Hello Rowers! This week’s post tackles question #6, which deals with race — specifically, Lucien’s comment that “Everything is about race in Mississippi, Jake, don’t ever forget that.” I will also admit that this post is a little rambly and all over the place. I would love to hear what you think (even if it’s to say “whoa, you were right, this is super rambly”).
Race is obviously a huge part of Sycamore Row. First, it’s a sequel to A Time to Kill, which concerns a white lawyer defending a black man for the murder of his daughter’s two white rapists. Throw in some KKK, and there’s no way to escape. While the events of Sycamore Row are markedly less violent — though violence is Seth’s motivation for leaving his money to Lettie — there is no way to escape race in this novel either. (Not that we’d want to.)
The full passage that the question refers to is this conversation between Jake and Lucien on page 90:
“The question is, Can you trust a Ford County jury? Three blacks, four at the most.”
“The Hailey jury was all white as I recall.”
“This is not Carl Lee Hailey, Lucien. Far from it. That was all about race. This is all about money.”
“Everything is about race in Mississippi, Jake, don’t ever forget that. A simple black woman on the verge of inheriting what might be the largest fortune this county has ever seen, and the decision rests with a jury that’s predominantly white. It’s race and money, Jake, a rare combination around here.”
While I’m not sure that everything is about race in Mississippi, Jake was fooling himself if he really thought this trial was only about money. To Seth’s family, it was about the wrong people getting his money, and for them, the wrong people are black people. Whether or not they liked and respected Lettie is beside the point: she’s got a no-good drunk-driving-murdering husband and a boatload of rumors about what her relationship with Seth may have been to get him to leave her the money. I would guess that if Seth left his fortune to his brother Ancil, or ALL of it to the church, the family would fight it, but there would be less outrage.
Speaking of race — it’s impossible to read the book and not notice how characters feel about race. In the scene at the Tea Shoppe, all the white people are super interested in how Lettie is managing to pay $700 rent for the old Sappington place (the Sappingtons were white; Lettie’s is the first black family to rent the house). There is much commentary about how many people are staying with her, and then a passage about how “they” know how to “play the system” (157). (Yes: if the conversations of those in the Tea Shoppe are truly representative of the town, county, and state, everything really is about race in Mississippi! And being nosy. And pretty much awful.)
What is harder for me to swallow than specific narrow-minded characters spouting stupidity is when the narrator joins in. When Portia arrives at Jake’s office, Jake notices her tight jeans and stylish glasses: “She appeared lean and fit and did not look like the typical twenty-five-year-old black woman in Ford County” (176). This should make us wonder what the typical twenty-five-year-old black woman DOES look like, and why it’s important that Portia is so different. What does it mean to Jake that Portia is so different? Jake is also impressed by the fact that she’d dropped her “drawl and twang and sloppy grammatical habits” and has perfect diction (177). These sound like compliments, but they land wrong on me. Is this Jake talking, or the omniscient narrator? There’s another part that stuck out for me when Rufus Buckley watches Booker Sistrunk, the black attorney from Memphis, arrive in the courtroom: “Buckley watched this parade and could barely suppress his suspicion. For twelve years he had faced juries in this part of the world. He could pick them, read them, predict them, talk to them and lead them, for the most part, and he knew in an instant that Booker Sistrunk and his Big & Black & Bad routine would not fly in this courtroom” (165). That’s hard to read. Besides Lucien, who has a black girlfriend, the internal thoughts of the white characters are not especially positive about the black people they interact with.
On the flip side, in the discussion about which jurors may go which way, Portia says, “‘I don’t understand you guys. Why is it always black versus white? I looked at those people, those faces, and I didn’t see a bunch of hard-core racists who will burn the will and give everything to the other side. I saw some reasonable people out there'” (344). At this point I can’t decide if the reader is supposed to think she’s naive, or an anomaly. But I would like to think that there are more people like this than not in Mississippi.
It’s worth noting that the actions of characters in a novel about Mississippi are not the true representation of the people of that state. But as a Mississippian, reading some of these thoughts sure was hard. I’d love to hear what you thought.