Authors often put a little bit of themselves into their characters. And Patricia A. Jackson is not different in her novel Forging a Nightmare. But what parts and into which character and why… therein, folks, is the Big Idea.
PATRICIA A. JACKSON:
As a Black woman I carry my own unique baggage. Even as I write this essay, I’m bristling—worried about readers’ reactions to this post. I’m usually braced for the worst in people, all while trying to keep that stiff upper lip and smile. Well, my face hurts.
Black people (and Black characters) are expected to react to situations the way White people do. Newsflash: we don’t! Reacting often gets us arrested, beaten, or killed. And when we don’t react, we’re not human enough, not educated enough, or worse, we’re hiding something.
Being Black in the United States of America is akin to living in a perpetual state of PTSD. A lack of representation in film, literature, and other media only exacerbates my feelings of self-loathing, restlessness, blame, and isolation. My experiences watching TV and reading books is that the perspective of Black people has been callously denied or suppressed. When institutions double down on this exclusion, it becomes a subtle, but pervasive kind of racism.
Still here, dear reader? Good, because I need to tell you I don’t want to be part of a master race. I don’t want to be superior. I just want to be included.
My father was born in 1934 in Alabama. The ghosts he saw in his yard were real. Evil men in white sheets and white hoods with evil agendas who burned crosses. Tattooed by the trauma of the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow, he tried to escape by joining the military and fell victim to another form of institutional racism. He became angry, bitter, but unbowed, and when I came into the world… fiercely protective.
For our survival, we lived in enemy territory: all-White neighborhoods. I went to a private, mostly White school and rode show horses in a sport where very few people looked like me. Though it was never his intention, my father could not have White-washed me anymore than the society in which we lived. As a result, I never learned to be comfortable in my skin.
I wrote my first novel when I was eight. My early protagonists came to me blond-haired and blue-eyed with flawless white skin. That is what I had been taught to believe was beautiful. If there was a person of color, I glossed over the description. My father had taught me it was never a good idea to call attention to myself—to my Blackness. It wasn’t safe.
“And lo, a black horse…”
Enter a Nightmare. Anaba Raines was the first character that came to me as I pondered writing Forging a Nightmare. She was unapologetically Black and unabashedly fierce. I wear my hair in dreadlocks because of her. An unrelenting, badass Marine, she was a spirited warrior, who spoke her mind (even to me) and used her fists for punctuation. I had difficulty finding a ‘leading man’ strong enough to withstand her brutal candor.
Black women get a bad rap. We’re too loud, too opinionated, too outspoken. But no one talks about how fiercely we love, how unconditionally we commit, how loyally we cling to traditions of family. The Marine Corps didn’t teach Anaba how to be faithful. It was written into her genes from generations of stoic matriarchs who stood their ground in the Antebellum South, and well after its fall, so that their progeny would thrive.
But Forging a Nightmare was not Anaba’s story to tell. A fact that pissed her off. She was already comfortable in her skin. Her co-star, the main protagonist, Michael Childs was… not. If characters are born from a sliver of their creator’s essence, Michael was me, masquerading as something he was not meant to be. White. So, I fed him (and that part of myself) to the fury of a Nightmare, and Anaba took us to Hell and back again. Literally.
Michael Childs is a reflection of my awkward struggle to relate to a world that was unaccepting of me, even hostile at times. As if my Blackness was a tragic flaw. The immortal James Baldwin said, “You have to decide who you are and force the world to deal with you, not with its idea of you.” Michael’s journey to accept himself became my quest to embrace my identity and project that image into the world, regardless of who liked or disliked it.
Reeling in my Black characters from the supporting ensemble, I set them center stage in the main roles, not as token heroes. I cast them as archangels, movers and shakers, making it evident that the diversity we deny on earth exists among the divine. I was forced to be comfortable in their skins, accepting of their Blackness. To define their purpose, I had to redefine who I was and how the world perceived me.
This journey has been a perilous one. I have stumbled, fallen, cried, and scratched desperately to crawl back under a rock, but Anaba would not let me. Through her and Michael, I learned to love myself and to be unrepentantly comfortable in my skin. The specters of a regrettable era in history and the ghost of this new one seek to psychologically lynch me to keep me silent. They will fail. Thanks to the antics of one wily, spirited Nightmare—Anaba. Thanks, gunny! For everything.