African American History - Greensboro, North Carolina Searching for Cool, Praying for Heat

Searching for Cool, Praying for Heat is Published!

My new novel, Searching for Cool, Praying for Heat, takes place in a Southern textile mill town in 1960-61, an interesting, if not pivotal, time in terms of American Civil Rights and the struggle to end segregation and curb white supremacy.

It’s interesting that Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, came out in 1960, and I mention this fact in my novel. My main character’s father mentions Lee’s book in a dinner conversation. [The movie version with Gregory Peck didn’t appear until 1962.] More about this in a moment…

Searching for Cool, Praying for Heat, Jon Michael Riley

In April and May, when I was in final revisions of Searching for Cool, Praying for Heat, I worried the subject matter—race relations, Klan activity and right-wing race-based mayhem—might be outdated and of little interest to a wide audience. Not quite a year before, the Ferguson police shooting of an unarmed African-American young man occurred, soon followed by repeat behavior all over the United States. Little did I know how many more shootings and killings of African-Americans there would be.

After finalizing the edits, I struggled with how the cover should look. Should I or should I not use the Confederate Battle Flag as a visual element? Then two obscene race shootings in Charleston, SC, occurred and it became clear that using that contentious flag was something very germane to my story. It is a visual symbol of a particular Southern attitude.

Shortly after we got the first test print of the book, the South Carolina legislature—the whole state and much of the entire South—was embroiled in controversy as to whether “that flag” should continue to fly at the State Capital in Columbia. That debate was viewed globally with great consternation, particularly in the EU. In my opinion, only white Southerners could invent such tortured logic to “maintain the sanctity” of a flag that for over 150 years represented, and still represents, apartheid and white supremacy.

Go Set a Watchman Now back to Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman, her new landmark novel set two decades after her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.

That it has just been published is…well, let me quote one of my favorite writers, Vicki Lane, in her latest blog post:

“One would have to have been on a desert island or locked away from all media not to have been aware of the rumor of, announcement of discovery of, forthcoming publication of, publication of, and ensuing reaction to Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, the book she wrote before the beloved classic To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Vicki Lane’s blog addresses the tendency (perhaps even tenacity) of older Southerners to hold onto the “the old ways,” and is an elegant reminder of why, for instance, racism is still going strong here in the United States, particularly in the Southeastern states where I now live and where I was during my high school years.

Vicki Lane says it better: “In 1960 when To Kill A Mockingbird was published, it allowed white readers to feel good about themselves, to identify with Atticus in standing up for the underdog. (THE HELP did the same.) But WATCHMAN doesn’t produce that same good feeling — at best, it’s a wary accommodation of the changes in society. The white folks of WATCHMAN have gone from benevolent in their care of the ‘good coloreds’ to uneasy and suspicious of them all.”  Thank you Vicki Lane for this!

To Kill a MockingbirdAt a recent potluck dinner with a couple in their 60’s who had been brought up in Eastern North Carolina, the husband told of going through all his schooling without encountering one African-American student. This is not surprising, of course, but it was the way he said it that got my attention. He had not one ounce of regret, or shame, or even consternation that that was the world he had inhabited. It was a simple fact of life to him.

In my case, I also attended totally segregated schools—this was the world we lived in—but I can’t begin to be blasé about it. It was shameful to have lived through and to have participated in and I was fortunate to have parents who voiced their displeasure about an entire population of Americans who had been disenfranchised and made into less than second-class citizens.

My parents are at the center of the story of Searching for Cool, Praying for Heat.

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