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My dad sent me Trouble the Water to distract me from the final pre-election campaigning. I appreciate that, and it worked. I finished it yesterday after work, as I was waiting for results. It’s a historical novel about Robert Smalls, an enslaved man who bravely sailed a steamboat that had become a Confederate war boat out of Charleston harbor and turned it over to the Union, protested segregated public transportation during the Civil War in Philadelphia, and later went on to be a five term Congressional representative for South Carolina. In Congress, Smalls fought for Black equity in the post-war South, although he was ultimately defeated in an election which featured voter intimidation by white supremacists.

His story is well worth telling. However, I found several things about Trouble the Water difficult, in light of my recent antiracism training. First, I don’t feel entirely good about a white woman writing slaves’ experience, including writing their dialogue in dialect. I know it’s common; that doesn’t make it right. Slaveowner McKee and his wife are portrayed as benevolent people, who even though they see slaves as inferior, view Robert and his mother Lydia as family. In the author’s note, Bruff makes clear that this is mostly speculative; while there is some evidence that Robert Smalls took in Mrs. McKee in her old age, there is no evidence that Mr. McKee called him “son.” And even if he did, the implication is that Robert Smalls excelled because of the benevolence of the powerful white family that enslaved him.

Also, while Bruff tells the story from the perspective of both whites and blacks, and portrays some white slaveowners as brutal, she creates a subplot about Robert Smalls and a fictional son, Peter, of the real life secessionist Robert Barnwell Rhett as a rivalry that is really more about Peter’s anger at his father than about white supremacy. In real life, if Robert Smalls had broken a secessionist planter’s arm, he would have probably have been killed. Robert Barnwell Rhett was known as the “father of secession” and it is highly unlikely that he would have tolerated a slave breaking his son’s arm.

Do I think some white people in the South may have changed their views about slavery after the Civil War? Perhaps. Do I think the story of fictional Peter Rhett “personifies the possibility of redemptive transformation in the Old South” as Bruff explains in her author’s note? Absolutely not. Even if that part of the book was believable — that an individual raised to see Blacks as inhuman and the Confederacy as worth dying for could actually just be mad at his mean old daddy — former slaveholders didn’t just mellow and stop being racist. Everything about the Reconstruction era after the Union troops left the south, and all that followed affirms that. White supremacy culture rages on, as evidenced by the fact that white gerrymandering has gripped South Carolina since the late 1880s, and returned the white supremacy apologist Lindsay Graham to office just this week.

Might I have felt differently about this book a few months ago? Probably. But as Layla Saad, author of Me and White Supremacy, tells readers who make it to day 28 of her book, “You can’t unsee and unknow what you now see and know.” And one of those things I now see and know is that white people have a history speaking for and about Black people. Especially the Black people we white people see as “good,” like Robert Smalls.

Did the author of Trouble the Water mean well? Probably so — she seems genuinely admiring of Smalls and disappointed that his story has been “suppressed.” She used her considerable privilege to get his story out. She spoke with and acknowledges the generosity of Smalls’ great-great grandson, Michael Boulware Moore. But as I read I could not shake the sense that Robert Smalls was once again enslaved, this time to the viewpoint of a “nice white lady,”* who in fictionalizing his life, elevated the perspectives of white people in order to try and present his.

*Nice White Ladies is the title of a forthcoming book by Jessie Daniels

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