There is a passage in Suite Harmonic: A Civil War Novel of Rediscovery in which John Given thinks about the words of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, “perplexed by their troubled darkness.” The grimmest part of Lincoln’s address comes near its end, following his earlier assertion that slavery was ”somehow, the cause of the war.” The lawyerly Lincoln offers as a hypothetical the idea that the “terrible war” is the “woe due to those by whom the offense [slavery] came.” Then, in more heightened language, Lincoln, the poet, says this: “…if God wills that [the war] continue until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
As a new immigrant to America, the John of Suite Harmonic is puzzled by the American question of race. As John’s great-granddaughter—my youth defined by the crucible issues of race and Vietnam—I often find myself mystified by the country’s continued divisions over race all these years later. I think I understand the tribalism of people—the sort of hard-wired sense of the groups people recognize as their own. It is something elemental in human nature. What I struggle with is the idea that, endowed with the ability to reason and to feel empathy, many cannot seem to rise above this instinctive behavior to accept that there is still a tragic legacy from slavery for all of us. Some of this legacy comes from the stories we internalize and pass on from generation to generation. Some of it is written into our social and economic fabric by the discrimination that was codified in law until well past the middle of the twentieth century. It is so recently that freedom has translated into opportunity, that legal equality has meant friendships between races, that the potential of African Americans, previously thwarted, has yielded a burst of stunning creativity and achievement.
Still, a lack of understanding between races, a fear of change, and a concern by some over perceived threats to their status means that we are far from being what was recently and briefly described as a “post-racial” society. In the short story, “American Snapshot, 1993,” I tried to capture the mix of good will, uncertainty, and unease people often encounter as they try to navigate the racial divide. Written with an oblique, stream-of-consciousness style—and with an added look at the questions surrounding sexual orientation—it is the closest I’ve been able to come to exploring, through fiction, a subject that continues to move and baffle me. “American Snapshot” is a stand-alone story in Watching Oksana. It is also a stand-alone story in my work. I have chosen to publish it here in its entirety.