Black History Month: Guilt

To honor Black History Month, we’re donating 25 percent of proceeds from sale of Guilt and Mission to Madagascar to Charleston’s Keep Your Faith Corporation, a Black-led community youth literacy, mental health, workforce development, and food access  program. We’re featuring a guest blog post by Carter Taylor Seaton on the inspiration behind her latest novel Guilt.

In my hometown, Huntington, West Virginia, city workers are busy hanging 150 banners on the downtown light poles to honor our African American citizens who have made a significant contribution to the city, state, or nation. It’s one of the city’s way of recognizing Black History Month. It’s no wonder we do this—Huntington is the birthplace of Carter G. Woodson, well-known as the Father of Black History. For years, we’ve commemorated the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with a march, speeches, church services, and solemn celebrations, but the banners are a relatively new addition. 

As I watch the banners go up, I can’t help but think of the cities where such an honor would probably go unnoticed. And of the young African Americans whose lives were either cut short by violence or who have served sentences for which they were wrongly incarcerated. To date, the Innocence Project has freed over 200 wrongly convicted persons, most of whom were from communities of color where policing tends to be heavier. 

This is the background against which I wrote my latest novel, Guilt, (Blackwater Press, 2023) although it’s not wholly about the guilt or innocence of a young Black man. It’s more about the guilt felt a young boy who knew a detail about the crime that might have exonerated the defendant. Despite his close friendship with the accused’s brother, the protagonist says nothing. For that he suffers guilt the rest of his life.  

The synopsis on the back cover says, “Judge Alexander Betts has carried the burden of guilt most of his life. Now a bench trial before him forces him to finally deal with the reasons behind it. In Southern Georgia in the 1960s, Alexander knew something about the murder his best friend’s brother was accused of, but he kept silent. Now, faced with an anonymous threatening letter, and a case with similar circumstantial evidence, he wants to set things right. Will he finally find the courage he lacked at sixteen?” 

Why did I, a septuagenarian white female, choose to write about a Black sixteen-year-old boy? And to use his voice, making him the narrator of many chapters? Simple—because the story intrigued me, especially as I watched the Black Lives Matter movement grow. You see, I’d had a second cousin who, in the 1960s, had unsuccessfully defended a young man of color who’d been accused of a capital crime. In our family, he was a hero despite his inability to win the case.  

As I watched beating after shooting after questionable arrest blast cross the television screen, I thought of my relative and realized there was the nugget of a novel that wanted to be written. I knew better than to “write to the market,” as they say but felt the issue of racism wasn’t going away anytime soon and that feeling guilty was an eternal, universal emotion.  

About the same time, I was reading The Kite Runner by Kaled Hosseini. Here was a story set in Afghanistan about two boys: one a victim; the other the silent witness to that victimization. This novel helped to inspire the form of my story. 

Once the story began to grow in my mind, I knew I needed to do some research even though I wasn’t writing a non-fiction piece. Although my cousin, who’d been the defendant’s lawyer in the actual case was dead, his son remembered the story, so I interviewed him. I also interviewed the son’s good friend because he had known the defendant. And I researched actual case notes from murder trials of the 1960s. Now I had the bare bones of a story. After recalling the form of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, I knew how I wanted to narrate it—in the voices of those involved.  

For me, novels aren’t simply retelling of an incident. They have to have a deeper point. Sticking to the “bare bones” facts is also unimportant. So, I moved the story south, and created the narrator whose life is changed by what he knows but doesn’t tell. I’d grown up during segregation and knew what that had been like, but from my perspective, not the Black community’s. Still, I recalled railing against it when my father wanted to take my brother out of the newly integrated high school. I’d been a bit of a teenage rebel, listening to a Black radio station from Gallatin, Tennessee, that played what my parents classed as “filthy Negro music” and attending Black rock and roll concerts in defiance of my parents. Additionally, because I’d lived in the South for ten years, I felt I could infuse the story with its flavor, its feel, its culture, the language. I began with enthusiasm. 

Then I read American Dirt, the novel by Jeanine Cummins that came out in 2018, and began following the controversy surrounding it. Cummins is an American woman but she wrote the story in the voice of a Mexican mother who flees her home with her child in search of safety on American dirt after a drug cartel kills most of her family. Cummins was given a seven-figure advance when women of color were facing roadblocks when trying to tell their own stories. The cry arose: “She has no right to tell our story. Who does she think she is? That’s cultural appropriation.” Admittedly, some esteemed Latinix writers applauded the novel but the term stuck. Suddenly those of us who dared to imagine stories other than our own got nervous. Who was I to try to put myself in the shoes of a sixteen-year-old-Black kid?  

Yes, I’d lived in the deep south for ten years. Yes, I’d worked with African Americans at nearly every turn in my career and was familiar with the sound of the language and the dialect of the south. And yes, I knew code-switching often came easily to most African Americans at some point in their lives. Code-switching is adopting standard English in gatherings where African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) would perhaps make the speaker sound uneducated despite their background. One gal I worked with was a master at it. I could tell when she answered the phone whether or not she was speaking to friends or family or to a white business colleague. 

I spoke with a couple of fellow authors, some Black, and decided to follow the advice of Colson Whitehead: “Tackle the story that you’re scared to begin; that you don’t know if you can pull off.” I dove into it. I wrote chapters narrated by the protagonist, Xander Betts; chapters narrated by the defendant’s attorney, Gerald Baxter; chapters narrated by the defendant, Leon Pepper; chapters told by a third person narrator; and one, which I ultimately discarded, by the dead victim. Miz Annie Sowards.  

As I wrote, I shared my growing stack of chapters with friends in two writing groups. While fascinated with the story and applauding its pace, there were mixed reactions to the language. “It’s too much dialect. I can’t read it,” said one. “There’s not enough distinction between the white and Black voices,” said another, after I’d toned down the dialect. I was ready to tear my hair out.  

Eventually, I called on a friend for help. A member of my book club, she’s African American, a retired professor of English at Marshall University and an expert in AAVE. Thank goodness for Dolores. Although she felt I could realistically use more AAVE, together we compromised on just how much was enough—enough to give the voices distinction but not so much that it was difficult to read. All in all, I completely rewrote the book three times over the five years it took to complete it. 

When the book hit the bookshelves, with glowing blurbs from advance readers, the spate of stories about Black deaths at the hands of perhaps over-zealous police had subsided, overtaken by the war in Ukraine, Donald Trump’s legal woes, and the heating up of the upcoming 2024 presidential election. For that I’m delighted although it doesn’t mean incidents don’t still occur. Reading Guilt may remind you of our country’s struggle with racism as much as celebrating Black History Month reminds us of how far we’ve come. But maybe, just maybe, one year we should hoist banners commemorating those young Black lives like Leon’s. 

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