It’s Juneteenth, which makes an incredibly appropriate day to review Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley. This book was on my radar since it first came out in 2014, but it took a wee bit of time to actually find time to read it. (Seriously, on this site, I know I’m not the only one who’s reading list is longer than the time I’ll ever possibly have to read over the course of my entire life…) What first drew me in was that the book was about desegregation and I knew there was likely going to be a romantic subplot, but I didn’t know at first that it was a lesbian romantic subplot. And not just that, it was a white girl and a black girl falling in love with each. In the south. In 1959. You don’t have to know a whole lot about American history to know this is not going to be a happy story. However, Talley manages to take a difficult and complex story of racism, politics, history, growth, and first love and infuse hope, joy, wonder in it. I already knew I was a fan of Talley’s when I read and reviewed her second book What We Left Behind but this was a very different reading experience.
Format-wise, Lies We Tell Ourselves follows a similar back and forth POV style to What We Left Behind with the story being told from each of the protagonists perspectives. There are also some great internal monologues from all four characters between the two books. But that’s where the similarity ends, I think, because Lies We Tell Ourselves doesn’t give you a moment to breathe from the very beginning. What We Left Behind starts out happy, lighthearted. A dance. A first meeting of the couple. Lies We Tell Ourselves first page opens with the chilling title “Lie #1: There’s no need to be afraid” and the very first sentence is “The white people are waiting for us.”
If that doesn’t shoot you in the heart with dread, I…don’t know what will. I tend to try to put myself in the shoes of characters I read about to understand people from different places, times, cultures, classes, etc better. I thought about what it would be like to walk into a throng of angry people who hate me…just based on what they see and think they know about me. Granted, the one thing I can relate to in that regard is that being a larger person, I’ve been read as lazy, ugly, stupid, pitiful, and disgusting by many people…just based on the way I look and the reason people think I got this way. And while that is NOTHING compared to hundreds of years of institutional racism, and does not mean in any way, shape, or form that I understand what that feels like, it has given me a tiny window of empathy and I try to be a better person with it.
So there I am, in my mind, walking with the ten teenagers into the Jefferson High School and it’s terrifying.
“They’re out there all right,” Chuck says when he comes back. He’s trying to smile, but he just looks frozen. “Somebody sent the welcome committee.”
No one laughs. We can hear the shouting, but the sound is too disjointed for us to make out the words.
We learn from there that the teens have been assisted and coached by the NAACP on this transition. Sarah, the main character on the desegregation side gives us this run down:
My father and Mrs. Mullins and the rest of the NAACP leaders have been coaching us on the rules since the summer, when the court first said the high school baord had to let us into the white school. Rule One: Ignore anything the white people say to you and keep walking. Rule Two: Always sit at the front of the classroom, near the door, so you can make a quick getaway if you need to. And Rule Three: Stay together whenever you possibly can.
I’ve been reading fiction about desegregation, the South during the 20’s – 50’s, slavery, and runaway slaves and I never came across that kind of description before. I knew the kids who were the first to face desegregation were brave, but I never fully grokked what this looked like on a moment by moment basis until this book. And this is only on page 3 of the book. By page five, these two paragraphs stopped me cold:
Police officers line the school’s sidewalks in front of the boys. They’re watching us, too.
I don’t bother looking back at them. The police aren’t here to help us. Their shiny badges are all that’s stopping them from yelling with the other white people. For all we know they trade in those badges for white sheets at night.
The rest of the chapter is just them getting into school the first morning, and it’s filled with hate, name-calling, intimidation, and it’s unclear if Sarah, her younger sister, and their friends are even going to make it in the building. They do make it in, after an almost mosh-pit incident and chapter/lie #2 is “I’m sure I’m doing the right thing” and the new students try making their way to their classes, worrying about getting detention if they’re late. Sarah rightly wonders “but if we have to deal with shouting crowds every day, won’t we always be late?” Makes dealing with traffic or any of the hundreds of other things that made me late over the years for school and work seem more than a bit insignificant in retrospect.
That first day is marked with students screaming at them to go home, threats to them, spitballs, milk being dumped on her, and pencils being bored into Sarah’s back. But we also get the set up for her closeted lesbianism and her budding crush on Linda, a red-haired student.
My mind is running to scary places. The images come too fast for me to stp them.
I imagine what it would be like if I were alone with the red-haired girl. How it would feel if she smiled at me with her pretty smile, and I smiled back, and-
No. I know better than to think this way.
I can’t take any risks. Especially not at this school. If anyone found out the truth about me it would mean – I don’t even know what it would mean. I only know it would be horrible. It would be a hundred times worse than what happened in the parking lot this morning. A thousand times worse.
As the day progresses, there are more lies. “I don’t care what they think of me,” “I’m not lonely” and “They won’t really hurt me” forever” hit pretty hard. We learn that while Sarah’s father is in the NAACP, Linda’s father is the editor of the Davisburg Gazette. “He’s the one who writes the editorials opposing segregation. He’s also Daddy’s boss.”
Whelp. This story just went from star-crossed to totally fucked in two sentences.
There are bits sprinkled in about how the white people view the black people and one of Linda’s father’s editorials details how “Negro children should be taught only Negro teachers, for our own benefit, because no one else can understand how “uniquely” our brains work” but we don’t fully get the white perspective until a few more chapters in when we switch to Linda’s POV.
That set up was very telling of the privileged mind of someone who’s never had to examine her own biases and privileges. Linda’s first lie is “None of this has anything to do with me.” And the first sentence of her first chapter? “They canceled the prom today.”
Because the prom is CLEARLY the most important consideration at that moment. I swear, I’ve rarely wanted to slap a fictional character so badly as I did when I first read that. However, Talley knows how to skillfully turn that self-centeredness and build layers into the story very quickly. That first sentence was followed with:
Because of the colored people. Everything that happens now is because of the colored people.
If Daddy has to work later at the paper it’s because the integration teachers are making up stories. If I’m behind in English it’s because the NAACP forced the school to close last semester. If I get caught daydreaming in Math its because the colored girl in the front row distracted me.
Well, now. Apparently Linda is also taken with Sarah. But it’s disturbing to get into Linda’s head, even as skillfully as Talley brings us there. Linda theorizes, the first time she’s in a bathroom at school with Sarah, that “touching her probably feels like touching sandpaper.” Also that black people have a certain smell to them that “stink” up places. I think the most incredulous was that some of the white people wanted to know where the black people kept their tails. This kind of literal dehumanizing was clearly spoon fed to these people from birth and they just accepted it as fact. But what I love about this story is that we see and witness Linda as her thoughts change as she falls in love with Sarah.
Y’see, during that first time in the bathroom, Linda and Sarah get into a bit of a spat because Sarah dares to be anything but polite and deferential to Linda. This pisses Linda off to no end. At first, she uses it to justify her narrow world view:
Daddy was right. The Negro students think they’re entitled. They think their own schools – the ones set aside specifically for them – aren’t enough. They think they have to come for our schools, even if it means hundreds of us have to suffer just so a handful of them can be satisfied.
Linda doesn’t see that separate but equal rarely, if ever, actually means equal. She doesn’t see the suffering that black people have endured at the hands of white people for centuries. She can’t see beyond her own small corner of the world. But Sarah is about to change all of that. Because of the first convo in the bathroom, Sarah and Linda (and Linda’s friend Judy) are late to French class and the teacher decides that that means they’ll be grouped together for the French project.
Now Linda and Sarah have to figure out how to work together, but not only how, but where. Clearly they can’t be seen anywhere together in the white parts of town and it’s also likely not a good idea for Linda to be going to the black parts of town, either. Judy works in Bailey’s Drugstore in town, which has a back room that they can meet in because no one is in there after 4pm on a school day, so they all three agree to meet there. And that’s where the meat of the story really starts unfolding. I don’t mean to disrespect the desegregation parts at school, but it’s when the girls on by themselves and the mob mentality isn’t allowed to prevail that Judy and Linda can start to see that Sarah isn’t stupid. She’s not ugly. She’s not uppity or “entitled”. They begin to learn about the humanness of each other and that they’re more similar than each had previously thought, especially from Linda’s perspective:
The part about her parents and her church choir was strange to read. I’d never thought about what the colored students do when they’re not in school. Sarah must have a house somewhere. She must do things like help her mother with dinner or iron her clothes for church. The same kinds of things I do.
But this is one of my favorite parts of their conversation, after Linda calls Sarah and “agitator” like it’s wrong:
“The point is, we didn’t force your governor to do anything,” Sarah goes on.
“My governor?” I say. “He’s your governor, too.”
Sarah lifts her chin and looks me straight in the eyes again. “He’s not my anything if he doesn’t treat me the same way he treats you.”
My jaw drops.
“That’s anarchy,” I say quietly. I wait for her to take it back.
Sarah doesn’t even blink. “No, it’s not. If the law is wrong, we have to say the law is wrong.”
Linda freaks out about this and again, uses it to justify her views, calling Sarah a Communist. Sarah says she’s not but Linda counters telling her she’s going to tell her own father about Sarah being a Communist. She thinks she’s going “fix integration.”
Sarah very smartly asks how she plans to do that when Linda’s father doesn’t even know they’re working on a project together.
Linda’s list of chapters/lies for this section are little insights into her own mind:
- None of this has anything to do with me.
- I’m exactly who I want to be.
- I’m sure I’m doing the right thing.
- If I keep pretending, everything will be all right.
- She’s wrong.
- This doesn’t change anything.
- I hate her.
The story truly unfolds from there and Linda and Sarah grow closer while the tormenting at school gets worse. By the end of that section, though, which is about halfway through the book, things come to a head between Linda and Sarah. And right after, we switch back to Sarah for next quarter of the book. Sarah decides that the best thing to do to combat how she feels about Linda is to ignore Linda and put her energy into dating Ennis, one of the other students integrating with her. As we watch her do this, we also get her internal process of how she doesn’t feel that spark with Ennis that everyone says you’re supposed to have with a boy…that she definitely has with Linda.
It makes an odd juxtaposition to Linda’s musings about her fiancee, Jack, and how the pin he gave her “means I belong to someone” and that “Jack is all I need. He’s more than I deserve” whereas when Sarah starts to think about marriage to someone, possibly Ennis, and having existential crises while theater goers are gossiping around her on date, she thinks:
I envy these women. I bet none of them ever doubted whether they should get married. I’m sure none of them ever had any unnatural feelings.
As she’s trying to puzzle this out, she keeps dating Ennis and she and Linda avoid each other. Until Linda seeks her out to tell her that some of their classmates are planning something terrible for the choir concert tomorrow. Because after initially being told they shouldn’t join any extracurriculars at the white school, Sarah’s incredible vocal talents get her into the school choir. The classmates tried to sabotage Sarah by not having an accompanist for her solo. However, Sarah handles it in her own, graceful way.
After this third section of the book, we suddenly get a change. The last section is called “Amazing Grace” and from there on, we get three chapters, one each from Linda, Sarah, and Sarah’s little sister Ruth. Those chapters are now titled with “truths” instead of lies, to mark the journeys that each of them has taken:
- Truth #1: (Linda) It’s up to me.
- Truth #2 (Sarah) None of them can touch me.
- Epilogue, Truth #3: Ruth We did it.
These last few chapters wrap up decisions that Linda has to make, including whether or not to confront her father, what she was going to do about her fiancee, and, by extension, the rest of her life.
Sarah has to face some of her own demons, too. And some things that have happened to her classmates. One got hit with a baseball bat, one was nearly killed by a band of white boys, and then near the end of school, someone pees on her desk chair and the teacher tries to make her sit in it and won’t listen to why she won’t. The teacher gives a choice to sit or leave, so she leaves and goes right to the principal’s office. That conversation is fascinating as all hell to get into yet another white person’s mind from the time about on how all this looks and should work. But after what could’ve been a very disheartening meeting, Sarah left feeling not angry or sad, but more confident in herself:
I can keep sitting quietly, like a good girl.
Or I can get out the letter that came yesterday and decide for myself what happens next.
The book ends on Ruth’s chapter, “We did it” and we get to see Sarah graduating after a brutally hellish year at Jefferson High School and then a small window into where Sarah will go next. I like that there’s hope in this chapter and in this book. It’s more than I was expecting during a volatile, difficult time. It also seems appropriate that it passes to Ruth, who is the next in line to stay on to fight next year when she attends Jefferson High School in the fall.
Even given all that hope at the end, the thing I hate most about all this, though, is how relevant it all was to the current political climate. Today, in 2018, this was scarily too similar to the rise of Neo-Nazis and white supremacy and it’s horrific and depressing to think we haven’t come all that far in 60 years. There’s still more to fight, more to overcome, more to change, but I’m so glad that there are authors like Talley out there on the front lines helping to make that change happen one reader at a time.