In the fallout from the 2016 presidential election, an election that revealed America as a country more viciously and zealously divided than many of us previously thought, it has become difficult to foster much (or any) compassion for those on the opposite side of the divide. That’s what makes this week’s story, about an old man struggling with racism, misogyny, nostalgia, and fear, both timely and remarkable. Fiction writer and Rumpus contributor Erin Wilcox wrote “The Barn” years ago, of which she says she’s glad because the relative lack of judgment displayed in the piece is something she doubts she could be capable of in this current moment. The story first appeared in Praxis: Gender and Cultural Critiques in 2012. After the 2016 election, Wilcox decided to rerelease “The Barn” as an ebook, with half the proceeds of its sale going to the NAACP. The story has a timeless feel—it could take place forty years ago or right now—and its characters manifest some of the qualities that are currently threatening to drag our country backwards to an imagined “greatness” that never existed, and as such “The Barn” offers a valuable opportunity for understanding, and through that perhaps a means for progress.
The narrator of “The Barn” is an older white man named George whose farm is in financial trouble. His son Mark died a few months prior, and on the day of the story’s opening, Mark’s widow Kanita visits the farm once again, this time with a lawyer, trying to convince George to let her help him financially so the farm isn’t repossessed by the bank. Despite the urgings of his daughter Clara, George refuses Kanita’s offer of help, as he has done before, and the reason is not out of some misguided refusal to accept charity. It’s because Kanita is black.
The way Wilcox weaves George’s entrenched racism into his narration is both impressive and difficult to read. Here is his description of her waiting for him on the porch, an impression warped as much by racism and misogyny as by anger and grief:
The girl was smug as ever, standing alongside her lawyer on the front porch, hand on her hip like three minutes might kill her. She wore a yellow blouse covered in sunflowers. Her breasts had grown even larger since the funeral, same as what happened to Margaret when she was pregnant with Mark and Clara, only Margaret’s were small to begin with, so they never got to be grotesque.
Here we see George rob Kanita of authority and personhood by referring to her only as “the girl,” which he continues for the majority of the story. He projects smugness and impatience onto her while simultaneously delegitimizing her emotions. His gaze on her breasts is patently misogynistic and his evaluation of them as “grotesque” racially-infused. On top of all this, his aggrieved sense of superiority and his false, inflated victimhood are palpable—and all this in only one paragraph.
At the same time, however, Wilcox shows George’s tenderness toward his daughter, his lasting love for his late wife Margaret, and his continuing grief over his son’s death. In moments like this, it’s hard not to sympathize with George as a grieving father, even if his is a bully and a racist.
Clara beckoned from the doorway. “They just pulled up.”
I put my hands in my bib pockets. Behind my eyes, I saw her brother, Mark, his skin cold and course, eyelids pressed shut like his body was in pain. Most times I tried to remember my boy alive, I saw this.
One of the accomplishments of the story is that it extends a branch of understanding to George. By delivering the story in first person, through George’s eyes, Wilcox enables us to perceive George as more than only a stubborn racist with a martyr complex while also not forgiving him for his intolerance. We are able to observe this man’s love and grief in memories of his son and wife. By proxy, Wilcox shows us the loving aspects of the wife Margaret, the way her hands when she touched George made him feel he had a home, even while she lays bare Margaret’s total intolerance and particularly nasty brand of racism. (When Mark brought Kanita home for dinner the first time, Margaret said, “That’s the last time I ever serve someone who should be serving me.”)
“The Barn” does not feel like an effort to be an apologist for the racists of the world, or to excuse their intolerance with platitudes about small towns and rural education systems and lack of diversity. Rather, Wilcox’s portrayal of George shows his bull-headed stubbornness, his allegiance to his late wife and her entrenched opinions, the difficulty of upending his worldview and sense of identity and comprehending that his prejudices are rooted in hate and narrow-mindedness, that he’s been wrong all along. At the same time, it shows that George’s racism is a choice, one that he chooses again and again each time he shuts down Kanita’s repeated and generous attempts at bridging the divide between them. And while “The Barn” is not prescriptive, it does offers a thin potential avenue toward change for George and perhaps for others like him, which starts with a flash of empathy, a glimpse of compassion, when the heart is able to push through the tight gates of prejudice for a moment. A moment like this one, when Kanita calls George the night of her husband’s death, to let his father know:
I answered the phone. She said, “Daddy, Mark’s gone.” Daddy, she said. Daddy. I almost liked the way it sounded. She made me feel tenderness in the worst moment of my life.
Logo art by Max Winter.