The first time I realized writing could save my life, I was fourteen and a devastating verdict came on the news after a dozen police officers were on trial for the beating death of black motorcyclist Arthur McDuffie. He eluded them after a police chase, and they beat him so badly after he stopped that he died. They intentionally damaged the motorcycle to cover up the crime and make it appear he had crashed—all documented.
The verdict from an all-white jury was not guilty.
As someone who was born too late to remember Jim Crow (well, except for that time I put baby powder all over my skin because Montessori schools would not accept a black child in Miami in 1970: “Mommy, will they let me go to school now?”), the McDuffie verdict was a painful coming-of-age and realization that my parents’ civil rights battles of the 1960s were not yet over in 1980. The thought devastated me: Black people don’t matter.
Outside, Miami burned during rioting. Frustrated rioters burned down businesses, and white vigilantes shot at blacks on the streets. It was a nightmare come to life. The 1980 Miami riot was my hometown’s version of later disturbances to be mirrored in Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict (which brought back such bad dreams of McDuffie that I once woke up sobbing) and in Ferguson, Missouri after the shooting death of Michael Brown.
During the midst of the civil outrage in Miami, when there was so much racial tension that administrators at my tri-ethnic junior high school played Muzak at lunch to try to keep students calm, I began writing a prose poem called “I Want to Live.” I want to live in a society where Jew is no longer a dirty word / and no one remembers what nigger used to mean . . . I described a utopian post-racial society—and a great weight lifted from my chest. I could breathe again.
“You’re so lucky you have writing as an outlet,” said my mother, who, in 1960, spent 49 days in jail after a sit-in at a Woolworth lunch counter in Tallahassee, Florida. “The people who are out there rioting don’t have that.”
But my mother had already taught me about escapism through art by example—her escape from the terrors of injustice was old horror movies. She loved horror movies. She rarely missed “Creature Features” on Saturday afternoon TV: old-school Universal horror flicks like The Wolf Man, The Mummy, The Fly, The Mole People. And it was a lifelong love: When my husband, author Steven Barnes, and I left our 2 1/2-year-old son with her and my father for a few days, he came back saying “demon” because she watched the TV show “Charmed” daily.
I never asked Mom why she loved horror so much—I just took it for granted. But as my own love for horror grew—sharpened on Stephen King novels when I was in high school and college—and then I began to write horror myself . . . the question of “why” has always reappeared.
At first, I used to say it was like a rollercoaster ride—feeling “scared” in a safe environment. But after I got a letter from a woman who said my character Jessica in my novel The Living Blood gave her the courage to fend off a home invader, I realized that, I, too, was trying to draw strength from my protagonists. If my characters can stand strong against demons and monsters, what’s my excuse when The Bad Thing happens?
But even more recently, with the growth of social media and the ability to share my love of horror with other black readers and writers, I’ve realized that there is also a cultural draw to horror in the wider black community—my mom wasn’t unique. And while part of that may be about “safe scares” and finding courage, I also think the attraction is deeper than that.
My current novel-in-progress, a ghost story set in Florida in 1950, is loosely based on my discovery that my great-uncle died at the notorious Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, in 1937. The school had such a history of abuse and neglect that it had its own cemetery. As I’ve researched the horrors the children at the Dozier School and their families experienced, I also realized that similar experiences were common to the black experience in the South. Family members were killed unjustly. Accused unfairly. Denied. Impoverished. In fact, the same mistreatment at the Dozier School exists today throughout our criminal justice system—which, again, largely targets people of color. My blog about the Dozier School is at bit.ly/24ltbfg (part one) and bit.ly/24ltlmU (part two).
Life has posed such real-life horrors for many of us that horror literature and movies feel tame by comparison. It resonates with genetic memory. And that escapism, that courage, gives a shape and name to the forces in our lives we cannot always shape and name.
Forces which, unfortunately, we cannot always overcome.
Horror fiction is where I put my fear that harm will come to my son because his skin is brown. Horror fiction is where I put my fear of my own mortality.
Horror was where my mother put her rage, fear and grief at the society that tear-gassed her in 1960, leaving her eyes so damaged that she wore dark glasses the rest of her life—all because she wanted full citizenship in her own country.
Sometimes, horror heals.
Spread the word!