Richard Doster: Focused on Fiction, Civil Rights and The South
- 2009 13 Aug
What would you do if faced with injustice—if it meant putting your life, and the lives of your loved ones, in danger? That’s the question author Richard Doster asks in his poignant, well-written historical novel, Crossing the Lines.
In his first book, Safe at Home, Doster gave us the story of Percy Jackson, an African-American baseball player who becomes the “white knight” of a minor league team. The story is told through the eyes of journalist Jack Hall, a Caucasian sports journalist who becomes deeply involved with Walker’s struggle.
In Crossing the Lines, Doster once again revisits the Deep South of the ‘50s, taking us to Atlanta and then Montgomery, Alabama, where the fight for Civil Rights is raging.
Crossing the Lines picks up where Safe at Home left off. After surviving a trauma that most could only imagine, Hall takes a job at the daily newspaper, the Atlanta Constitution, where the legendary Ralph McGill begins mentoring him. A staunch proponent of Civil Rights, McGill sends Hall to Montgomery to cover a bus boycott.
There, Hall meets the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other leaders of the movement, including John Lewis. Their interaction causes Hall to once again reflect on his own fears and prejudices. Before long, the sports journalist has become a war correspondent. Reporting from the front lines, he faces the same evil holding captive his fellow Americans.
During a recent interview with Crosswalk, Doster said that he writes about the Civil Rights because he believes it’s a time that we don’t want to revisit—but need to.
“I think it’s neglect and indifference,” he explained. “I hope people will read this book and engage in conversation about where we’ve been and where we need to go and what we need to do to get there.”
Here, Doster shares his perspective, as a writer and as someone who witnessed the integration of schools in the South, post Brown v. Board of Education. …
Why do you write fiction?
I write fiction because I can. At least I think I can! If you have the ability to do it, then you have the responsibility to use that gift, and use it for the broadest possible good. Fiction is an incarnational art. It brings things alive that we haven’t understood or seen, and it does so within the context of the flesh-and-blood world of what is real and concrete and here. And it helps us make sense of that.
I have a friend who doesn’t read any fiction except mine. He says, “Why would I read something that isn’t true when I can read something that is?” I point out that when Jesus is asked who is my neighbor, he told a story. He told the story of the good Samaritan. He didn’t write an article on propositional truth then give an illustration of that propositional truth. He told a story.
Jesus told fiction in order to convey truth. And the reason I write fiction is to convey truth. My favorite quotes in Flannery O’Connery is the one about how fiction is a plunge into reality and a shock to the system. I think those who have read my two books would see that I have written to plunge them into reality and shock them in their system.
What do you mean exactly?
I wanted to take people back to a time (the Civil Rights) that I have discovered that—even though it wasn’t that long ago—is largely forgotten.
Don’t you think that’s intentional?
No, I don’t. I think it’s neglect. I may be wrong, but I think it’s neglect and indifference. In the book, The Dumbest Generation, the overwhelming majority of college students who were shown a black-and-white photo of a sign in front of a movie theater that said, “Colored Only,” didn’t know what it meant. So part of it is to bring us back to that time, but also to see how far we have to go. I hope people will read this book and engage in some conversation about this, and talk about where we’ve been and where we need to go and what we need to do to get there, as well as the nobility of the Civil Rights movement and the sacrifice that people made.
I spoke with an African-American woman the other day. She hesitated, but she finally said that most books about the civil rights weren’t written by white people. I told her that, having done my research, and from a white guy’s perspective, it was my opinion that through my lens, white people actually gained more. Now, I want to be careful how I say this. Looking back, of course, black people gained a tremendous amount. They got to sit in restaurants. They got legal rights. But what we got changed our hearts and attitudes. We got a whole new view of what a righteous society looks like, what institutional justice looks like. And, from a Christian perspective, looking at a whole new race as brothers and sisters.
On your Web site, you talk about the paradox of Southern culture in that time period. What do you mean by that?
It’s hard to believe that in the same era (generally speaking) when Faulkner was crafting works of genius, Martin Luther King was pleading for racial reconciliation. During the days when Sam Phillips was inventing rock and roll, when he was introducing the blues to a whole new audience—producing the music of B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf Burnett, Ike Turner, Jackie Brenston, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley—black students were being jailed for ordering coffee at the Woolworth’s lunch counter. As Flannery O’Connor penned enduring works of fiction, Georgia governor Marvin Griffin was vowing to stop the 1956 Sugar Bowl, to prevent Georgia Tech from playing a Pittsburgh team that fielded one “Negro” player.
This was an era when Southerners were, at the same time, creating the best of the world’s culture—and the worst. And the fact is, we’d have never had the one without the other. We now realize that it’s because of our once-segregated society that we now know the thoughts and theology of Martin Luther King, Jr. We also know that it was a long history of racial oppression that gave birth to the blues. And, without a history of racial strife, we’re never enriched by the “Christ-haunted” and guilt-inspired fiction of so many great Southern writers. The worst of Southern culture spawned the best. This is the paradox that sends Jack Hall down a career path he never envisioned.
How did you become so fascinated with the Civil Rights?
I’m 56. In my first book, Safe at Home, the backdrop is baseball. We were at an Atlanta Braves game and Jackie Robinson was being commemorated. A week or so later, we were in Asheville, N.C., for a minor league game, and I started to wonder who the first guy was to play baseball, and what life would have been like for him. I started looking into it and found some great sources and ended up writing the book. It’s the story of a fictional black player who was the first to play on a minor league team, told through the eyes of a white sports writer.
Life for those guys was brutal. It was lonely and discouraging and disheartening, but they persevered. They were not educated or sophisticated, but they knew they were doing something that mattered. Think about this: the first time Americans saw black and white people working together toward a common cause, in public view, was on the minor league baseball field. In fact, I believe that the first time an organized demonstration of civil rights took place was at a minor league field in Greenville, Mississippi, where they were protesting their seating. This story deals with real people and real events, but it came from my curiosity about the breaking of the color line of sports in the South.
Were you involved in the integration of schools?
For the most part, I was too young. But I do remember standing outside on the sidewalk of my junior high school in Central Florida when the black kids were bussed in for the first time. I remember standing outside to watch.
Was that the germ?
It might have been, but I think it was watered and fertilized in Atlanta—a city where race is a more visible and prominent issue.
You’ve spoken about the hope for people to have a dialogue. Is there anything else you hope people will take away from Crossing the Lines?
I want people to enjoy the book. I want to be a good writer and have people enjoy the experience, and I hope I have put together something good enough to draw them into the story. I care about the aesthetic quality of the work. Beyond that, I hope people will take away the story of it, as well as the pervasive nature of the civil rights nature of the unselfishness of what it means to us.
Martin Luther King, Jr. and the early leaders of that movement loved white people. What they set out to do was not merely win rights for black people. They met to change people, to renew institutions, to come against “powers and authorities.” King knew that as long as one person was mistreated, the entire system was unjust.
There’s an episode of the book where John Lewis and John Nash are jailed for sitting in at a Nashville lunch counter. They don’t have room for them in the jail, so the police tell them to post bail. They refuse. The police lowered the bail to $5 and still they refuse. Their goal wasn’t to get out of jail. Their goal was to change an unjust system. By paying the $5, they knew that they were contributing to the system. To have paid the fine would have been to recognize the law, which was unjust. And they weren’t going to participate in that system. It wasn’t, “I want my rights.” It was, “We must change the entirety of the way this system works.”
What is your next book?
I’m about 50,000 words into a book that is much different from my first two. It’s not race related. It deals with the use of gifts, the use of fame and what we do with talent and celebrity and thinking through the reasons those things exist. It’s the story of a young woman who becomes a pop music star, from being a high school girlfriend of the football player in a small town in the North Georgia mountains. She is thinking about what that means and why she has that ability, and as kids look at her and want her autograph and want to be close to her, she has to think why this happens and what she should do with it.
Click here to read an excerpt from Crossing the Lines.
Richard Doster is the editor of byFaith magazine. To learn more about Richard and Crossing the Lines, please visit www.richarddoster.com or www.davidccook.com.