The Devil You Know
I saw the book at Novel Bookstore in Memphis. Its vivid orange and black cover drew me in. I realized the author was Charles Blow, who I had followed on Twitter before I got off Twitter. I always liked what he had to say. In the back of my brain, I seemed to recall he had moved from somewhere in the North to Atlanta. I picked up “The Devil You Know,” along with a Marlon James novel. I wasn’t prepared for what I read.
“The proposition is simple: as many Black descendants of the Great Migration as possible should return to the South from which their ancestors fled. They should do so with moral and political intentionality.”The Devil You Know, Charles Blow, page 31
The words stopped me in my tracks. I was like, wait. What am I reading? You see, I was thinking of the words I had given Julius in 2004. That’s US Senator Julius Ezekiel Keys, the visionary behind the lawsuit in my novel In the Name of Mississippi:
“What I saw”—Julius fanned the air—“was a returning diaspora of African Americans, hundreds upon thousands of us, gaining quick on a million. Leaving Chicago and Detroit and Pittsburgh to retrace the steps of our parents and grandparents, coming back South, back to Mississippi. Entrepreneurs and doctors and teachers and electricians. Seeking an opportunity for a better life in a place that was home but changed. This lawsuit was supposed to give our state a new story, give us a new story in this state…”In the Name of Mississippi
What Do I Know?
It’s hard to describe what I was feeling. Excitement? That’s doesn’t do it justice. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in his blurb for the book calls the manifesto “thrilling.” In this 2021 book, Blow lays down the foundation for his vision. He explains the Great Migration. Why it happened. Why it failed to bring the hoped-for relief. The costs of remaining in the Great Migration’s destination cities. He then prescribes a remedy: return South, concentrate political power, and do what needs to be done.
Blow’s vision far exceeds what I gave Julius. For Julius, Mississippi is a place of return. Yes, his modern-day lawsuit for Civil Rights reparations would directly give Black Mississippians money to repair damage inflicted by racism on them and their state. But Julius’s vision is for repair in spite of state government, not control of state government. Blow’s plan is to congregate Black voting power and thus direct the course of America’s future.
As I read Blows swift and sure prose, I thought, this might be real. It could be real. This could really happen. The beauty and strength of his argument carried me, a sixth generation white Mississippian, along. Then, as he began to describe possible objections to his plan, I read this:
Others may simply mourn the notion of a path to Black equality that doesn’t feature a starring role for white liberal guilt, that doesn’t center on their actions and their capacity for growth and evolution, but skips over it altogether. (emphasis added)The Devil You Know, Charles Blow p. 50
These words sent me to Imogene, one of the three white protagonists in the novel:
I had come to see that white folks didn’t want to give up their unfair advantage, they didn’t want a level playing field. A win in court would short-circuit that equation. Black Mississippians would succeed without white Mississippians giving up their racism. Maybe I was wrong and once the plaintiffs’ stories were told, white Mississippi would let remorse grow into caring that led to action. Or not. (emphasis added)In the Name of Mississippi
I Know the Truth When I See It
The desire for a returning diaspora that I gave Julius is feel-good stuff. Love of family, love of place. A generational return, a homecoming. The words I gave Imogene are not. In fact, her sentiment wasn’t in my 2004 version of the story. I tentatively added it in one of my multiple revisions. Tentative because the sentiment feels hopeless. As Blow says, folks might oppose his proposition because “on first blush it sounds like throwing in the towel on the grand experiment of multiculturalism.” ( p.50).
But Blow makes it clear his vision for Black Power doesn’t mean Black only (Black Lives Matter, anyone?) Nor is Black Power the equivalent of white power, which desires racial superiority and subjugation. Blow envisions a nurturing, safe space free of over-policing and denigration. Like Dr. King, he’s tired of waiting for the architects of white supremacy to dismantle white supremacy to enable such a space. He states emphatically that Black equity and equality cannot wait for white folks to grow out of racism. “In this world, America has had four hundred years to get right by Black people, and it has failed.” (p. 60).
So, following the inspiration of Harry Belafonte, Blow becomes a “radical thinker.” He calls for a reverse migration from the white violence that forced Black folks to leave their homes. Choose “The Devil You Know,” he urges, and return South. The full title: “The Devil You Know: A Black Power Manifesto.” If that sounds too radical, know that Blow has the support of Bryan Stevenson, Rev. Dr. William Barber, and so many others.
The Devil I Know
What was my secret joy in reading Blow’s book? My novel that contains echos of his themes keeps doing well in contests, but I can’t get an agent to touch it with a ten-foot pole. So, in a purely personal way, my encounter with his themes was a sort of affirmation. My thoughts weren’t totally off-base, I had company. I also got excited wanting to be in that stream of thought. That may never happen, but at the same time, I took solace in the fact that the ideas were out here, and out there in an infinitely better way than I could ever express them. Finally, irrationally, I wondered: if the dreams I placed in IN THE NAME OF MISSISSIPPI could come true, might someone possibly bring the lawsuit too?