In November 2018, I published my first novel, a murder mystery entitled The Man Who Fell From the Sky. In the years that led up to its publication, I would frequently encounter some interesting responses from friends on the Left when I mentioned that I was writing a novel. As I regularly note, the responses fell into three general categories.
The first category was one of sincere excitement and support. Usually mixed with some surprise, this group was very encouraging.
The second category was made up of those who accepted politely, and with little interest, that I was writing a novel. They might have found it a bit strange since my writing is overwhelmingly non-fiction and additionally, I am a very busy activist.
The third category was made up of those who thought that the idea was nothing short of absurd, but rather than say that, they offered broad and very false smiles, feigning excitement and interest. In some cases, they would offer ‘humorous’ sarcastic comments suggesting that I must have a lot of time on my hands that I would write a piece of fiction when the world is in crisis.
Telling a story
The Man Who Fell From the Sky takes place in 1970 in a part of Massachusetts (USA) called Cape Cod. It begins with the murder of a white construction contractor; shot and killed with a high-powered, silenced rifle. A Cape Verdean American journalist and his friend, an Italian American police officer, begin an investigation into this murder. The story takes you into the experience of the Cape Verdean American, and raises issues of the line between justice and revenge.
That’s the gist of the story. There is obviously a lot more to be said about it. But the first thing to understand is that I believed that I had a story to tell. This is the key thing that I have discovered in writing a novel. I had a story; not just that there was a story. And it was through this story that I wanted to make a series of political points by using a format different from that used in non-fiction.
Not only did I have a story to tell, but I thought that there was/is a possibility that through the use of fiction, I might be able to reach individuals who would otherwise have little interest in, or might even be intimidated by, some of the issues that I was seeking to raise.
In this case, the central character of the book is technically a journalist named David Gomes, but the actual central character is the Cape Verdean American community. This is where matters get interesting.
Cape Verdean Americans
Discussing “race” and “racism” in the USA gets complicated if/when one assumes that race refers to a binary between people who are the descendants of slaves brought to these shores—so-called Blacks—and those who are the descendants of settlers—so-called whites. For years this framing of race in the USA excluded the larger question of racist and national oppression in the USA and the implications for the First Nations (Native Americans/Indians), Puerto Ricans, Chicanos/Mexicanos, and most pre-1965 Asian immigrants and their descendants. Unfortunately, this has led even some U.S. African Americans to discount the racist and nationally oppressive experience of people other than U.S. African Americans.
Thus, enters the Cape Verdean. Arriving in the 19th century from the Cape Verde archipelago, they were the first post-1492 Africans to come to the USA voluntarily. They came, originally, as whalers and fisherman, ultimately settling largely in the New England region. They did not come as slaves; they spoke Portuguese and Kriollo; they were mainly Catholic; and they were former subjects of Portuguese colonialism. Upon landing in the USA they encountered two other populations of African descent, the first being those who were brought here as forced labor—be it either indentured servitude or, overwhelmingly and ultimately, as slaves—and those who migrated from the Caribbean, where their ancestors had largely been slaves.
The encounter would have been dramatic and complicated under any circumstances but the fact of the difference between the manner in which Portuguese white supremacy operated compared with that utilized by the British and their descendants in North America, complicated matters immensely. Portuguese white supremacy, as with Spanish, created a byzantine racial pyramid in which “white” was largely reserved for those directly descending from Europe, while a myriad of categories existed for those with varying degrees of African and Indigenous blood.
Cape Verdeans were right in the middle of this vortex. While some were assimilated into the larger “Black America,” others kept Black America at arm’s length insisting that they—being Cape Verdeans—were not Negro, Colored, Afro-American, Black, etc., but that they were Portuguese; in some cases “colored Portuguese”; and other cases, just Cape Verdean…but not Black.
The contradictions inherent in race and its utility as an instrument of both oppression and social control comes through in examining the Cape Verdean American experience, but especially how the consciousness and identity of the population shifted in the context of both the Cape Verdean/Guinea-Bissau war of national liberation against Portugal, and the increasing radical awareness of the Black Freedom Movement in the 1960s.
Yes, I could have written about all of this via non-fiction, but why? Why not grab the attention of readers who may not be looking at this issue but, through fiction, are offered a surprise?
Working through issues
There was another story, or more appropriately, issue with which I needed to grapple: what is the line between justice and revenge? At what point does the justifiable anger of someone(s) regarding a terrible crime morph from a search for justice, to a quest for revenge?
It is this that I felt most comfortable addressing through fiction, less in order to present an answer or a formal conclusion, and more to place before the reader something for their consideration, to borrow from the language of the great science fiction writer Rod Serling.
I did not seek to wrap up the story with a little bow. I did not want to make it easy for the reader. I wanted the readers to reflect. But I also wanted the readers to ponder a question that goes way beyond a focus on a few individuals: at what point does silence become complicity? Further, can someone ever make up for a crime by simply becoming a better person and ‘doing good,’ but never taking any steps to repair the damage?
Take a look at the book (published by Hardball Press), when you have a moment. I’d be interested in your feedback.
Bill Fletcher Jr has been an activist since his teen years. Upon graduating from college he went to work as a welder in a shipyard, thereby entering the labor movement. Over the years he has been active in workplace and community struggles as well as electoral campaigns. He has worked for several labor unions in addition to serving as a senior staff-person in the national AFL-CIO. Fletcher is the former president of TransAfrica Forum; a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies; an editorial board member of BlackCommentator.com; and in the leadership of several other projects. Fletcher is the co-author (with Peter Agard) of “The Indispensable Ally: Black Workers and the Formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, 1934-1941”; the co-author (with Dr. Fernando Gapasin) of “Solidarity Divided: The crisis in organized labor and a new path toward social justice“; and the author of “‘They’re Bankrupting Us’ – And Twenty other myths about unions.” Fletcher is a syndicated columnist and a regular media commentator on television, radio and the Web.