1993 Lillian Smith Awards: The Power of Mercy
Acceptance Remarks by William Baldwin
Vol. 15, No. 4, 1993, pp. 15-17
To say I’m flattered that you have chosen me to be one of this year’s winners of the Lillian Smith Award is an understatement, but to keep myself honest I must make some confessions.
Although, in my own little community, I’m still considered by some to be a wide-eyed, bomb throwing communist, by the standards of this room I am conservative—conservative to the marrow. I can only mitigate that first confession by adding that I tend to vote the Democratic ticket. But for me voting Democrat is a form of prayer. I must tell you I am a conservative in the sense that I believe that human beings are not perfectible—for better or worse, human nature is a constant.
Furthermore and sadly, I can’t claim to know much about civil rights. And I have not paid enough attention to public or even private education. I realize that these are important issues to all of you here, and I apologize.
A couple months back I watched “Eyes on the Prize” on public television and was amazed by how much I had missed out on.
During most of the sixties and half of the seventies I would wake up contemplating suicide and go to bed drunk. I could have placed Alabama on a map but not Selma. I could have picked out Viet Nam but not Cambodia or Thailand. I knew that Beatles existed but I couldn’t have given you their first names.
When I graduated from high school in 1962 I was a strange little person. Dysfunctional is the word today, But back then it was strange. I had to just guess what was real. Like Brother, in my novel, I saw things and heard voices and I was attending Clemson University. At the end of the first semester they tried to kick me out. That was the same week they let the first black man in—and that was Harvey Gantt who I recall was received fairly civilly. I remember him commenting on the fact he could count on South Carolinians being polite. But they weren’t particularly polite to me. My advisor laughed. Said I had absolutely no future in a college, could never graduate, and should join the Navy.
I stayed on at Clemson out of contrariness and five years later I was finishing up a masters degree in English and teaching in an all-black high school. I wasn’t just the only white teacher, I was the first white teacher, as far as I know the first white person to even come through the door of that school. That was culture shock for everybody. Some of the seniors could only sign their names, but I enjoyed teaching those children and I think they enjoyed me being there. Still I wasn’t in that school out of any political convictions or part of any national mandate. I was just there because I’d drifted there. And two years later I was picking oysters with an all-black oyster crew and I was there because my wife and I had no money for food. That was 1968 and these black men were my friends—in a way. A reverse paternalism. They looked out for me in the creek and taught me to scrap up a living. Contrary to the familiar national statistics they had families and certainly worked hard—four in the morning until nine at night, five days a week, and much of the time in freezing mud and water—was the norm. But of the dozen or so on that crew almost all are dead. I believe only three got shot or stabbed. Contrary to the familiar statistics the rest were killed in accidents—wrecks they didn’t cause or drownings. They died because they led hard lives and they were mortal and I suppose pieces of all of them ended up in the novel’s character David Allson.
Now, to return to “Eyes on the Prize.” It was interesting to see Rosa Parks fighting for a seat on the bus—because in the late 1950’s my grandmother’s cook Anna, a tiny black woman had walked into the white Presbyterian church one Sunday morning and sat through an entire service. For that place and time that was an equally heroic or at least for the whites equally outrageous act. I’m sure that in 1958 there were some in the congregation who still doubted the Negroes had souls, but nobody was going to say no to her because—quote unquote—Anna didn’t take any crap off of anybody—and because in one
way or another she’d helped to raise the entire congregation or at least their children. Anna, on the other hand, must have been bored stiff by the staid Calvinism of that group. Over the last years my wife and I have gotten into the habit of attending black church services—one or two a year for awhile. We don’t go as tourists—we stay two or three hours, stay to the point where we know that Jesus Christ exists—that a tangible Christ is in our midst and life is bearable. Then, I at least, walk out the door and this Christ dissolves. But He would have remained real for my grandmother’s cook Anna, and I suspect this is the same Maum Anna who started waking me up at three in the morning a dozen years ago—a voice in my head telling Gullah stories that demanded attention—insisting that this novel get written.
So that’s Anna Allson and David Allson from the novel—who I believe are the best characters in the novel. Which brings me around to what I do believe in. And that is the spark of divinity inside of every human being. For me this belief isn’t necessarily of Christian origin. I happen to be a Christian of sorts, but that is almost incidental. What I believe in is the perhaps now unfashionable notion of the indomitable and enduring. I believe that all life is sacred and honestly and truly believe that skin color, sex, and sexual preference are simply veneers overlaying and equally old-fashioned concept of all encompassing life force. In the novel Anna Allson is the embodiment of this
force. In the original draft she was the main character. And David Allson is brought on at the end of the novel to explain it all to the narrator—to show not the humanity of Christ but his outright humanness. David doesn’t want to explain God’s ways to man but man’s ways to God. To say this is me—That I’m willing to meet you more than halfway—but I’ve got a right to exist.
And that’s how I came to write The Hard to Catch Mercy. I sat down a dozen years ago determined to write about a mythical place called The Isle of Negroes—a tiny corner of the South that the free slaves would break off and run as a separate cannibal kingdom—a place where white fears, black anger, and the redemptive powers of Jesus Christ would all come together and I did write it. But each time I rewrote, I considered scrapping the Isle of Negroes sections, thinking this material would keep the book from being published. But I didn’t scrap it.
Still, when the novel was finally out and it came time to do promotion I tried never to mention race relations. Not on instruction from Algonquin Books but because of my own timidness. I said The Hard to Catch Mercy was an adventure yarn—and if pressed I would say it was like Chinese boxes and had a lot of meanings. So it’s a relief for me to be able to stand up here in front of you after six months of side-stepping and say that at least half of the novel is about white fears and black anger and Christ’s redeeming powers.
This was a combination that seemed strangely overlooked by everyone. Growing up after the Civil War you did have at least two generations of whites who felt there was a real possibility that their entire community would be massacred. Before starting the novel, I supplemented the stories I’d been hearing all my life by doing interviews, and a fairly distinct pattern was apparent—an age limit on this view. Below seventy most whites thought the idea silly—but they wouldn’t laugh at it. I did laugh though. Now, partly as a result of this white fear you had incredible cruelties practiced against the blacks. And the backlash to this is, of course, more black anger which I also poke fun at or, at least, let them poke fun at it themselves. Anger and humor run side by side in real life—so it is always there to pick up on. Hardest of all is to poke fun at Christ’s redeeming powers but I do that too. Make fun of and even question the fundamental reality of the entire scenario. Mock the faith that I need and want in my own life.
But I’m going to let Maum Anna Allson have the last word here. Literally the last—though she returns in the angel tales of her husband—she’s last heard on earth locked in mortal combat with her life long nemesis the plantation master, Colonel Allson. The year is 1916. The place is a small coastal village in South Carolina. A flood, with a great fire storm floating on its surfaces, is threatening the Allson homestead and the narrator Willie T. and Maum Anna’s nephew Sammy have come to float the old people away in a small skiff they don’t wish to share. It goes like this:
“The world dying,” Maum Anna whispered when the extent of the destruction was evident.
“Put that woman off. Set her ashore!” the old man bellowed.
“I feels the cool breeze of death fanning over me.” Maum Anna spoke louder. She smiled. A hot wind whipped about us, the outermost edge of the fiery hurricane drifting closer and closer to our home.
“Remove this woman!” Grandpa raised his came and slapped it down hard on the seat between them.
“I know that old gentleman!” Maum Anna cried out.
“Ask Red Willie Allson who he pa is. You ask ’em.” She raised a small finger and pointed it straight at the old man, taunting him, accusing him of a crime of which she herself had declared him innocent.
“That woman is not an Allson!” the old man shouted “She took that name only to cause me discomfort.”
“Chain Anna. Chain ’em..
“That woman is not an Allson,” the old man says.
But she is an Allson. A-L-L—all S-O-N—son black and white, they are all the sons of God and it’s God’s mercy that is so difficult for them to catch—difficult, perhaps, because God’s mercy is concerned not with fear and anger, but with faith and love.
William Baldwin lives in McClellanville, South Carolina, where he has worked as a house designer and builder, historian, magistrate, shrimper and shrimp-boat builder as well as a writer. He gave these remarks in accepting the fiction award for The Hard to Catch Mercy at the November 1993 Lillian Smith Awards luncheon.