Detecting Bullshit in Nate Powell’s “Save It For Later”

While so many aspects of Nate Powell’s Save It For Later stand out and make me stop to think, the one theme that resonates with me the most has to be the ways that our children view the world. “Their bullshit detectors,” as Powell puts in near the end of “Wingnut,” “are much better than ours.” This assertion is what drives me, partly, when it comes to my own children. They know, as Powell’s do, when someone is spewing bullshit. They can detect it. They know when a person’s words don’t match their actions or when someone acts in a morally reprehensible manner. The detection abilities of children is something I have been thinking about a lot over the past few years, especially when it comes to combatting the ever expanding roots of racism, xenophobia, authoritarianism, oppression, and more. Before those roots have a chance to dig themselves deep into one’s psyche, they must be extracted and replaced with roots of justice.

For me, Save It For Later kicks off when Powell’s daughter, while watching her mother at the Women’s March in D.C., asks him, “Can we have a march?” She says she wants to march to the courthouse, and Powell says that they can. In the page where he depicts them walking down the street towards the courthouse, Powell’s children march in front of him yelling, “You’ve got be fair!! We’ve got to stand up!! No more bullies!!” He walks behind them, pointing his finger, and admonishing them to “[s]tay on the sidewalk!!” Powell narrates this moment by writing, “It’s easy enough to pass this off as a cute anecdote . . . but there was no march planned in my town that day, so my five-year-old founded one. Three people deep, filling the air with their own chants for an hour, their own concerns as relative to the larger issues, but on their level, their own noise.”

Powell raised his kids to “on images of protest” from his own work in graphic novels depicting the Civil Rights Movement such as March and The Silence of Our Friends. He watered the seed, but he did not necessarily plant it. That seed exists at a young age. What roots that seed will sprout and what plant arises depends on the nourishment and water it receives. Lillian Smith points this out on numerous occasions in her work, noting, as Powell does, that children have extremely sensitive bullshit detectors. She even begins Killers of The Dream (1949), a text that explores the effects of racism on the white psyche by pointing this out. She writes, “Even its children knew that the South was in trouble.” From the outset, she notes that children know when things are awry and need to be changed.

This knowledge arose, in part, from Smith’s work with the girls at Laurel Falls Camp. In 1946, George Dorsey, Mae Murray Dorsey, Roger Malcolm, and Dorothy Malcolm were lynched in Monroe, Georgia. The camp was in session, and the girls heard about the murders. Smith, in the mid-summer Laurel Leaf, the newsletter that she sent to parents, detailed what the girls talked about when they heard the news. The girls wanted “to know especially in the women who were lynched had children; and how those children are feeling, and who are looking after them; and how they must feel about living in America, and will they grow up good citizens and how can they feel good toward white people when white people have done these dreadful things to their mother.” The girls’ present a myriad of questions, but at the core of each question is the humanity of the four people killed in Monroe, GA, and their families.

Continuing, the girls ask, as Powell’s daughter does, “what they can ‘do.’” Smith notes that she does not have easy answers for the girls or that she cannot fully answer their questions, but she knows that if the girls do not discuss what occurred and are not allowed to express their feelings, specifically their heartbreak and empathy, then “they may find it easier psychologically not to have decent feelings but to grow instead a hard shell of indifference and blindness to protect themselves from questions that are hard to answer.” Smith knew that the seed needed the right nourishment to maintain the feelings and to act, and if she, or anyone, denied the girls the ability to express those feelings then it would harden them and shut them off from any action, encasing them within “a hard shell of indifference.”

Even when the seed does not receive the proper nourishment, it may reject what sustains it, but that becomes harder and takes longer. This occurred with Smith herself, and she details it in “Growing Into Freedom” (1943). As a child, in Jasper, Florida, a “little white girl was found in the colored section of [Smith’s] small town, living with a Negro family.” A group of white women took it upon themselves to took the child, Julie, from the family and placed her with the Smiths. Julie lived with the Smiths for a few weeks, playing and sleeping in the same rooms as the Smith children. Then, the white women determined that Julie wasn’t “white,” she was Black, and they came to the Smith house and returned her to her family.

At this, Smith asked her mother multiple questions about why Julie left, and her mother kept responding, “Because . . . Julie is a colored girl. She has to live in colored town.” Smith persisted, telling her mother that Julie “is the same little girl she was yesterday” and that her mother even said “Julie has nice manners.” Her mother’s responses never changed, even when Smith pushed and asked if Julie could visit even though she wasn’t living them anymore. Her mother stopped the conversation, telling the young Lillian, “No. . . . You’re too young to understand.”

Looking back on this, Smith points out that even though she did not have the words, at the time, to express what happened and to counter her mother, she “was not too young to feel the pain of separation from a little friend” who she would never see again and she was not “too young to begin to doubt [her] parents and the sincerity of their religion.” She heard their words, and their actions did not match. She detected the bullshit and she rejected the nourishment, but she did not know how to combat it.

As she grew, Smith “began to se that in trying to shut the Negro race away from us, we have shut ourselves away from the good, the creative, the human in life.” She knew the effects of racism and hate on all, and she knew that in order to fight it, the proper nourishment must be administered, and that nourishment may take immediately or it may take time. It all depends on the soil and other external factors.

Like Powell, she also knew the dangers of inaction and kicking the can down the road for future generations. She points out that something must be done immediately to ensure the future and make sure our children grow up in, as she puts it, “freedom.” She writes, “But the price is too high. It must not be exacted of another generation. Somehow we must find a way to make it possible for a southern child to grow up now in freedom, to grow a personality strong and honest and creative and loving — and without fear. No child today in the South can grow that kind of personality. It is not possible in the rigid framework we put around them at birth.”

Powell does this as well. Throughout Save It For Later, he has moments of apprehension while he protests. He thinks about his parents and the disconnects that they have. He thinks about himself turning into his parents for his own daughter. He thinks about, most of all, his daughter’s activism and her bullshit detector and her desire to do something about it. While he knows that his kids will rightly call him and his wife out “for being out of touch,” just as he did, he knows that “[i]ncreasingly, it’ll be our turn to listen and follow.” That is what he does in Save It For Later. He teaches his daughter, and in the same moment he follows her. In many ways, it is not an older generation versus the younger generation tension. It is, at its core, what life should be, a collaboration. A teaching. A learning. A listening. A following. An acting.

After Powell asks us what we will risk and what consequences we’re willing to accept as part of that risk, he concludes the book with a final full-page panel. The panel shows Powell, his wife, and his daughter’s making signs for a march, and he narrates, “It is we, together, who will determine what kind of society our kids grow into, by what we each choose to do, or not do. A choice in every moment. So make it.” We all control the future and the society that we create for our kids. We all provide the nourishment for the seeds contained within each child. What nourishment will we provide? What sunlight will give it? How much water will we use? What actions will we take?

As Lillian Smith wrote, “It is so easy to hate, it is so much harder to understand.” We need to make sure that we teach our children how to understand. We need to make sure that we learn to understand. Because if we don’t we will easily get sucked into the hate, falling into the bullshit.

Here, you will find reflections on African American, American, and Southern Literature, American popular culture and politics, and pedagogy.

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