I have huge admiration for fellow Washington writer Mary Cronk Farrell. She always seems to find topics that have been overlooked in the history books, bringing them to life with accuracy and integrity. Her post below is evidence of that integrity. It is an honor to host her today in celebration of her latest book, Standing Up Against Hate: How Black Women in the Army Helped Change the Course of WWII (Abrams Books for Young Readers).
Standing Up Against Hate: How Black Women in the Army Helped Change the Course of WWII (Abrams Books for Young Readers) tells the story of the patriotism, perseverance and bravery of a little-known segment of America’s Greatest Generation.
As a white woman, it feels awkward releasing a book about black women in the midst of #OwnVoices. I discovered the women of the All-black #6888th Postal Battalion six years ago in the midst of researching World War II army nurses for my book Pure Grit: How American Military Nurses Survived Battle and Prison Camp in the Pacific, my story antenna buzzed instantly. My mind raced with excitement. I can’t believe I’ve never heard this story. Everybody should know about these brave and determined women! #OwnVoices had yet to rise and cause me to question whether my voice should tell the story.
In my former career as a TV news reporter I had jumped to tell whatever story was newsworthy that particular day. And in my time, before the Reagan Administration axed the Fairness Doctrine, reporters staked their reputation and personal integrity on digging up facts on all sides of a story and striving to report it objectively. I had no qualms about writing a book about how black women in the army helped change the course of WWII.
In the course of the next handful of years as I worked on the project, many of us in the book industry started to grasp how authors like me thought and wrote with the bias of white privilege. So I sent a draft of the manuscript to a sensitivity reader. I was fairly sure I hadn’t written anything that would offend anyone outright, but this was an opportunity for me to learn. Here was a chance for me to work at changing the lens through which I see the world. But I was scared. I was afraid I’d find out I was a racist walking around (and writing) in ignorant bliss.
When the manuscript came back from the sensitivity reader, I felt both relieved and chagrined. Relieved that I hadn’t written anything egregious and chagrined at the number of incidents in the manuscript the reader questioned. See, how even now, I’m dancing around the R word? I was chagrined at the number of incidents that revealed my racism.
One of the most prevalent was using transitional phrases that compared positive advances the black women made with the hardship they faced in making it. She explained to me the concept of “othering.” Othering is the process of casting a group or an individual into the role of the ‘other’ and establishing one’s own identity through opposition to that group or person. Unconsciously, I’d been writing in a voice that kept saying, look how bad these women had it. Look at how they overcame their troubles. This point of view cast me and readers as separate from the black soldiers, overly focusing on their trials, rather than letting their achievements define them.
From the beginning, the part of the story that had struck me the most was the danger that black WACs faced at home in the United States. They had more to fear from Americans on a daily basis than they did the Nazis.
Black women in uniform risked physical assault traveling on trains and buses between army forts or just trying to get a ride back from town after shopping or a movie. I had been ignorant of that bit of history, though I knew about Jim Crow and the lynching of African Americans. When I embarked on this book, I was writing for other people like me. Black readers don’t need to be convinced of the injustice and horrors of the racism throughout our country’s history. It’s clearly evident today that black people can be assaulted, shot to death even, simply because of the color of their skin.
As I wrote STANDING UP AGAINST HATE, I thought maybe the book could add context to the current understanding of racial issues. I didn’t realize my phrasing and word choice perpetuated othering. I thought I was helping and didn’t realize I was part of the problem.
It was not difficult to make the changes suggested by the reader. The difficult part was the phone call where I asked questions trying to understand why she had flagged particular words or phrases. I felt nervous, my stomach queasy, anticipating the call. I feared I’d come across defensive. I feared I’d be judged badly.
Right away, the woman was kind and patient. Still, the conversation felt awkward. And when I didn’t grasp something and had to ask further questions, I feared she would think I was arguing with her. She remained patient and kind.
In the end, the phone call was the most satisfying part of the experience. I set aside my fears, gained a deeper understanding of my white privilege and felt a genuine connection with another. My book is better for it. Perhaps it won’t change the world, but it changed me.
Mary Cronk Farrell is an award-winning author and former journalist with a passion for stories about people discovering courage amidst adversity. Her recent titles include critically acclaimed FANNIE NEVER FLINCHED: ONE WOMAN’S COURAGE IN THE STRUGGLE FOR AMERICAN LABOR UNION RIGHTS and IRENA’S CHILDREN: YOUNG READERS EDITION: A TRUE STORY OF COURAGE. Read her weekly stories that inform and inspire on her website. You can also connect with her on Facebook and twitter.