First Draft: A Dialogue of Writing is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with fiction, nonfiction, essay writers, and poets, highlighting the voices of writers as they discuss their work, their craft, and the literary arts. Hosted by Mitzi Rapkin, First Draft celebrates creative writing and the individuals who are dedicated to bringing their carefully chosen words to print as well as the impact writers have on the world we live in.
In this episode, Mitzi talks to Lawrence Jackson about his latest novel, shelter.
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Mitzi Rapkin: I was thinking about the title, which seems very deliberate—it’s called shelter; it’s not called home. I was curious about the difference between shelter and home for you. In the book you talk about your sons and your custody issues; you end up with custody of one, and one of them comes to visit you. I was wondering if, as a father who ca n’t live with both of his sons, if that affects your idea of home—because home may be beyond the building. So I wanted to ask you what home meant to you.
Lawrence Jackson: That’s the most poignant question anybody’s asked me connected to the project. I suppose the good news for me, and I think for my youngest son, is that he’s going to come to Baltimore for high school. At the end of the summer, which is pretty terrific. But I think that you have lodged on a distinction that is significant. Again, in my wrestling with the pursuit of a particular kind of inviolable middle class, it’s like a plateau more so than a pedestal—an inviolable plateau of middle class standing—and this goes back to the social and the structural. Instead of getting a home, what you have is gussied shelter.
The structural reason for buying the house, and I talk about this in the first chapter, is that we’re also at a place where we’re just making these snap, and often lockstep, economic decisions. You don’t have enough time to think, and you ask, is this the place for my life, is this the place that I can resell at a moment’s notice, or that will be attractive enough to the market, that it will make financial sense? Giving ourselves over to this logic is one of the places of strife in the work.
The opening epigraph is from the first African American elected to the Baltimore City Council, and he uses the term shelter. And Harry Cummings is saying around 1911, Baltimore is the first place where the city council tried to segregate the city block by block, and they exported it throughout the South, but it did not withstand judicial scrutiny. However, it created a series of customs that were then carried out or wound up being somewhat effective.
But this early African American elected official thought that the key way to produce the outcome of national belonging, American citizenship, full citizenship rights, was to purchase a home, pay your taxes, do the things that the other citizens are doing and you will bear the fruits of legal protections, essentially. But at the same time, it’s fascinating that Cummings was moving Black families on to blocks where they were going to have rocks thrown to the windows and fires set outside and where it wouldn’t be safe to enjoy your home that was right at this crossroads between the home and then just the practical structure of the shelter. The shelter was the engine of the economic markets.
Lawrence Jackson is a biographer and critic whose work has appeared in Harper’s Magazine, n+1and Best American Essays. He teaches English and history at Johns Hopkins and founded the Billie Holiday Project for Liberation Arts.