My reaction to the novel Calling Me Home, by Julie Kibler, has reminded me that any efforts of mine to inspire change will certainly fail if I lack empathy for others’ circumstances, sensitivities, and feelings.
Calling Me Home is the story of a friendship between two women: Isabelle, who is white and close to ninety, and Dorrie, who is African American and in her thirties. Dorrie has been styling Isabelle’s hair for years, and the two have become almost as close as mother and daughter. For much of the book, Isabelle and Dorrie are on a road trip from their hometown in Texas to Cincinnati, where Isabelle will attend a funeral. As the miles pass, the women share stories, and Isabelle talks about her girlhood in a northern-Kentucky town. She tells of falling in love with and secretly marrying Robert, who was African American, and of the cruelty and suffering they endured. In the course of their present-day travels, notably in Kentucky, Dorrie and Isabelle find disturbing evidence that racism continues in America.
I abhor racism. I believe that we humans truly are all one, that we are tangibly linked through our shared consciousness, and that our differences should enrich our lives and relationships, rather than drive us apart. I myself have dated interracially. So you’d think that I’d love and applaud Calling Me Home, and in the second half of the book, I settled down and did so: I liked the central characters, felt empathy for their challenges, and properly directed my indignation toward the people and circumstances that had hurt Dorrie and Isabelle. But during the first half of the book, I found myself feeling resentful, even angry, on my own behalf. The reason is that I (maybe unfairly) saw the book as inclined to lump white southerners—especially Kentuckians—together in an undifferentiated racist pile.
When the message seems to be, “All you folks are like this,” the result is likely to be more offended feelings and resistance than understanding and change. People who are angry or hurt are not receptive to new ways of seeing and doing. Part way through Calling Me Home, I paused in my reading and left my apartment for some errands. I felt so frustrated and out of sorts from reading the book that only with considerable effort could I reattach a smile and pleasant manner for greeting people in the halls of my building and in the stores.
I responded to the novel the way I did at least in part because my liberal and universally kind and loving mother grew up in Paint Lick, Kentucky, perhaps a hundred miles from the setting for Isabelle’s childhood. My mother’s village was filled with good people of diverse ancestry. I am not overlooking the fact that equality among the races was not complete in Paint Lick in the 1920s and 30s—the time of Isabelle’s and my mother’s growing up. It still hadn’t been achieved anywhere in the country—including the North—when I was a girl, and it hasn’t been achieved now. But I don’t recognize my mother or my Kentucky relatives in the portraits of the Kentuckians who made Isabelle’s girlhood so difficult and who unsettle Dorrie and Isabelle during their trip to Cincinnati. Most of my Kentucky relatives may not share my liberal politics, but they are kind, caring people who treat others of all backgrounds with respect and equality. My relatives do not deserve to be stereotyped, even for the sake of a novel with an important theme. Perhaps I am unfair in my assessment of the book, but most of us are sensitive to perceived undeserved censure.
I have had somewhat similar, if less intense, reactions to other situations. For instance, for many years, I heard that Baby Boomers are a spoiled, selfish generation. Now wait a minute! Perhaps some—or plenty of—truth can be found within the stereotype, but the majority of us Baby Boomers work hard to be decent, generous, caring individuals, however successful or unsuccessful we may be in reaching that goal.
Another relevant experience occurred about fifteen years ago, when George W. Bush was president of the United States. I was not a big fan of President Bush. Nevertheless, I bristled when a European friend e-mailed me that she wouldn’t come visit me because of her objection to the regulations for visitors that President Bush had put in place after the September 11 attacks. What irked me was my friend’s comment: “I don’t think Americans realize how the rest of the world sees them and Bush.” I was hurt that she viewed us Americans as a monolithic ill-informed mass.
My feelings of hurt prompted by such minor situations and by reading Calling Me Home are pebbles against the Mount Everest of suffering caused by racism, injustice, and inequality. I came to Calling Me Home already agreeing with its premise that racism and bias continue to be a scourge in American society. But if I hadn’t been in agreement, I probably wouldn’t have been won over by the novel. Like many others, when I feel unfairly judged—or feel that those I love have been unfairly judged—I have trouble hearing any helpful accompanying messages.
I applaud Julie Kibler for speaking out through the medium of her book. We have a strong duty to speak up on behalf of justice and wellbeing for all. But the question of how best to inspire others to be kind, inclusive, and egalitarian is complex. If we see one another as multifaceted beings with a rich blend of both beneficial and unfortunate qualities—rather than as creatures defined by a single characteristic—we will be less inclined to fall into prejudice and stereotyping in the name of standing up for our beliefs.
 Julie Kibler, Calling Me Home (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013).