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Literature Can Help Bridge America's Racial Divide



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(Portland, OR) - As America re-elected President Obama, it sent a comforting and positive message about our society, a message of progress in racial healing. A majority of voters were willing to give the first African American President of the United States a second term, a second chance to complete his mission of bringing change to this country.

What's most striking is that this seems like a normal course of action. President George W. Bush was sharply criticized, but he won two terms. President Bill Clinton faced impeachment, but stayed in the White House for two complete terms. It is this concept of normalcy that interests me: is this nation reaching a maturing stage where people of color can be treated just as everyone else?

To be sure, more progress must be made. Even the election results tell us that, as one party relied on votes almost exclusively from whites, the other, the majority, was a multi-racial collage that looked much more like America. How can America take the next step, ensuring a level playing field and equal opportunities for everyone regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or sexual preference?

I've always believed that our cultural indulgences, such as the entertainment we seek, play a critical role in shaping our faith, perceptions and values. The evolution and transformation of our souls is impacted by environment, including the television and movies and art we watch as well as the museums we visit, the music we listen to and books we read.

For decades, civil rights and social justice advocates have attacked Hollywood and the entertainment industry for negative stereotypes of people of color repeatedly seen in movies, video games and television, especially African Americans and Latinos. The negative portrayals can shape the perceptions of the people who watch them.

While this appears to be changing at a global level, in America the sense of normalcy is often absent in art and entertainment choices. The black or Latino character is rarely portrayed as the hardworking accountant or the local business owner, but frequently is unemployed, the drug dealer or the perpetrator of crimes, which feeds into the myth of the genetic criminality of color.

In my spiritual works of fiction, whether my characters are white, black or brown, they are normal in the sense that the roles they play have nothing to do with the color of their skin. It's the color of their souls that's important. What are their values? What guides the choices they make in life? What is their relationship with God? Are they lead down a spiritual path towards confronting the complexities of life?

My novels aren't overtly about race; they are about the people who inhibit the earth. They portray this concept of normalcy, acknowledging the inner souls of all people, demonstrating that we all accept or reject spiritual guidance in our daily lives. In my first book, The Shack, God the Father is an African American woman. It sold more than 18 million copies worldwide not because God is black but because people are moved by the questions of faith and spirituality raised by Jesus, God and the Holy Spirit.

In my new book, Cross Roads, just released this month, an African American woman, Maggie Saunders, is a Portland nurse whose inner soul is visited by Tony Spencer, a white man on a spiritual journey caught somewhere between life and death, who is attempting to right the wrongs in his life. While this novel is centered in growing in our humanity and faith, that growth is exemplified in a deep friendship that develops between Saunders and Spencer, two characters from different ethnicities who bond and help each other with the complexities of life, faith and relationships. They grow to love each other like family.

Is this relationship normal?

The reality is that we live in a world where 'normal' may not truly exist except as an idea or concept held by each of us. The environment that we each absorb plays a foundational role in shaping our individual sense of 'normal.' Oftentimes it is only when we begin to experience the 'bigness and diversity' of the world do our hearts and minds open and allow us to reject the stereotypes about other races and follow a more human and therefore more spiritual path.

Clearly, my 'not so normal' journey on this earth opened my own heart and eyes, helping me understand the prejudices that exit across the globe and build my faith and my deep sense of relationship with God. In 1955, I was born in Grande Prairie, Alberta, Canada, but the majority of my first decade I lived in Indonesia with my missionary parents in the highlands of Netherlands New Guinea (West Papua), among the Dani, a technologically stone age tribal people. They became my family and as the first white child and outsider who ever spoke their language in that corner of the world, I was granted unusual access into their culture and community.

Although at times a fierce warring people, steeped in the worship of spirits, they also provided a deep sense of identity that remains an indelible element of my character and person. These experiences shaped me, and are transformed my writings. Cross Roads is a unique and deeply moving human story, complete with humor and suffering, beauty and brokenness, and grace filling up the spaces in-between.

It is a story of normal people moved by spiritual events inside the ordinary.

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About Paul Young

Paul Young is the author of the bestselling book, The Shack, which sold a record 18 million copies worldwide. Hachette Book Group will publish his second book, Cross Roads, on November 13, 2012 in hardcover by the FaithWords imprint. Audio, eBook, and foreign editions are also planned. America's Wire is an independent, nonprofit news service run by the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. Our stories can be republished free of charge by newspapers, websites and other media sources.

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