Words That Wake Us

By Ashley Hope Pérez

perez-outofdarknessMy third novel Out of Darkness takes the 1937 New London, Texas, school explosion as the backdrop for a secret romance between an African American boy and a Mexican American girl. It’s a book about segregation, love, family, and the forces that destroy people.

When I began Out of Darkness, my goal was to write a historical novel that would capture the imagination of even my toughest, most reluctant readers and expose them to experiences largely excluded from the sanitized historical accounts in Texas history books. I wanted to approach the past in a way that would also prompt my readers to engage in a fuller consideration of the present and the shape of the world around us.

Growing up one county over from New London, I heard powerful stories of loss and of survival related to the explosion, and I felt that a school disaster offered considerable dramatic possibilities for a YA novel. But the most important reason for choosing this particular period, community, and event was what I didn’t know, the stories I didn’t find collected in the archival materials on the disaster. Because New London school was intended to serve white children, historical accounts of the explosion focused on the tragedy as the white community experienced it; no one had recorded how people of color in the area had responded or how they viewed the disaster.

New London School after the explosion
New London School after the explosion

Still, I wondered, for example, what the event meant for African American teens who were spared from the explosion precisely because they’d been denied access to the better-funded white school in the first place. Because I wanted to explore this question, I knew from the start that there would be an important African American character in my novel. Then, early in my research for the novel, while reading through a list of the children who had died in the explosion, I came across a name that surprised me: Juanita Herron. I found a photograph of Juanita and studied it. I imagined her name as it would have been written in Spanish: Juanita Herrón. I wondered, could a Mexican American child have attended the school?

It was possible, at least. Larger cities in Texas with established Latino populations had three-fold segregation: white schools for white children, “colored” schools for black children, and “Mexican” schools for Mexican Americans and other Latinos. In New London, however, there were only white and “colored” schools. This made it more plausible that light skinned Mexican American families—likely new arrivals attracted by jobs related to the oil boom—could have enrolled their children in the New London school. And it would have been an attractive option, especially in comparison to the grossly underfunded and overcrowded “Mexican” schools in other parts of Texas. From there, I began to imagine what it would be like for a Mexican American teenager to enter the black-and-white community of New London.

The gaps in the historical record on the New London school explosion catalyzed my imaginings of the two characters whose fictional story is at the center of Out of Darkness: Washington Fuller and Naomi Vargas. Having always lived in East Texas, seventeen-year-old Wash prides himself on knowing his way around both the woods and the prettiest girls from Egypt Town, where most of the black community lives. Wash’s days as a womanizer come to an end when he meets Naomi Vargas, a beautiful and painfully shy high school senior who has just moved to New London with her younger twin half-siblings, Beto and Cari (short for Roberto and Caridad). Until the opening of the novel, the three of them have lived in San Antonio, but Naomi’s white stepfather convinces the children’s grandparents to send them to live with him in East Texas so that the gifted twins can attend the New London School. The light-skinned twins quickly settle into their new life in New London, but Naomi encounters hostility because of her darker skin and struggles with the demands of living with a stepfather whose own needs trump any concern for his children. Time spent with the twins and Wash is a welcome relief, and Naomi and Wash fall in love through secret meetings in the East Texas woods. They know that they can’t hide forever. What they don’t know, though, is that the worst school disaster in U.S. history awaits, threatening to shatter the school, the community, and their hopes for a future where they can be together.

Given that Out of Darkness is set in the South during the 1930s, it will come as little surprise that racism shapes the direction of the story. In San Antonio, for example, Naomi and the twins are forced to attend “Mexican” schools with overcrowded classrooms and low-quality teachers. Almost invariably white (as college education was very difficult for Mexican Americans to access), many of these teachers found theirs an “undesirable” placement and were quick to underestimate the abilities of their students. Naomi may be able to attend a better school in East Texas, but in the absence of stores that cater to Mexican Americans, she faces blatant hostility when she tries to buy groceries at the one New London general store. Wash attends a “colored” school with a shorter school day and year, not to mention the absence of critical materials and resources.

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Although forced segregation of schools may be a thing of the past, the effects—and reality—of segregation linger on. Unfortunately, racism is not just an unfortunate artifact from our past. The deaths of Trayvon Martin and Renisha McBride—to cite just two examples—make plain the continued relationship between racism and violence in America. In both cases, attackers claimed to feel threatened by unarmed teens. The rationale for that “threat” seems to hinge on the notion that black bodies should not be in (what the killers consider) white spaces. Those who defend the aggressors in these situations tend to focus on the shortcomings of the victims, as if to suggest that their poor decisions were responsible for putting them “in the wrong place at the wrong time” (note the scare quotes).

Readers of Out of Darkness will recognize that the same logic behind the actions of angry white men who feel threatened by Wash’s very presence at the site of the New London explosion. He’s there because the superintendent has hired him to do an afternoon’s work on the grounds, and he rushes into the school, saving several children from being crushed when the building collapses. Instead of being met with gratitude, though, he encounters the suspicion of those who think he has no business being near the white school—or their children.

Rescue workers at the site of the New London School explosion
Rescue workers at the site of the New London School explosion

Factual details influenced how I imagined the fictional events in Out of Darkness, especially Wash’s experiences after the explosion. For example, during my research I learned that an angry mob converged on the school superintendent’s house, hungry for someone to blame for the deaths of their children. In real life, they were turned away by mounted Texas Rangers charged with protecting the school board members from vigilante violence. The crowd dissipated, and no one was harmed. In the fictional world of Out of Darkness, however, this is the point when the mob turns its energies against a scapegoat not granted such protection.

As a black American, Wash experiences the heightened vulnerability that still characterizes the lives of many today. This vulnerability and its terrible consequences have deep roots in our history. Upwards of four thousand people were lynched between 1882 and 1968, and of that number, 3,445 were black. In contrast to the long-overdue mainstream media attention to killings of unarmed African Americans in recent years, news coverage of lynchings—as well as other discrimination endured by African Americans—was either altogether absent or sensationalized and justified the violence against black community members. According to Dr. Richard Perloff, prior to the Civil Rights Movement, news accounts of violence against black Americans generally assumed without question that the victim was guilty of a crime. Newspaper stories often used dehumanizing terms like “wretch,” “fiend,” and “desperado” to refer to the victims.

This historical pattern informs how Wash Fuller’s mistreatment is portrayed in newspaper stories within the world of Out of Darkness. But if I’ve done my job as a writer in Out of Darkness, the whole of the novel refutes the racist narratives perpetuated in the white press, both in how it details Wash’s encounter with those who seek to harm him and in how it portrays his beautifully imperfect and perfectly valuable life.

James Baldwin once noted that, in the U.S., “words are mostly used to cover the sleeper, not wake him up.” Reading fiction is no substitute for engagement with the world around us. I hope, nevertheless, that Out of Darkness confronts readers with words that wake them to the need for change. Perhaps knowing Wash—knowing his brilliance, his sense of humor, his human character, and the tremendous love he has for the people in his life—will lead readers to consider more deeply the human cost of violence against African Americans.


ashleyhopeperezIn addition to Out of Darkness (September 2015), Ashley Hope Pérez is the author of two other YA novels: What Can’t Wait and The Knife and the Butterfly. Out of Darkness has earned starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal, and both What Can’t Wait and The Knife and the Butterfly appear on YALSA reading lists. She has a PhD in comparative literature and is currently a visiting assistant professor of comparative studies at The Ohio State University. She teaches topics that range from global youth narratives to Latin American and Latina/o fiction. She lives in Ohio with her husband, Arnulfo, and their sons, Liam Miguel and Ethan Andrés. Visit her online at http://ift.tt/1hryVm1 or find her on Twitter at @ashleyhopeperez.

Out of Darkness is now available.