"When I got to Milwaukee in 1991, I was very puzzled, and I remained puzzled about why Milwaukee is the way it is," said writer Jennifer Morales, referring to the intense segregation that marks her adopted hometown.
Segregation became the theme of Meet Me Halfway, her debut short-story collection. Morales, an out lesbian and Chicago-area transplant who became deeply invested in the community as the first Latino elected to Milwaukee's school board, has felt the racial tension herself.
"I had to find my team racially, because I'm a Mexican Irish Filipina, which, in Chicago, is not that uncommon a mix," she said. "But when I got to Milwaukee, people didn't know what to do with me because the racial divisions were so severe. I felt a lot of pressure to fit some category, which I didn't."
Her time spent with Milwaukee's people, especially its youth, helped keep her book's cast diverse and well-drawn. Meet Me Halfway focuses on Johnquell Braxton, a Black teenager whose white Polish neighbor asks him to help her move her bookcase. It's an act that costs him his life when he falls down the stairs and breaks his neck. This inciting event spurred Morales' creative process when she returned from an intensive writing program in Los Angeles.
"I was lying on the couch, totally drained of all words and I was looking up at a bookcase in my living room, and it was leaning, and I thought, 'Wow, somebody should really do something about that.' I had this instant image of this white, elderly woman asking her black teenage neighbor to help her move a bookcase. And I stood up, grabbed my computer, and wrote the first half of the first story."
Anyone who knew Johnquell becomes a story, and their linkage forms a greater narrative. Although the book is grounded in one city, Morales's research was an odyssey through time and space. She watched French documentaries about the Black Panther party to give Johnquell's activist grandparents a convincing background, and studied a riot in a Vietnam jail for a paper Johnquell writes in history class.
A guiding focus, Morales said, was how people of different races hear each other or don't hear each other. "Many times I've observed situations in Milwaukee where, let's say, an older African-American man and an older white man are talking to each other, and the white man will pretend like he doesn't understand what the older African-American man is saying," she told Windy City Times. "And I can see in his eyes that he knows exactly what the African-American man is saying, but it's important to him and his sense of power and control over the neighborhood that he not understand what this Black man is saying to him, and make him repeat it multiple times. And make him walk away. I've seen it many, many times, that people don't hear across that color line. That's fascinating to me, and I really wanted to show that on paper through my fiction, because the dynamic is so powerful. It changes the direction of people's days, it changes the direction of people's lives."
Meet Me Halfway's white characters often have starkly contrasting responses to their African-American neighbors. Mrs. Czernicki, who doesn't know Johnquell's family prior to recruiting his help, ends up keeping an eye on his little sisters while his mom stays with him in the hospital. "This sense of basic decency, 'we take care of people who are having a hard time', overrides her own fear," Morales noted. "Not everyone can get their basic decency to the front when they're afraid."
Meanwhile, a substitute history teacher, Stu Reid, belittles Johnquell's essay about the Long Bihn prison riots by comparing it with his own Vietnam experience. He never breaks out of his privilege even in the face of Johnquell's death, handing Johnquell's mother the harshly graded essay at her son's funeral. For Morales, he was the hardest character to write.
"I initially was not going to give him a story," Morales said. "Then I thought, 'No, if you're really serious about wanting to hear about how people don't hear each other. You need to write a story from his perspective as well and it was really uncomfortable.' He represents for me the inability to hear people they have power over. He doesn't ever hear anyone but himself. It's mind-boggling, but a lot of white folks don't see that Black people are people, and that's a hard thing for me to write and a hard thing for us to face up to as a culture."
Augmenting the book's release is Morales's tour of the 10 most segregated cities in the United States, including Chicago on April 18-19. She hopes to have her book start conversations in the places she visits, and wants to explore the interracial dialogues in new cities.
Jennifer Morales will appear at Powell's University Village, 216 S. Halsted St., on April 18 at 4 p.m. She will appear April 19 at 2 p.m. at 57th Street Books, 1301 E. 57th St.
See www.MoralesWrites.com .