist to suffer throughout that novel to find a meaning and a purpose in life. When he thinks he’s found it at the end, by melting into the white world, he’s done. Johnson’s point was that blackness was not the bad, evil punishment from Ham that the larger world claimed for it to be.
Rachel Dolezal, bless her heart, knew the value of blackness, but she’s going to be made to pay for choosing the unpopular team. She could have done all of the work she wanted in her God-fashioned form. But I have a feeling she’ll be alright.
For real black women, this way that blackness is treated in the larger society is the reason why, at my institution, students have to take a year long class. The class prepares them, and indeed, arms them for with all of the good, positive, wonderful things that blackness is about, so that today’s young black women don’t have to waste one more moment wishing or hoping to be someone else. There are some who would say that my school is crazy for teaching such a class, but for those of us who teach the class, we hope that the students spread the word. That they talk to their parents about it. That they teach their little cousins and nieces, nephews and future children about it. From such a class, they can walk into the world as fully-armed Rubys—ready for anything and proud to be who they are.
Last night, I won the 2015 Breakout Author of the Year award from the AAMBC Literary Awards. Thank you all for your incredible support. I appreciate it so very much!