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The ways in which history — both an individual’s history and our collective history — continues to haunt the present are central to LaTanya McQueen’s novel, “When the Reckoning Comes.”
The seed for the novel was perhaps planted while McQueen, who teaches literature, creative writing and African American studies courses at Coe College, was looking into her own history.
“I was doing a Ph.D. program at the University of Missouri, and I was thinking about working on an essay collection at the time that dealt with my family ancestry,” McQueen said during a phone conversation. “And as part of that, I wanted to go visit some plantations … I have a great great grandmother who was a slave to this North Carolina senator and in the process of learning about her life, I wanted to learn about plantation systems.”
While visiting plantations across the South, she realized something about the ways in which history is often presented at these sites.
“They create a sort of narrative that is with the aim of entertaining primarily white audiences. And I couldn’t let that go.”
This idea of catering to white audiences also was cropped up in conversations McQueen had while working to get an earlier book published. And she was also reflecting on the experience she had as a Black person during a period of protests grounded in race while she was at the University of Missouri.
“I became hyperaware of how other people saw me and the fear of that … So I wanted to write a book that was thinking largely about the white gaze and (how) it can affect a Black person’s sense of self as well as how historically it has operated. When you think about white supremacy, the white gaze is a function of that. I thought it would be interesting to write a book looking at it from all these different layers.”
“When the Reckoning Comes” is, indeed, a book of layers. As three friends — one white and two Black — reunite on a North Carolina plantation for the white friend’s wedding, the past and the present seem to come together as Mira, a Black woman who is the book’s central character, finds herself witnessing atrocities of the past. That past still is all too palpable in the present as well. Whether the characters are in more danger from the ghosts of the past or the prejudice of the present is something of an open question in the novel.
The plantation setting of the novel provides McQueen a perfect stage on which to explore the different ways people think about problematic shared spaces.
“In the South, weddings — and not just weddings, but really any kind of celebratory event — are really popular on these places because people have a different association to them, I think. They’re seen as these places of status and wealth and that’s how they are presented to people.”
In the novel, Celine, who is white, chooses to have her wedding on a plantation because doing so proves to others that she has in some sense made it and is deserving of a higher social status.
As McQueen explained, some people see a plantation and think, “‘Well, this is a beautiful, expensive house that is representative of class and wealth and therefore I want to have my wedding here.’ I go and I look at these places and I think of all the slave labor that went into building it … and I look at these places and I think about the death that happened. So it’s a different association.”
McQueen and I talked about the genre known as “Black horror,” and whether or not her novel fits into the category. She noted that much of the talk around Black horror is likely in response to filmmaker Jordan Peele’s success with the films like “Get Out” and “Us,” but she also pointed out that efforts to replicate that kind of success have been a mixed bag.
“They are attempting to capitalize on this, but it doesn’t work because they are thinking of it with the white gaze in mind,” she said. She noted that “Beloved,” the astonishing 1987 novel by the late Toni Morrison — an author who was very clear that she was not going to shape her narratives for the comfort or understanding of white readers — would fit into the category of “Black horror” had the term been coined at the time.
For McQueen, the idea of Black horror is, in part, a concept created by marketing folks. But she also acknowledges that the idea is — and has been — descriptive of the Black experience in America as we continue to struggle with systemic and individual racism and its all-too-often dire consequences.
“So in some ways it feels like marketing, but in some ways, too, a lot of Black history is Black horror, right? Even day to day experience for a lot of Black people, it veers into Black horror.”