Today we have something a little different for you. I’m with Ciahnan (Keenan) Darrell, author of the new book, Blood at the Root, and we’re going to talk about the role literature and the arts can play in promoting social justice.

According to Justin Gifford, associate professor of English at the University of Nevada, Blood at the Root “is a sharp-witted social satire that takes unflinching aim at race and class privilege in contemporary America.”

An award-winning author, and scholar, Ciahnan’s first book was the award-winning “A Lifetime of Men.” His short stories and essays have appeared in several journals, most recently in The Columbia Review, Gone Lawn, and The Legendary. His story 'What Remains' was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Rum Punch Press.

Ciahnan holds Masters degrees from the University of Chicago and Stony Brook University, and a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University at Buffalo.

Both his creative work and his scholarly research explore systemic inequality and the ways in which discourse on race and gender shape the horizons of individual and social life.

These are important topics, so I’m pleased to welcome Ciahnan Darrell to our podcast. Thanks for joining us, Ciahnan…
Bob: To get started, Ciahnan, tell us about Blood at the Root. What’s it about and what’s its message? And where did that title come from?

Bob: As a white male, what gives you the right – the authority – to write about issues of race and gender? And why do you feel it is important to do so?

Bob In the atmosphere in which live today, with so much division, and yes, ethnic and racial hatred, what role can we, as authors, play in helping to ease these tensions and improve understanding among those with differing views regarding these subjects.

Bob: To me, one of the most important issues that we face today is the growing diversity of our country, which I believe is at the root of much of the division we face. Your thoughts about that…

Bob: The nation is becoming increasingly diverse, in terms of ethnicity, as we speak. According to the 2020 U.S. Census, the White non-Hispanic population stood at 57.8 percent, a decline of six percent since 2010. That, we know, continues and projections are that soon the White non-Hispanic population will be in the minority. Is this one reason why we see so much hatred and defensiveness from the MAGA crowd and the likes of the Proud Boys?

Bob: An important finding in the census is the increased diversity in the younger population. In 2019, for the first time, more than half of the those under 16 identified as a racial or ethnic minority. What are some of the political and cultural implications of that?

Bob: As an author and scholar who’s work centers around fairness and equality, what’s your view of the way Donald Trump and his followers have attempted to weaponize fear to pave the road to power?

Bob: Your first book, A Lifetime of Men…tell us about that book.

Bob: And your short stories…let’s hear about them.

Bob: Thanks, Ciahnan, for being with us on our podcasts.

Show Notes

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Show Transcript


[00:01:39] ciahnan: Thanks for having me, Bob. I look forward to our conversation.

[00:01:42] Bob Gatty: To get started, tell us a little bit about blood At the Root. What's it about? What's its message? We're in the hell did the title come from?

[00:01:52] ciahnan: And the easiest place is to start with the title, which is I tried to find one that packed a lot of meaning. it's from Billy Holiday's song strange Fruit, or I should say, the song Made Famous by Bill Holiday, Billy Holiday. actually written by a white communist Jewish American with his wife and performed by African American singer.

[00:02:17] I forget her first name. Her last name was Duncan. But anyway, so what you have right there though is something that's, it's collaborative. There's black and white that are both involved in producing something significant. lot of people that pick up this book and they wanna make it just about conflict, they want to read it as if it was some sort of hatchet job.

[00:02:41] But that's not really what, not what I'm trying to do what the book about the, it's about the son of a billionnaire, who upon learning of the the country's racial history, takes it upon himself to offer himself as a sacrifice of atonement for America's racial sins. He has then marched through the streets of New York, chained to scaffolding and beaten for three days. Now we never actually hear from him cuz his voice isn't the one that matters. What matters is the lives that those actions touch. upon and, alter. Now I wanna stop right there and say the being led naked through the streets, that's something that a couple readers have pushed back on, and called Gratuitous. But the reality is that one of the biggest slave markets in the US was in New York City and it was built at the intersection of Wall and Now we all know America's might comes from its money. And so in a very real sense then the fact that the slave market was on Wall Street points to the fact that money and wealth and power in this country are inextricable from its violent past. And so I'm showing this image and then moving on from there. and my purpose in doing so is not to make a point. It's not to tell a particular story, but rather to look at the narratives about race and gender money and power. To show by showing characters lives that don't jive with that the ways in which these narratives that we're so familiar with are manufactured to a certain extent. if you look closely, you can start to poke holes. You can start to see the ways in which the narratives often serve particular interests. and so to the extent that I had a, any sort of concrete message at all that I wanted to convey, it was just that the world that we live in, Is dynamic, identity is dynamic.

[00:04:53] Race and gender are dynamic. Being black might be someone's primary source of identity if they're surrounded by, say, a group of white people. But when they're surrounded by a group of black people, that's probably not the first thing they would think of themselves are. So identity is contextual. And to try and impose an identity on somebody is to try and say, okay, your life consists only of this pressure point.

[00:05:20] Your life consists only of this historical suffering. and I, I. think that's infantilizing. I think it's debilitating. And I think what we need to do as a nation to move forward as readers to, to continue to improve is to question the things that seem obvious to, to question the gospel truths and see if they jive with the world unfolding around us.

[00:05:49] Bob Gatty: Ciahnan You're a white male. Do you have, do you get criticized for writing about these topics? What do you know? You're white. You don't know what we're going through. Do you get any of that

[00:06:04] ciahnan: I have,

[00:06:04] and believe me I've given it to myself as

[00:06:08] and longer than anyone else could. And that consideration that question of what I had to write about, led to a couple things couple sort of strategies I put in place. First is, I have 33 different characters in the book. That means 33 different stories, and they're designed to be mutually. Like mutually undermining. So if someone says X is true, then another narrative says, no, not x Y. And so I'm not trying to make a point in the sense that I'm not trying to say this is what we should think or this is what we need to see. But what I'm trying to do is offer different images tied to different lives so that you can take it or leave it if you want, but at the very least you're forced to to. With the complexity of what's going on. I think anytime you, write a book, there's a certain amount of authority that you're just taking up. You're by virtue of the fact that you're putting these words together and putting 'em out there, you're suggesting that other people. Should read them. And so knowing that I try to structurally disavow idea that I'm teaching country about race. Yeah. Does that make sense?

[00:07:30] Bob Gatty: Yeah, it does. Absolutely it does. We live in an atmosphere today that is there's so much division ethnic and racial hatred. What could what role can authors like you play in helping to ease these tensions and improve understanding among those with differing views regarding these subject? subjects?

[00:07:59] ciahnan: I think one of the simplest things that can be done is to normalize images of people of color. If you look it's, much better now than say when I was a child. when I was a child, there were no African Americans. There were certainly no Mexicans or other Latinos or Latinas. You hardly ever saw Native Americans, Asian Americans, et cetera, et cetera. So I think the fact that we're telling stories that acknowledged the existence of, those folk is a real contribution. and I think it's important too, to acknowledge that we are. Recognizing or acknowledging the existence of diversity, not creating it.

[00:08:43] Part of the problem has been that diversity has been shoved aside, occluded I think that it's important for artists also writers and other type of artists to ask questions and, not questions that have easy answers, but questions that demand that you spend time with the question that you consider it from various angles. Cuz I think that's where true learning and true change comes when the constant rubbing up against images that you haven't seen, the constant thoughts that are different from what you've had, eventually they're gonna start to change your shape, some kind of new outlook. I don't think it's gonna be overnight, and I don't think it's gonna be this sort of epiphany bomb. But I do think that bit by bit through the questions we asked, through the images we raised, that authors can contribute to the recognition of possibilities that maybe weren't understood or seen before.

[00:09:49] Bob Gatty: You mentioned diversity in our country and it's growing, that's for sure. I believe that really, that's the root of much of the division that we face. Do you agree with that?

[00:10:02] ciahnan: Yes and no. I agree that race is used to manufacture that division 

[00:10:09] But I don't think it comes from race itself. have met so many people in the course of my life who Were friends and kind and whatever to minority people that still espouse these views that were atrocious flat out racist.

[00:10:27] And I think if people weren't constantly being told narratives about race and racism, that emphasize the antagonism, that I think we'd have a very different relation to it. I think part of the problem is it is not just People like Fox News. It's the media in general because if it bleeds, it leads using extraordinary language posing things in the most sort of dynamic slash fraught way possible that draws attention, that sells ads. I don't wanna get too far field in your question, but I very much think that racism is, much more used to manufacture it than it is origin of it. Look at the way we eat. We, there's a Mexican place in practically every corner now. So the objection to Latino or Latina immigrants can't be that stalwart in principle. There's a Chinese food place and, I'm not saying that the existence of those things, Mean that everything's okay, or that these people are getting better representation, but they are, or elements of their culture are being assimilated with the larger culture and someone who's willing to go down, pick up a burrito and then curse out Javier or whatever is a hypocrite.

[00:12:01] There's no principled. Not the principled racism is any better than unprincipled racism, but at the same point get over yourself. 

[00:12:11] And it's so frustrating too because there's so many studies that have been done now. It's refute most of the basic idiotic claims that are made against immigration.

[00:12:23] They've proven that it immigrants being there benefits the economy. They've proven that immigrants are far less likely to commit a crime than someone who lives there. It's a damn fact that if you're not a citizen, you can't collect social security. So illegal immigrants, as they say, are not bankrupting social security, and these are not complicated, but it's the sound bites that are put out there again and again, and it's disastrous.

[00:12:53] Bob Gatty: In other words, it's the lies that certain segments of the political population are spreading that's causing all of that. Now according to the latest census, the 2020 census, the white non-Hispanic population was 57.8 percent in 2020, down by about 6% from 2010, and we know the projections are that soon the white, non-Hispanic population will be in the minority.

[00:13:29] Now, do you think that's one of the reasons why we see so much hatred and defensiveness from the MAGA crowd and the likes of the Proud Boys?

[00:13:38] ciahnan: Okay, so first off what you just said is a commonly used lie that involves focusing on one particular, rarely declared definition of what it means to be white. 

[00:13:53] It's from the census but the people who read that are reading in a particular way that that isn't that isn't accurate another thing too is slightly tangential but the definition of white according to the US Census Bureau includes Middle Eastern Northern African and other people that we wouldn't think of as a white So when you have these categories you're very much you're very much getting into the realm of if not flat out fiction it's like Mark Twain said there there are two kinds of or three kinds of lies Lies to lies and statistics 

[00:14:33] Bob Gatty: right 

[00:14:35] I, gotcha. But the point is that these people. The MAGA people, the proud boy people 

[00:14:42] they all glam onto statistics, right? And they twist them and they use 'em and they throw 'em out there as bombs. Mm-hmm what is, that's my question to you. Don't you feel like that's what, that's one of the things that's causing a lot of this divisiveness that we have in this country.

[00:15:03] ciahnan: Absolutely I think the Expansion of right wing media has been unparalleled and has been weaponized without question things like Breitbart but it's not even just Breitbart it's all the offshoots of that the chat rooms and what have you that they put these people together and when you get a bunch of fervent people together the sort of the dynamic swing towards the radical and the extreme.

[00:15:34] Bob Gatty: Yeah,

[00:15:34] ciahnan: that's one thing The other thing I do have to say though is I think the proud boys and such groups have existed and Trump and the MAGA folk basically gave them permission to crawl out from under their rocks and to recruit and to be much more so in that sense yeah I would you're right.

[00:15:57] Bob Gatty: Yeah, Now Another important finding in the census is the increased diversity in the younger population in 2019 for the first time, more than half of those under 16, and then it identified as a racial or ethnic minority. What are some of the political and cultural implications that in your view?

[00:16:23] ciahnan: You're definitely gonna have your sort of reactionary forces that try and spin that into the mergence of the great Black slash brown slash everything else threat yeah I don't know how much traction that's really gonna be able to get because as these people get older they're gonna be voting So if they're being portrayed as as the boogeyman then that's gonna translate into votes for Democrats 

[00:17:01] Bob Gatty: Don't you think though, that it's a, there can be a positive spin to that. These young people eventually are going to become, some of them are gonna come, become the political leaders of the future and the, and therefore the The population of those in the state, legislature, in the US Congress in, town councils will become more diversified.

[00:17:35] Isn't that a good thing?

[00:17:38] ciahnan: if it happens yeah that that would be wonderful Unfortunately our political system like all systems that control money and power tend to work in such a way that the dollars and the power get funneled to to the powers that be to try and maintain what they have. Looking at what Minority candidates have been able to do in our political system is frustrating There have been some really amazing people over the years who who haven't finally been able to Obviously they've led to important changes but it hasn't changed I don't think the fundamental character nation I think perhaps nothing makes that or demonstrates that as clearly as the fact that Trump was the president after Obama you in Obama you have a highly educated articulate thoughtful accomplished man and the next president was His main recommending characteristic was that he was white he was foulmouthed He's not bright He's gone bankrupt six times He's been accused of by rape or accused of rape or sexual assault by 26 different women this is a man who is a middle finger to every definition of decency and know that

[00:19:03] Bob Gatty: Do you have a hard time understanding how it is that the Evangelical Whites support this guy?

[00:19:11] ciahnan: Not at all and I'll tell you why I understand what you're saying I definitely understand the sort of hypocrisy and the contradiction but pretty much starting with James Dobson in the eighties you have the sort of militarization the Christian right focus on the family these people have spent The past 50 years indoctrinating their children what they're focused on what they have been focused on is Roe v Wade and they will make any sacrifice sacrifice any principle in order to achieve this and you would've thought that they would've been satisfied with doing it on a federal level with Roe v Wade But now they're taking a man on at state levels too I think they will do anything get in bed with and frankly destroy anybody if they think it'll get them what they want

[00:20:05] Bob Gatty: I think you're right, and I think that's sad. Your first book, A Lifetime of Men, tell us about that.

[00:20:15] ciahnan: The lifetime of men was a very personal project for me I grew up in a middle class entirely white town raised by women my mother and my aunt and my grandmother when she could be present. They were extraordinary women Strong smart selfless and I'd never heard the term feminism really until I went away to college And I when I did I asked what it was and they told me and explain like why it was necessary I was like holy Crap Don't say that stuff around my grandma She'll kill you

[00:21:00] But so I found out all the this and started to do some study and whatnot and as the years went by I just realized how much they had to deal with as single women Or functionally single women I realized how many obstacles they had to deal with how vulnerable they were socially whatnot as I did that I just felt incredibly humbled and my studies led me into an examination of the history of abuse in our country and out of that or what that gave rise to a certain extent is this story about three women three different generations who refused to hand over control of their lives to anyone else who insisted upon living on their own terms and all that and all that cost them the oldest the first character that you meet was based loosely on my great-aunt a woman who was one of the initial people to fight for Title ix a woman who was an outdoorsman a woman who's just incredible and I guess I wrote that story of that And what happened was these three characters just came to life and essentially told me What they were gonna do at a certain point very shortly I had no real decisions to make cuz they were just speaking 

[00:22:37] Track 1: Yeah 

[00:22:39] ciahnan: And each of the women deals with not just what you might call political issues but also with love and life and the minutia of Workday existence And Yeah But by the end I think you've met three women who will stick with you

[00:23:00] Bob Gatty: So it's a autobiographical novel.

[00:23:03] ciahnan: no it's not biographical I was trying to tell you like the thought process or the emotions that the book

[00:23:10] Bob Gatty: I see.

[00:23:12] ciahnan: Came out of character is loosely based on my great-aunt

[00:23:16] Bob Gatty: Oh I see. Okay. right

[00:23:20] Okay. Now you've you've written a whole lot of short stories, right?

[00:23:27] ciahnan: Yeah I've written I've written several the short story I think that every author needs to begin there I don't think you really have any business writing a novel until you've written a short story because a short story really tells you or teaches you the requirements of a narrative There's no room to mess around There's no room for fat there's no room for extraneous description or whatever You have to understand exactly the story you're telling and then execute. And so I spent a lot of years writing short stories many of which most of which didn't get published that was my my early apprenticeship

[00:24:08] Bob Gatty: Okay.

[00:24:10] And are these short stories written for kids or a general audience or what?

[00:24:19] ciahnan: Generally I would say that the stories I write are for adults and people who have a particular interest literature that last part isn't an absolute requirement but

[00:24:36] I write language and the things it can do and reveal Or include are those considerations are at the forefront of my mind

[00:24:48] Bob Gatty: Okay. I wanna go back to the discussion that we had a little while ago about racism. Something happened today that I wanted to ask you about, and that is that one of the people who write for my Lean to the Left blog, her name is Stacy Fitzgerald. She's an African American writer, fine writer. She wrote a blog and I published it today about her point is that there are a lot of towns in this country with very racist names, and her position is that those names should be changed.

[00:25:30] And she used it as an example, a town in northeast Texas called Nigton, N I G T O N.. Okay. And, I just wondered what you think about that Now we've had the we have these ongoing controversies over whether statue of a Confederate general should be removed or not. And we've had violence occur as a result of that.

[00:26:02] Should in your opinion these communities that have these names like that should they be changed,

[00:26:14] ciahnan: I absolutely think so. I as human beings, our job as as we go through our lives is to improve, is to grow. If we smoked before, eventually, hopefully we learned that's bad for our bodies and we stopped smoking. If you put asbestos in walls and you learn that's bad, you stop, having these ra racist town names, I think does real damage. not just emotionally to the individuals who are offended by them, but also by playing a part in the social imaginary. If I am driving down the street and I see all these racist names, because it's normalized, right? That gets in my head and that's part of what I think is normal.

[00:27:07] Even if I'm not, Consciously having that thought that is just part of the space in which I live. And I think that needs to be improved. We've recognized a cancer and we need to excise it. and you mentioned in this question about the issue of Confederate statues. And I just wanna point out that the Confederacy existed for five years.

[00:27:35] So all these people who are saying that it's part of our heritage we have to keep that. I don't want to hear a damn word about gay marriage because guess what? Gay marriage has been around longer than five years, so it must be part of our 

[00:27:51] Bob Gatty: I, love that

[00:27:53] ciahnan: And I do personally believe in gay marriage, but you get my point, right 

[00:28:00] Bob Gatty: I do get your point. I believe in it too. And I think it's just a great point. . . Oh man. Alright, so what else do you have? Anything else you'd like to lay on us? Ciahnon?

[00:28:17] ciahnan: I guess it, what's just been on my mind a lot is trying to figure out where hearts and minds campaigns fit into the current struggle for equality. Ibram X. Kendi, who's an African American scholar he wrote in a book re recently how to be an anti-Racist. He wrote that he thinks that the way change is gonna happen is through policy, and I agree with that. However, the one thing that gives me pause is we have voting laws, right? But throughout the south they're closing polling places, primarily. Ones in. Where African Americans and other minorities live so while I do agree that what we need is policy because a lot of people are all good with hearts and minds until it requires them to do something.

[00:29:08] but at the same time, the policy doesn't seem like it's enough on its own. So I just wonder strategies we should consider these days,

[00:29:22] Bob Gatty: Do you have any thoughts about that?

[00:29:24] ciahnan: I, Upton Sinclairs once said that it's embarrassing after 30 years of study, the best thing I could tell you is that we should all be a little nicer to one another.

[00:29:37] It's

[00:29:39] Bob Gatty: Isn't that the truth though?

[00:29:42] ciahnan: I think it is the truth. Yeah. I think you're a hundred percent right. It's just we find, go ahead.

[00:29:49] Bob Gatty: I just don't know why people have to be so , why they have to be bullies. 

[00:29:57] I, live here in, in, the heart of a really red state, South Carolina, and sometimes I'm just driving and I feel bullied by the locals in their huge pickup trucks with their Ja Gundo Trump flags hanging from the back and they cut in front of you and they just try to of course I, I, have a Biden sticker on the back of my car, so maybe that's one reason.

[00:30:30] ciahnan: Yeah, 

[00:30:31] probably, 

[00:30:31] Bob Gatty: Yeah. But nevertheless I just hate the the feeling of being bullied and I get that. I ride my bike down the street. There's a guy couple blocks from me who has a huge he always has a protest flag of one kind or another. It changes every week. He's got, he must have a collection of dozens of these things.

[00:31:04] One of 'em of course says has a picture of his AR 15. Come and get it. The message says another one is the don't tread on me thing. And the day that Trump lost the election, he put his American flag and half staff on his porch, which stayed that way for about a month, which I thought was aplpropriate..

[00:31:35] Anyway I keep wanting to stop and raise hell with a guy, but then I don't want to get my face kicked in so I don't do it.

[00:31:42] ciahnan: No yeah it, just, the number of times you've heard people decry Obama for trying to take their guns and then you're like, I just went through his. All the policies in the legislation that he suggested and that wasn't anywhere in there. But it doesn't,

[00:32:04] It doesn't

[00:32:04] it doesn't seem to dissuade them. Now at the risk of sounding I'm not just leaning liberal, but like sprinting that way. I do think that when you have a, system that's as big as ours, and that's been going for as long as our country has, you need to think not just in terms of individual actors and the jerks like Trump and all the bad they do, but the things, the practices that are perpetuated our institutions that deformed society.

[00:32:36] And I want to say that capitalism, and I know, oh, I sounded like a communist, now I'm not. But I sounded like one capitalism has taught us, or at least the form that we practice, anything and everything is acceptable in the name of profit.. And so what that does it creates an antagonistic relationship, between the various people who are striving to acquire more money, more resources and whatnot. And I think when you see, absolute polarization of our society, the vehement, the vitriol think you have to look at. The way in which we live and see if maybe some of the things we tell ourselves the most aren't bringing out behaviors. And this is where I think an author in fiction can really help. because an author doesn't have to say capitalism is bad. He can just show that somebody who says family is the most important thing in the world is working 80 hours. To try and make partner or whatnot we're, actively doing things that run counter to the values we express ourselves. I don't think it's possible to live a lie like that, to live in that sort of and force being caught between that without changing us and dictating our behavior.

[00:34:06] Yeah I, just I, think that kindness isn't just a cutsie word, but that it actually takes us directly to some of the institutions and dynamics in our country that, that are causing us to be unkind and frankly destructive.

[00:34:22] Bob Gatty: Well folks, this has been Ciahnan Darrell, author of the new book, Blood at the Root that we've been talking to today, and I appreciate Ciahnan, you being with us. It's been an interesting conversation, I think, and I hope that you guys enjoyed it. Thanks, Ciahnan.

[00:34:43] ciahnan: Thanks a lot, Bob.

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