UPDATE: The winner is…Pat!
“You don’t yell at a sleepwalker. He may fall and break his neck” is probably one of my favorite lines from Billy Wilder’s classic film, Sunset Boulevard. The main character Joe Gillis makes this observation of Norma Desmond, a faded silent screen star who has built a false reality about her circumstances. She believes she’s still famous and desired when the truth is she has been forgotten. I like this line because it poses me with a challenge: what do you do when you come up against a worldview that ignores reality? Joe lets Norma keep sleepwalking/living her lie. He doesn’t yell to wake her up until the end of the movie, but by then it’s too late.
I’m reviewing a historical fiction that depicts life in Atlanta, Georgia in the 1880s. The author brings in characters and storylines you don’t normally see in mainstream historical fiction: Jews as major characters, the mixed-race heritage reality of Southern society (look how long it took historians to own up to Thomas Jefferson fathering children by Sally Hemmings), and a historic African-American event. I applauded the story until I got to the last scene. The ending, while deservedly triumphal, rang hollow to me. Why? Because historically for every step forward in the African American struggle for equality there are always two steps back. Ending as it does the story gives the sleepwalker/feel-good impression that right always triumphs. To the author’s credit, she shares the actual facts of the strike at the back of the book. My review will encourage readers to read that timeline first. Another fictional account dealing with the same historical event shared how the larger society made sure that win was never a gain, but still ended hopefully by embracing the truth expressed by the late John Lewis: “Our struggle is not the struggle of a day or a week, a month or a year. It is the struggle of a lifetime.”
Are there times when you have to risk the sleepwalker breaking their neck? Yes. When sleepwalking reinforces stereotypes. In 1943’s Casablanca Ilsa Lund asks, “Who is the boy playing the piano?” She’s asking about Sam, a Black adult. How does someone supposedly from Eastern Europe know to call a Black man a boy? I’ve yet to find one review or commentary of Casablanca that notes this sleepwalker slight, i.e., it’s right and normal to call Black men boys. The Big Band hit, “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” written in 1941, displays the same attitude. Black men working as railroad porters were called boy. Many of these men were highly educated. None of them were boys.
As a historical romance writer, I’m grateful for folk who have yelled me awake when I’ve written something, albeit historically accurate, that reinforces disparaging or belittling sleepwalker attitudes. As a member of the human race, I’m thankful for groups like the NAACP and the ACLU that have been yelling people awake for years.
For a chance at a $10 Amazon gift card, answer this question: at the risk of a broken neck, if you’re sleepwalking would you want someone to yell and wake you up?
“Who Can Find A Virtuous Woman” featured in Falling Hard: A Passionate Ink erotic romance anthology
Losing her virginity is free-born Eve Richardson’s only hope of escape from marriage to an insufferable fundamentalist preacher. In need of a knight in shining armor, she finds a potential candidate in straightlaced Madison Dugger, the first of his family born outside of slavery. Madison does find Eve desirable and has wanted her for as long as he’s known her. But classism and internalized racism are barriers to love he finds unscalable so he balks at Eve’s request. Can she overcome his objections in time to enlist his aid in her deflowering, saving her from a life as a virtuous woman?
Excerpt from “Who Can Find A Virtuous Woman”
Reflecting on Mr. Richardson’s prejudices had put Madison in mind of a prejudice of his own. He never thought light-skinned girls were informed or intelligent enough to be attractive. Eve forced a reevaluation of his low opinion. She impressed him as she rattled off names, dates, and facts at the Bible study. She neither bragged about what she knew nor backed away if challenged. Her tone was self-possessed and forward-looking, as if her own name would make some fact and date famous. Or infamous.
He had liked that. Her directness challenged his society-approval-seeking ways. In her, he recognized an adventurous spirit akin to the one he kept hidden. He imagined himself as a couple with her. With her as his mate, he would be a bolder advocate for people of color. But given what had happened to Eve’s brother, Mr. Richardson might not want a firebrand for his daughter.
The early evening air had contained the warmth of the season. The nature of ice cream being what it was—well, accidents were bound to happen. Eve had seemed particularly accident-prone last night. A bit of caramel pumpkin ice cream had dribbled at the corner of her mouth. To capture it, her pretty pink tongue had lavished long, slow licks across her ripe curvy lips. Those long, slow licks had telegraphed a message to the pulsing bulge between his legs.
She’d unbuttoned the top three buttons of her blouse and fanned herself languidly. “My but it’s hot for Indian summer.” As her chest swelled upward, unrestrained thanks to the open buttons, Madison had swallowed hard at the glimpse of tempting golden-brown skin.
More ice cream had dripped onto an exposed spot of breast. She’d scraped up the spill with her middle finger then sucked on her fingertip like a baby nursing at its mother’s tit—all for his benefit. Of that, he was sure.
Madison had sighed. When he’d looked up, she was staring directly at him. He’d hoped his enjoyment of her cleavage hadn’t been detected. The smirk twisting her lips had dashed his hopes. He’d shuddered and glanced away. Being caught like Peeping Tom by this alluring, knowing vixen had stiffened his cock.