California Authors

 
 

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Susan Straight
by Janice Albert

In his recent Frontline program, “Jefferson’s Blood, “ Shelby Steele documents the strain among the descendants of Thomas Jefferson, now acknowledged to have fathered children not only with his wife Martha but with her half-sister Sally Hemings, a slave. “They will have to choose family over race,” Steele asserts. Family or race?—The choice of family acknowledges the relatedness of descendants from both African American and European stock, mixed-race children who represent a continuum—one-eighth of this, seven eighths of that; half and half; one one-sixteenth, one thirty second. The choice of race lets people fall into one of two categories, Black or White—our over-simplified social solution.

Californians at the western end of the continent have not been able to escape America’s complex, historically-rooted dialogue on race. Now, as ever, voices of reason, of compassion, of understanding are needed. In this column, I have written about the work of Anna Deavere Smith, whose theater piece, “Twilight: Los Angeles 1992” sheds light on the Los Angeles Riots of that year.  A second writer with whom California teachers should be familiar is Susan Straight.

Straight’s published work consists of a collection of short stories, Aquaboogie, for which she won the Milkweed National Fiction Prize, as well as three novels, The Gettin’ Place, I Been in Sorrow’s Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots, and Blacker Than a Thousand Midnights. She is a writer for Salon, the online magazine, and her essays on motherhood appear in the best-selling collection Mothers Who Think. Just forty years old, she is a native of Riverside, California, and the mother of three girls whose heritage is “part African, part Creek and Cherokee, part Irish, part French, part Swiss.” In her essay, “The Story of Your Grandmothers” (Salon, March 22, 2000), Straight writes to her four-year-old daughter of the remarkable inheritance she manifests already—a love of grandmothers she has never known, and a talent for growing things.

In her novels, Straight draws from the stories of African Americans living in Southern California and South Carolina, as well as Tulsa, Oklahoma. Through the stories of two generations of Southern Californians, her novel The Gettin’ Place links the Tulsa Riots of 1921 with the L.A. riots of 1992. (For nonfiction background, consult the website www.CNN.Com “Tulsa panel seeks truth from 1921 race riot,” August 3, 1999.) A chapter long suppressed in American history texts, the Tulsa Riots, which destroyed the prosperous Greenwood district of Tulsa, have been kept alive in the oral histories of African American families  “A world I never knew, until now” is Doris Grumbach’s acknowledgment of Straight’s work in the Los Angeles Times Book Review section. And for many white readers, “a world I never knew, until now” summarizes the stories, the characters, the situations Straight brings to life in the pages of her fiction.

As a young woman growing up in Riverside, Straight received encouragement for her writing from a teacher at Riverside Community College. She went on to earn a scholarship to the University of Southern California and in 1984 earned her M.F.A. from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. For her entry in Contemporary Authors, Straight reported, “I still live down the street from the hospital where my whole family was born. We have relatives living in the hundreds nearby. Even when I went away to college, I was always homesick, and I always wrote about my community.” Asked by a reporter for the Riverside Press-Enterprise to describe her motivation, Straight expressed her hope that stories like “Safe Hooptie” in Aquaboogie might give police officers or future police officers the understanding of what it’s like to  have your neighborhood under siege.

As a writer of talent, Susan Straight is graced with the desire to change the way people think, to foster empathy, and to correct misunderstanding. At a time when it is badly needed, Straight reminds Californians that the choice is also ours—to choose race or to choose family.

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