David Bradley is the author of two novels (South Street and The Chaneysville Incident) and countless stories and essays, including “You Remember the Pin Mill” which won the O. Henry Award in 2014. Bradley was a professor at the University of Oregon while I was there as an MFA candidate in 2012, and we quickly bonded after discovering we were raised in nearby towns in rural Western Pennsylvania.
Michael McDermit: David, thanks for taking the time to talk. You’ve frequently called our mutual home state of Pennsylvania “God’s Country”, but what makes it so to you? I’ve tried to explain to others the simultaneous affinity and aversion I have for Western PA, but often come up short and can just shake my head and laugh fondly. Can you give a sense about what it was like growing up as a black man in a predominately white area? What’s it like now for you to go back and visit?
David Bradley: For me, those are four very different questions. To me, the region isn’t the state of Pennsylvania, or even all of Western Pennsylvania, but Bedford County, where I was born and raised. That county, once the seat of all of Western Pennsylvania—including what is now Pittsburgh—has a long, complicated and storied history, which I will happily get into in person, over drinks, provided you are buying and I don’t have to drive anywhere afterwards.
Obviously, I didn’t invent the phrase, “God’s Country,” which has long been in the public domain. I first used it as a description of local attitudes in an essay about race and baseball that was set in the second person: “a high valley of the Alleghenies, two hundred miles west of the fleshpots of Philadelphia, a hundred east of Pittsburgh’s smog, twenty-five north of Mason & Dixon’s Line, and thirty from the nearest Democrat. Though they know that pride’s a sin, and take sin seriously, folks here call this God’s Country; for here are mountains majestic, properly purple, farmlands amber with grain or verdant with sweet timothies, forests teeming with cottontail and whitetail; brooks full of fat, obliging trout. And here is this field, called The Green, where the Game is played in God’s gold sunlight on God’s green grass, as it was in the Beginning, and, God willing, ever shall be.” You’ll notice, when I referred to the Democrats, I placed them in your Cambria County.
The God part is pretty obvious: there are churches everywhere you turn. The town of Bedford has three times as many churches as bars—few cities can make that claim—and far more churches than schools. Some of my classmates rode a school bus twenty-five miles to high school. None of them lived more than a mile or two from a church. You’ll find more flavors of religion than you will flavors of ice cream, with serious differences in doctrine although nobody seems to find it necessary to go to war over them.
I seem to keep quoting myself, but truth told, I’ve grappled with this question for years and written about it, trying to explain it as you have. Once, back in the Reagan Era, I wrote about going home for Christmas, going with my mother to a Christmas Mass for The Nation—there’s a tough audience to try to explain Western Pennsylvania. I called the piece “Christmas Eve” and described the congregation at a Methodist Church: “They are not rich people; church is the only reason many of the men own a suit—but they are not poor, for the most part. They own their homes and a little land; some have businesses or farms that are run without a lot of aggressive imagination, perhaps, but with care and responsibility, and often as family operations. They believe in the Ten Commandments. It is still something of a disgrace to put an aging parent in a nursing home, and adultery, although not as uncommon as they might want you to believe, is still a cause for scandal. They care about high-school football and wrestling, about cheerleading contests and the school band. The local paper, which devotes a page or two to national news, could never be replaced by The New York Times. They are good people. They are too quick to reject a new idea, too slow to accept a newcomer in town, too fond of the way things are, too determined to ignore a criticism of the way things used to be. But they are steadfast in belief, accepting and understanding and willing to help their neighbors, generous with their substance, proud of their families. I know those things about them because I am so much like them… My leftward voyage has shown me that politics, like the earth, is round; I am as conservative as they are, perhaps more so. The only difference is, I am conservative not by birth or reaction but by circumnavigation.” I called the piece “Christmas Eve.” The Nation published it under the headline “Christmas Vigil in Altoona.” I won’t go on about editors at big city newspapers…
I was never a black man in a predominantly white area. I was a black child floating on a cake of ivory soap, but being a child I was protected from a lot of meanness—here’s a thing about those people; some of them might be bigots, but they wouldn’t hurt a child. My father was a local boy who’d gone to college—a Negro college in the South. Of course‚ he became a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, but he earned a masters degree in American History at Pitt—in Pittsburgh, not Johnstown—and took courses in English Literature at the Penn State extension in Altoona and later studied at New York University and spent some time at his alma mater teaching. My mother was a full time mother, but she was also a high school graduate who’d done secretarial training, and more important grew up in New Jersey, and was trained as a singer. I grew up in a house with books everywhere and a piano and sheet music and a live-in college professor and a live–in music teacher. Also, during my early childhood, my grandmother lived with us. We were black, but we were also “respectable” people. I did well in school because I had intellectual support at home, but also because I was expected to do well—and we know how important that is. I was nurtured by the congregation and experience of a black church; the black community, though small, supported its children. And yes, I think a little racial segregation can be a good thing. Of course I went to “white” schools, and there were a couple of racist asshole teachers, but there were far more teachers who supported, even indulged, me. And in general they were good teachers. I had an excellent education through high school—three years of a foreign language, math through Intro to calculus, history and social studies; good preparation for the college education nobody in their right mind would have predicted I would ultimately have. Seriously, you don’t look at a black kid in Bedford in 1961 and think, this kid is going to end up in the Ivy League. But I was taught as if such a thing were possible and when it happened… That said, my experience was not typical. My parents were not typical, my home wasn’t typical—we had indoor plumbing, for one thing. But I never had to try to be a black man in Bedford.
I’m glad about that. I’m not saying it would have been impossible; but based on the people I knew, the men I knew, including my father, to be a black man in Bedford required compromises that I don’t think I could have made, that I hope I would not have made, that, frankly, I resented my father for making. I think I would have gotten into trouble. I hope I would have gotten into trouble, for not behaving as I was expected to. And you know how Western Pennsylvania punishes anybody who doesn’t conform to expectations. Fortunately, I got the hell out of Bedford before manhood and the need to assert it became an issue.
But, as a man, my relationship with Bedford has had nothing to do with race. It has to do with a sense of place. Let me again quote from my favorite writer to get at the rest of your question: “I… thought about how strange a place home is: a place to which you belong and which belongs to you even if you do not particularly like it or want it, a place you cannot escape, no matter how far you go or how furiously you run; about how strange it feels to be going back to that place and, even if you do not like it, even if you hate it, to get a tiny flush of excitement when you reach the point where you can look out the window and know, without thinking, where you are; when the bends in the road have meaning, and every hill a name.”
MM: You told me you think Trump voters—many in our home state—have something more motivating than bigotry…what are those things? How does bigotry factor in? How do you think Trump will address their concerns? Do you think they will acknowledge their mistake if he doesn’t deliver for them?
DB: I think what motivated many Trump voters in Western Pennsylvania and elsewhere is exactly the same thing that motivated many people in Western PA to “vote for the nigger.” You know the origin of that quote, right? If not here’s what appeared in Salon.com back in 2008:
A man canvassing for Obama in western Pennsylvania asks a housewife which candidate she intends to vote for. She yells to her husband to find out. From the interior of the house, he calls back, “We’re voting for the nigger!” At which point the housewife turns to the canvasser and calmly repeats her husband’s declaration.
The editors ran it under a headline “Racists for Obama” with a cutline “Plenty of white bigots will vote for Barack Obama on Tuesday. There are some things they fear more than black people.”
There was more to the piece, of course, and you can’t hold a writer accountable for stupid things editors do to frame a piece, like headlines, cutlines and captions. (I once did a piece about Bedford for the New York Times Magazine. They sent a photographer who took a picture of an alley called Central Way. The Times captioned it “Main Street.”) But writer, novelist James Hannaham, introduced that anecdote as a “hair-raising story about a pair of Barack Obama supporters” and after rendering it, reflected: “Ah, racism. It’s always a step ahead of us.”
Hannaham is a black man, but he’s also East Coast urban black, born in the Bronx, BA at Yale and now lives in Brooklyn, and the East-Coast Liberal tone of the editorial frames might not have upset him. In any case, when I read that last line my reaction was: “Who the fuck you callin’ ‘us?'”
See, to me, that anecdote reflects some of the best qualities of Western Pennsylvania and Western Pennsylvanians. If you deconstruct the anecdote without bias, what you see is that even though these are rural people, who have a “traditional” kind of marital relationship which still puts responsibility for political decision-making in the hands of the husband, and who use language that (when used by whites) is associated with racial bigotry, that husband—a white male, we assume—has made an unbigoted choice regarding presidential candidates and isn’t afraid to say so… to an outsider and, more, a stranger. (Of course, we Western Pennsylvanians do routinely like to shun outsiders and strangers, as a way of not talking to them at all, but let’s not get into that; we’ll be here all night). The choice he made was perfectly in keeping with the position favored by Coast-based Liberals. He made a discretionary decision (as the social scientists would say) that Coast-based Liberals should have respected as rational. But he got no credit—not even condescending credit—for doing that.
The headline “Racists for Obama” seemed to ridicule the couple and at the same time insisted they were racists… even though the two actions reported were to choose to vote for Obama and be willing to say so… whatever their neighbors might say. You’re from Western Pennsylvania; you know how big that is. Truth told, that headline might have introduced—and would have been appropriate to introduce—a story about a black American couple who were supporting Obama because he was black. But I doubt an anecdote describing that would have been framed as “hair-raising” and “Ah, racism.”
The problem for the editors—and perhaps the writer—was that the anecdote documented two white Western Pennsylvanians who were not behaving as Coast-based Liberal mythology predicted they would. The cutline—”Plenty of white bigots will vote for Barack Obama on Tuesday. There are some things they fear more than black people”—suggested this couple were both bigoted and fearful of black Americans. There was no evidence at all to that effect… except that they lived in Western Pennsylvania, where, as we both know, there are people who are bigoted about a lot of things, but few blacks to fear, and more, there have never been enough blacks to form deep, atavistic fears. In any case, the actual anecdote undercut that interpretation. The cutline should have been something like “Plenty of white people will vote for Barack Obama on Tuesday. Even if they are bigots, they fear black people less than they fear the thought of an aging white man as president… and Sarah Palin a heartbeat away.” Which, by the way, is the reason I voted for Barack Obama in 2008; I was ready to vote for McCain, for whom (unlike Trump) I had great respect. Until he started thinking with his own illusion of immortality and withered dick.
In 2008, Barack Obama ran on a slogan promising “Hope and Change.” By 2010 it seemed that he (and the Democratic Party) were not willing or able to deliver change. By 2012 many people had lost hope. I’m not talking about people in Western Pennsylvania. I’m talking about the likes of Conor Friedersdorf, who although he was raised in Orange County, California, went to an elite college (Pomona) and then got a degree in journalism at NYU and now writes for The Atlantic. In 2008 he voted for the nigger—because as he put it, “Keen on Obama’s civil-libertarian message and reassertion of basic American values, I supported him in 2008.” I doubt anybody suggested that made him a racist, although some people maybe called him a race-traitor; Orange County, like Western Pennsylvania, has a conservative reputation (can you say “John Birch Society”?) and he now lives in Venice, California, which just has a reputation. By 2012 Friedersdorf was disillusioned with Obama and—in print—supported Libertarian Gary Johnson. I’m sure some people called him… something, but I doubt anybody called him a bigot because he wasn’t voting for the nigger. I also doubt anybody called him a bigot because he wasn’t “voting for the Mormon” (a term that was once considered disparaging) although it’s certainly reasonable to believe some Americans did not vote for Romney because of religious bigotry against members of the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter Day Saints, or even that they did so because, having had some experience with the Church, its members and attitudes, they were wary of its principles and practices. I resemble that remark; I wonder if a canvasser came to my house in Western Pennsylvania (yep, I still have one) and asked me… Well, never mind. The point is, both prejudices and rational judgments of many types, including religion, can be factors in decision-making, in Western Pennsylvania and elsewhere.
In January of 2014 Friedersdorf—an excellent writer, by the way—had a piece in The Atlantic entitled “The Decline and Fall of ‘Hope and Change'” The cutline was: “President Obama’s achievements are many. But he has utterly failed to keep a promise core to the rationale for his candidacy.” Friedersdorf’s criticism of the Obama administration was not taken as bigotry; his views were taken on their own intellectual terms—which is not to say they weren’t shaped by pre-existing attitudes. Of course, he didn’t call Obama a nigger. But he could have been no more critical had he been a white male, living in Western Pennsylvania who did not go to an elite college and who expressed himself in an unapproved idiom. And even if, using that idiom, he had previously expressed support for Obama… well, you get my drift.
So, in 2016, Hillary Clinton promised—well, I don’t know what the hell she promised. But she was trying to sell a tainted brand. And people made a rational choice that Coast-based Liberals don’t like. And so because Western Pennsylvania people—”flyover people”—who do express themselves in terms and terminology that is publicly unpopular, (even for most savvy bigots) they are assumed to be bigots just because they do not place enough negative value on Trump’s bigotted statements to chose against him. The same people who voted for the nigger—twice, are now bigots because they didn’t vote for a white woman who seemed determined to continue the policies that have disappointed, like they don’t know that what was promised was not delivered.
Sorry to be so long-winded. But I’m tired of losers who won’t accept the reality of why they lost, and who insist places like your Cambria County, which was a Democratic stronghold, and like my Bedford County, which only has a Democratic County Commissioner because the law requires it, can’t simply get fed up. In 2008, the people who “voted for the nigger” were voting for hope and change. And the disappointment expressed in eloquent form and politically correct terms by someone like Friedersdorf was being expressed in less eloquent and politically correct terms. What is motivating them is the same demand for change that they have not gotten, and the hope that has been denied them. Perhaps they voted for Trump because he appeals to them as a DC Outsider. More likely, they voted against Hillary Clinton because as a DC Insider, she did not appeal. How bigotry—racial, religious, gender—factors in, I don’t know. What I do know is that people in Western Pennsylvania have often been motivated by religious concerns. Maybe they were charmed by Trump’s abstention from alcohol and caffeine; he’s got the Mormonish vibe without the whole holy underwear thing. Maybe they don’t like the idea of gay marriage, and consider government support for it as an intrusion on what is fundamentally a religious sacrament, not a political football. Personally, I don’t see that the government, certainly not the federal government, should be able to decide who people can and cannot marry—but then, I’m from Western Pennsylvania. I was born about four miles from one of the gathering places of the Whiskey Rebellion.
How will Trump address the concerns of Western Pennsylvanians? Like most politicians, he mostly won’t. Nobody ever addresses the concerns of Western Pennsylvanians. That’s why Western Pennsylvanians marched on Philadelphia back in the day. That’s why there was a Whiskey Rebellion—and fuck Alexander Hamilton. The exception: Congressman Bud Schuster, who built an Interstate so he could get to Penn State games without risking his life on two-lane Route 220. But even if Trump doesn’t deliver for them, it doesn’t follow that they made a mistake. My own campaign slogan was “Hold Your Nose and Vote For Hillary.” I am not happy Trump won. I am not upset that Clinton lost.
MM: You mentioned living through enough to know that the panic over the election is somewhat routine, or at least isn’t a first. To those–like me–who feel this dread for the first time, what do you have to say?
DB: Grow up.
Seriously. I don’t mean that as criticism of younger people so much as a criticism of their elders, who have a knock on we’ve gotten into this “safe space” mentality in this country, where every contention and unpleasantness is regarded as the end of the world. The truth is, the world has never been a safe space. This country has never been a safe space. And the people who made it unsafe were not all rednecks and bigots and members of the KKK. A lot of them went to Harvard. Woodrow Wilson went to Princeton, got his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins, taught at Wesleyan and Bryn Mawr and Princeton, became President of Princeton and Governor of New Jersey. He was supported by W. E. B. DuBois in The Crisis, allowed for the segregation of the federal service, and by segregation I mean some cases in which a few black government workers, whose jobs were protected by civil service, were forced to do those jobs in cages.
I’d also say that, no matter who or what party is in power, you have to be a citizen, which means you have to fight for your democracy. I’m tired of people acting like the only way to fight for your country is to put on a uniform, go far away, take orders from assholes and kill people you’ve never met. All due respect to the military, but American freedom is won and preserved in the classrooms and churches and parks and workplaces of America. You stand up for your rights and you stand up for other people’s rights, and you hold your government accountable. You don’t get gooey eyes over anybody’s speeches. You don’t get caught up in hyperbole about Adolf Hitler, you make sure you are not Adolf Eichmann. Screwing somebody over and saying “I’m just doing my job” is the modern equivalent of the Nuremburg Defense.
MM: In your still incredible essay, “Eulogy for Nigger”, you not so subtly imply some of Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia could be mistaken for the thoughts of some “prepubescent peckerwood”. If you didn’t know any better, who would you say is authoring Trump’s tweets?
DB: Trump. One of the best things about his election is that somebody is going to have to take his phone away. But that’s not what I say about Jefferson; he was the original racist peckerwood. Read Query 14 from Notes on the State of Virginia. He lays out every meme of what we call anti-black racism, from they smell bad to their hair is kinky to they’re like apes to they all want to fuck white women to they can’t read, write or do anything complicated, and if you don’t keep close they’ll take naps instead of working themselves to death for you for free. He ends up saying, we can’t free them because they’ll hold slavery against us and pollute the white race, so we have to ship them someplace outside the country… after we work them half-to death.
Here’s an extract that might strike a chord with writers:
“But never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never see even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture. In music they are more generally gifted than the whites with accurate ears for tune and time, and they have been found capable of imagining a small catch. Whether they will be equal to the composition of a more extensive run of melody, or of complicated harmony, is yet to be proved. Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry. — Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry. Love is the peculiar oestrum of the poet. Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination. Religion indeed has produced a Phillis Wheatley; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism.”
MM: Though writing is actually an accumulation of words and ideas, I’ve always thought of it as distillation and paring down to essence, a washing away of noise that gets in the way of anything truthful and progressive. How does that relate to your own way of looking at writing? Secondly, what do you think is getting in the way for us all now? How can it be done through the written word in 2017?
DB: You know me, man. I can’t just agree with anything so you won’t be surprised that I don’t accept that writing is an accumulation of anything. I accumulate all kinds of shit—God bless/damn Al Gore’s Internet—but I can’t write anything until I have some kind of ordering principle. It’s a process of induction, deduction, reduction and clarification. The point is, you have to know a lot of shit in order to have a sense of what might be true, then you have to go through the shit to see if it really is true, and then you have reduce it so a form that can be presented to an audience and then you have to clarify that—meaning make it clear, which often means getting into your own head and figuring out why you thought what you thought in the first place.
Getting in the way of us all doing what? I mean, we don’t all want to do the same thing, go the same place as a nation or individuals. Most of the time what gets in people’s way, especially writers, are the people themselves. I mean, what’s stopping you? No money? Okay. Insecurity? Okay. History? Whose, yours or the nation’s?
I don’t think art, including the written word, is a means to an end.
MM: The world felt significant loss of some brilliant minds in 2016, but I barely heard a peep about James Alan McPherson’s death last July. I remember being blown away when you introduced me to his work, which I now view in the same light as Baldwin. What made him an essential American voice, and why do you think his death passed without much celebration for his work?
DB: He was a great writer. He stopped writing, for whatever reason—bad health, bad marriage, he just… got in his own way. (He did have marital difficulties. He was ill toward the end, and unable to travel.) He started teaching, which can stop you, as you know. Worse, he started teaching at Iowa, which… well, let’s just ask, when a writer falls in the middle of nowhere, does he make a sound?
McPherson had already made a sound. John Edgar Wideman heard it, and told me about it. I heard it, and told you about it.
But the real issue is, are his works in print? Because that’s what matters. I just finished reading and writing about the Collected Essays of Albert Murray, who died in 2013. I stared going through his obituaries. People were saying he was an “undiscovered treasure” and “not a household name.” True. Too true. But what mattered was that the Library of America has published his nonfiction and will publish his fiction next year. So we hope that for McPherson, so that whomever you tell about his work can find it.
MM: There’s more than a few things you’ve said that I won’t forget, but the one that I come back to most is perhaps this: “In order to be a good writer you have to be a shitty something else.” Expand on that.
DB: “No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” Luke 16:13. That’s a bit… absolute, but religion tends to be that way. The point is, you have to make choices. Other people are doing other things, fun things, things that other people respect and you’re doing another draft. Other people have friends and relationships; you have friends and relationships but you also have characters, and trust me, characters can be as demanding as any lover, especially since there’s always something wrong with a character… that’s what makes them interesting. A writer has to decide that life interrupts writing, not the other way around. I’m not saying you can’t be responsible and responsive to others. But the energy, the caring, the time that goes into the writing inevitably comes from something or someone else. Or vice-versa. And when that someone or something looks at you and says, “You are not paying the attention that I deserve,” you have no defense, because it’s true.
MM: In his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde claims that there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written—that is all. Is this true? Should we limit ourselves to aesthetic judgments about a work of art and forgo moral ones? Can we really separate the two?
DB: Of course it’s true in general. And it’s also true that a completely immoral person can write an incredibly moral book… so long as he or she is capturing the truth—meaning, the way things are. You can write totally “escapist” fiction, where the hero is the richest, most powerful man in the world and takes anything he wants, from money to grabbing women’s genitals and… but oh, wait.
Seriously, moral and immoral is only the middle of the issue. The beginning is, who says a writer is an arbiter of morality—whatever the hell that is. The end is, what does the reader think about what’s written. Example: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer had a very shiny nose, and if you ever saw it, you would even say it glows. All of the other reindeer used to laugh and call him names. They never let poor Rudolph join in any reindeer games.
So this is a story about bullying, right? And do we sympathize with Rudolph because the response to his rosacea has driven him to drink, which only made it worse, or condemn him for not working the steps?
Point is, anything can be turned into a moral tale. But morality is not my business. I left the preaching business a long time ago. My business is capturing reality as honestly and accurately as I can, to represent reality, even if I’m inventing it, to show the situation the actions and response, and let readers sympathize and make judgments as they will, in accordance with their own powers of empathy and their own sense of right and wrong. And as for Santa, that overweight, atherosclerotic sonofabitch let Rudolph suffer… until he needed him to guide his sleigh. And yeah, sure, the reindeer loved Rudolph… that night. But Christmas only comes once a year. What happened to poor Rudolph on Boxing Day? I betcha Donner and Blitzen took him aside and said there was only room for eight reindeer… Thank/Blame Dr. Cynthia Bailey for this off the wall response.