Poet, writer, critic and playwright David Mura takes on systemic racism in America with a new book called “The Stories Whiteness Tells Itself: Racial Myths and Our American Narratives.”
The book is an investigation of historical texts, theory, literary sources, psychology and philosophy. It weaves together literary analysis, history, storytelling and criticism with soaring prose. Examining films, novels, historical records, writings and speeches, and more, Mura takes the reader on a journey into the narrative of whiteness in the United States.
A third generation Japanese American, Mura dives into Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, the Reconstruction era and Jim Crow. He brings the reader along through the civil rights movement into our present moment where Black people being killed at the hands of police have become a regular part of the news cycle. With clear, impeccably researched writing, Mura tracks the ways that white fear of losing power continues to permeate our culture.
The impetus for the book came after Philando Castile, a 32-year-old school cafeteria worker, was fatally shot by St. Anthony Police officer Jeronimo Yanez at a traffic stop. “I realized that the roots of what happened on Larpenteur road (where Castile was shot) went all the way back in American history,” Mura says. “It had to do with the way we tell that history, the way we understand that history, and how we still fail to understand how that history and its racism infects the present.”
I spoke with Mura about the book in this interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.
Sheila Regan: This book is coming out in a moment when writers examining the legacy of slavery and white supremacy are under attack. Florida is the latest state to ban books that supposedly make white people feel bad. The College Board revised its Advanced Placement African American Studies curriculum after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced he would ban it in Florida schools. Some of the scholars you write about in your book have been eliminated from that curriculum, like Michelle Alexander. In your book, you talk about backlash, and make the connection between the Reconstruction era and today’s backlash against critical race theory. Where do we go from here?
David Mura: What DeSantis has done is just an example of white epistemology. He’s not a scholar in African American history. I’m sure he hasn’t read widely in African American history or African American Studies theory, and yet he believes he can make a judgment that this material is not of educational value. He’s simply relying on the white supremacist assumption that white knowledge always trumps Black knowledge. Black Americans have been on the right side of history, for every racial issue that we’ve faced. And the majority of white Americans have been on the wrong side. People celebrate Martin Luther King, but 63% of white people disapproved of him when he was alive. White Americans never turned to Black America and said, you know, we got it wrong every single time in our history, and you got it right. Maybe we should listen to you in the present.
I’m a baby boomer. I grew up with Charlton Heston as Andrew Jackson. I grew up identifying with Custer because Errol Flynn is Custer. I was taught that the Emancipation Proclamation was passed, the 13th 14th 15th Amendment was passed, and everything was fine. That didn’t happen. They began working really hard to re-institute slavery. There was a huge backlash, just like there was a huge backlash after the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
And then you have the election of Barack Obama, which tells white America in many conscious and unconscious ways, the demographics are changing. Sometime after 2040, white people are no longer to be a majority. We’re all going to be racial minorities, and there are going to be more people of color than white people. And suddenly, white people just freak out. We’ve gone backwards in the last six years. So, for those that believe in social justice and equality, we have our work cut out for us.
SR: You write about James Baldwin extensively in this book, and call him perhaps the greatest American author of the 20th century. You wrote about Baldwin as a young writer and taught a Baldwin course at The Loft. How have your views on Baldwin changed over the years, and why is he so important to your own thinking about race?
DM: He was very fundamental. My parents raised me to assimilate into a white middle-class identity because they were imprisoned by the government in World War II for their race and ethnicity. They raised me to be white. And then I finally realized I was never going to be white. I had to figure out who I was.
Authors like Baldwin and other Black authors gave me a language to talk about race. One of the first books I read of his was “The Devil Finds Work,” which is an examination in part of American cinema during the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. Part of the theme of the book is that films are all stories that white people tell themselves.
I’ve read Baldwin throughout the years, and at a certain point realized that race is a psychological and spiritual issue, and that’s where Baldwin was particularly brilliant.
He didn’t grow up dealing with many white people. And then as he became an author, and as a gay man, he began to deal with white people, and he suddenly realized white people believe the lies they tell themselves. They’re actually much weaker and spiritually bereft than he realized. I tell BIPOC audiences: you need to make whiteness smaller in your head.
I think he provides instruction for people of color about how to deal with the hurt and harm, the anger and bitterness we feel about these issues and how to heal.
SR: You write about Alexs Pate’s novelization of Steven Spielberg’s film “Amistad” in the book and the ways Pate offers a deeper understanding of the Black perspective that the film ignores. Can you talk about your personal friendship with Pate and how your conversations with him may have influenced that chapter?
DM: Alex and I became friends in the ‘90s. And we did a show together on the Rodney King video, and the violence in LA. Then we did a small film together. I’ve been his friend and his working colleague for years. I was teaching at Stonecoast and I persuaded him to get his MFA. Then he ended up teaching there. When I delivered the lecture on Amistad, the novelization was something that I talked to him about.
I am taking Alexs’ thinking, but I’m also using my friend Frank Wilkerson, who also grew up in Minneapolis. His family was the first Black family to integrate Kenwood. I wanted part of the book to take Frank’s ideas and make them understandable to a non-academic reader. And also take different theories like Alexs’ examination of epistemology and innocence, Baldwin’s psychological and spiritual acumen, Saidiya Hartman’s study of slavery, and Henry Louis Gates’ signifying monkey, and really help the reader to see how all these are intertwined together, and how complex racism actually is. The desire to simplify racism is actually part of the way white America gaslights BIPOC America. It is a way of preventing America from seeing how deeply white supremacy affects almost any aspect of our society.
SR: You’ve written about issues of racism that impact Asian Americans in the past. This book mostly concerns itself with white supremacy in relationship to Black America. What was it like for you as someone who is an Asian American to dive into this?
DM: The work first came from the reading that I did for the book. It also comes from various activist work that I’ve done. It comes from friendships and relationships, and it comes from my teaching. I feel like there’s all sorts of various life experiences that I’ve had to which have informed the writing of the book, and my sense that I know what I’m talking about, which I didn’t know when I was growing up.
SR: Are you doing much teaching now?
DM: I’m sort of tapering off teaching. I read an Atlantic article which says when you reach a certain age, part of what you need to do is triage. You can leave off certain things. I only have so much time left. I tell my wife: I can teach with half a brain, but I can’t write with half a brain. I’m really trying to concentrate. My next book is going to be on Asian American identity. And then after that, I want to write a book on sexuality.
SR: Some of the chapters address problems in the literary community— including the ways white writers either erase race altogether or present characters that reveal their own racial bias. What has it been like spending your entire career in the American literary world. What do you wish you could have told yourself as a young Asian American writer first starting out?
DM: I don’t know if I would tell myself anything, because I’m happy where I ended up. Probably the most painful time was in the ’90s. I wrote this article when “Miss Saigon” came out, and I had fights with all my white writer friends about yellow face casting. I got letters saying, have you become a racial separatist? Are you going to divorce Susan?
I lost almost every single white artist friend at the time. But what I was saying that was pissing off my white writer friends, when I’d say it at college campuses, not just Asian American students, but Black students, Latino students, Native students would come up and speak to me. I realized I couldn’t speak to both audiences at the same time. The truth that was alienating my white friends was affirming the experiences of other people of color. At that point, as painful as it was, I no longer feared pissing off white people. I was just like, I’m going to speak my truth. And if it ends our friendship, then it ends our friendship.
I have so many wonderful relationships and friendships, and I’ve seen students who become successful writers. My daughter is now the representative in the Minnesota State Legislature from her Minneapolis district. I guess the only thing I would say to my 22-year-old self: David, you’re lying to yourself, you’re not a white person. I look over the course of my life— and it just is what it is. And I feel good about where it’s at.
Registration for the the Book Launch for “The Stories Whiteness Tells Itself: Racial Myths and our American Narratives” on Wednesday, Feb. 8 at the Minnesota Humanities Event Center have closed, but you can catch Mura’s next reading on Wednesday, Feb. 15 at 7 p.m. at Hamline Midway Library (free). It’s a hybrid event, register here.
See additional reading events here.