The Real Mystery in “Heaven, My Home” Is How to Survive in a Racist Society
Attica Locke's latest crime novel wrestles with innocence and forgiveness
Texas is a state known for many things: Beyoncè, The Alamo, South by Southwest. But these big city exports are only a small part of Texas charm. Attica Locke displays her small-town East Texan roots in Heaven, My Home, the followup to her acclaimed Bluebird, Bluebird.
The book focuses on African-American Texas Ranger Darren Matthews in rural Hopetown, East Texas, where a 9-year-old white boy, Levi King, has gone missing. Levi’s father is an Aryan Brotherhood of Texas member, and the tensions between white, Native, and Black Hopetown residents rise as Darren races against the clock to find out where Levi is and who’s responsible. Through Detective Matthews, we can see that although Hopetown isn’t a picture of racial harmony, Black folks deserve to make wherever they live a welcome place.
Attica Locke is a multi-award winning author and one of the few Black women recognized in mystery today. From the Edgar Award to the Harper Lee Prize to the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary excellence, she continues to ask big questions about race and the color line in America. I spoke with Locke about the magic and mastery behind weaving mystery into contemporary plots and how Heaven, My Home interrogates our understanding of forgiveness.
Maya Davis: How are you able to sow clues throughout Heaven, My Home? In the end I thought, “Oh, right here that was a clue.” But while a person is reading, the clues were right under the surface, so you don’t realize what’s unfolding.
Attica Locke: Practice! I learned how to do that by practice. When I pitched this series I called it “tightly coiled rural noir” so I want my books to be slim and packed. I don’t want them to be 350 pages. I find it in the writing and it looks like I did it so seamlessly but the truth is I go back in and lay in those Easter eggs. Sometimes they’re there for you as you’re writing, you know you’re leaving a clue. But other times you go back and make sure to find the right place to put it in so that it doesn’t tip anything off, but it’s memorable. It can’t be so buried that people are going “What? That came out of nowhere.”
MD: The question that I asked while I was reading was: Who is innocent and who is deserving of presumed innocence? On one hand we have Levi King who is a child, which society deems the most innocent of us. But he’s being raised in this cauldron of white supremacists and negative influences. And I thought about Rosemary King who pleads for her own innocence in saying that she had no role in raising her son, Bill [Levi’s father], to be a racist.
AL: I think over the course of the book, your feelings about some of them might change. Levi’s presented as kind of the innocent kid. And then you find, “Oh you’ve been burning shit down and writing n***** on stuff, wait a minute.” Ultimately you kind of come back around to: maybe there’s a way out for him and there really is an innocent soul somewhere in there that can be saved. In terms of Darren Matthews, there’s the confusion of: How do I mete out justice when half the time I can’t figure out who the bad guys are? Like how do I do this job? I’m making assumptions that I’m correcting justice by making sure that Mack is taken care of. I think all of those shifting sands provide a metaphorical look into what he’s struggling with in terms of who’s guilty. If you shoot somebody because they came onto your property and they’re a white supremacist, is that okay or not okay?
It’s interesting when you talk about innocence, the thing that was so deeply in my mind was the issue of forgiveness. Is it safe or smart to forgive? I think there’s a line about that. Maybe it’s something like: Does forgiveness make Black folks saints or stooges? There’s a sense of psychological freedom within forgiveness. That you can free yourself from some of this pain if you can forgive and move on. There’s also a point at which—how can you forgive and move on if the injury is still recurring? How do you ever get past it? Everything that I’ve seen in the course of my life has been a trajectory toward what Dr. King said with everything bending toward justice. My parents marched. My grandparents fought. And here comes Trump now and I’m like: What just happened? And the feeling was one of “You know what? White folks, I was this close to forgiving y’all. We’re not gonna forget our history, we’re not gonna forget what you did. But I am willing to take the election of Barack Obama as a start toward something else.” And then that got ripped from under us and the betrayal I felt was profound. When Trump is gone: How do I live with my fellow citizens? How do I do this? Because I feel like I don’t know how to look into your eyes and know that you were okay with the breadth of racial violence that was being suggested and perpetrated as long as you had an economy you could live with. How do I go to church with you? How do I stand in line at the grocery store behind you? So I was really caught up in that and really trying to figure it all out.
MD: One of the characters in Heaven, My Home says, “Black people are the most forgiving people on earth.” For me, forgiveness and justice are somewhat like siblings. Oftentimes I wonder is it possible to forgive someone and still seek justice? Is forgiveness part of justice? Those kinds of questions were rattling around in my head because, Darren is trying so hard to figure out who’s innocent and who’s not, who’s deserving and who’s not. Part of forgiveness to me is trust. Once that trust is broken it’s really hard to seek forgiveness for someone. And it’s also hard to see where justice is. Because trust is a part of honesty, and justice is dependent on honesty as well. Are these questions you wanted your readers to be wrestling with?
AL: It took me after I finished the book to realize there was something that happened in my children’s life that had an impact on this. We live in Southern California. My daughter goes to a very progressive school with parents who have these values and education. We’re talking about a school where they do health and sex ed, they talk about what pronouns people want to be called by. A couple years back, one white kid at school called a Black kid the n-word. And I was stunned, stunned, because I had been lulled into my California dream. After it happened I had such rage at that kid. Like fuck that kid. Fuck his family, I can’t stand them. Whereas my daughter, she had the capacity to forgive him. She said, “Mommy, I feel sorry for him.” But she was not holding this thing that happened against this child, she could recognize something was going on in the home. So this whole thing of what to do with Levi King, that’s where it came from.
I remember the day of Trump’s inauguration, there was a school event that day. I remember I sat down, and I looked behind me and there was a mom with a Black child and I just burst into tears. That kid who used the n-word, he was there and his parents were there and between that and Trump being inaugurated, I thought about the times I was called the n-word and shot with a BB gun. I was like, I don’t have the luxury of forgiving that kid. It means something different. But also, does he really know? I was just so thrown that my child had a bigger and greater forgiving heart than I did as an adult. We probably had dinner table discussions about this incident 20 times. Twenty times. Because I was ashamed of myself that I was holding a child to a standard of behavior of an adult. All this stuff was stirring in me when thinking about a child and whether or not you lean into this optimism and hope that the child can be saved. Or that we can stop manufacturing white supremacists and terrorists, that there’s a way to stop this cycle.
MD: When I read about Levi King, I wasn’t mad at him. My rage was more towards Rosemary who was saying, “I didn’t raise a racist. I don’t know how he got that way.” I cannot muster forgiveness for that sort of criminal unawareness. Look at the seed that sprouted and grew from her raising that child. This is going to be an eternal question for so many people. The way Heaven, My Home presents it has so many sides. It’s not just this Good Black Ranger [Darren] and then this backwards trailer park white people. You’ve got him, you’ve got the voices of his elders, William and Clayton, in his head. You’ve got the DA, you’ve got his boss, you’ve got his best friend Greg. I love that there are so many voices in the conversation because that’s how it is in real life.
AL: Thank you for that. Thank you. I appreciate it.
MD: In the book you mention Lightning Hopkins, Betty Wright, and Jessie Mae Hemphill. Given the rising star du jour, Lil Nas X, and Megan Thee Stallion, who is from Texas, there’s this wave of what Black, I guess Gen Z and Millennials, are calling the Yee-Haw Agenda. What do you think of this embracing of Black Country music, Black Country artists, and Black folks from this region of the country?
AL: I love it. I’m probably too old to listen to Lil Nas X all the time. But god bless him. I love everything that he’s doing. I’ve listened to Black country music since Charlie Pride, who is the OG of it all. Blues and Country are fraternal twins. They are of the same cloth. One wouldn’t exist without the other. A lot of country came from Blues. Which came from Africa. That’s ours too. I’m all into people reclaiming that. One hundred percent.
MD: I love all these people bringing out their cowboy hats and showing their pictures from the rodeo. It’s fascinating to me as someone who grew up outside of that environment. I truly love seeing all of my Southern, my Western friends, enjoying the moment.
AL: I get you. It’s only late in life that I’ve become this, but I wear cowboy boots every day. Mainly because it reminds me of home, it makes me feel grounded in who I am. There was a time I would’ve felt a little embarrassed that I liked country music. It would’ve felt so white or whatever. And also there are new country artists coming out now. Country was real existential and deep and interesting in the 60s and a little bit into the 70s. And then a lot of 80s, 90s, 2000s country, other than a few artists, became more about drinking beers and the flag and also dog whistles in ways to “real America.” There are a lot of newer artists coming up with the existential, the questions that blues and country music have that other genres don’t. Pop and rock don’t sit down on the front porch and contemplate life the way that country does. There are artists that are doing that again on the country side.