White Women’s Protective Bubbles

When I was thirteen, the summer between elementary and middle school did not go well. My friends didn’t exactly turn against me, just yielded to boys who had decided it was fun to come up with names for me, stick signs to my back, and make up stories so the crowd would laugh at me. We had been the typical American popular crowd, so status was more important to my old friends than standing up for me. 

The bullying would swell and recede over the course of a year. I managed to befriend a few others, loosely connecting because who knows why. We were simply drawn together. This was true of Allena (which is not her real name). She didn’t seem to notice the bullying—or she spared me her thoughts about it. Instead, we could do thirteen-year-old things together: explore fashions at the mall, explode the kitchen making treats for movie fests, and laugh forever at 2am farts during sleepovers. Allena meant a lot to me. 

She too was facing hardships. We didn’t talk in depth because we both wanted to be busy having fun. But I knew she had been raped, by someone close to her family. Someone she couldn’t avoid. The stress from this could build to the point that she would sometimes go blind. When a bullet hit her leg, I couldn’t even understand how it happened, much less have any idea how to ease her emotional pain. Allena was dealing with a lot. 

I had somewhere safe to retreat: home. My own stress developed into chronic fatigue syndrome, and I stopped going to school. As I slept endlessly, did schoolwork with a tutor, read books, and sketched my cat, Allena continued to be unsafe. With struggles dominating our lives, we lost contact. One day, the doorbell rang and as usual I hid from it. Only to discover a note on the door: “I’m sorry I haven’t been a friend to you—Allena.” It was okay, to me, because I was sorry I wasn’t being a friend to her too. But instead of responding, I retreated into the comfort of my isolation.

That feeling, of wanting to support someone but failing to, has been a thread throughout my life. I was aware that Allena’s situation was much more dire than mine, and I couldn’t take it in—much less know what to say or do to help. To me, this is what we now describe as “the white woman’s bubble.” As a Black teenager, Allena showed me many things, including my own limits and self-protective instinct. I escaped pain when my family bought a bigger house and moved to the next town. Changing schools gave me a fresh start. How did Allena fare? I do not know. So I dedicated the first book in The Queen Bee series to her. Our friendship was my first glimpse of a heartbreak I would come to know so well, I had to explore it in depth. 

A goal with this novel series is to describe this dynamic, between white women and Black women, through story. Scholars and activists, theorists and historians, spiritual teachers and therapists, have long been bringing it to our attention. So I mined my own complex feelings about privilege, race, and history. Because in daily life, it does not feel clear, nor simple. As modern divisions show, even with good intentions, there is so much to the story.

This book series originally began much later in the life of Annabelle Manning. During the 2020 Covid lockdown, I began exploring a frontier woman’s drive to clear her own path in life. The first draft included flashbacks to her plantation upbringing, and the enslaved woman who raised her, Cecie, was always on her mind. To early readers, this was the most compelling part and they encouraged me to develop the idea chronologically instead. This meant imagining my way into the antebellum South, before the Civil War. 

While I felt how much there was to Annabelle’s backstory, I resisted their advice. Rebelled, even. Tried to retreat to my bubble. After the death of George Floyd as well as many others, and the seismic power of the Black Lives Matter message, how could I write about plantation life and enslaved people? Like so many, I listened to podcasts and read articles, paid close attention to what Black community was saying, and felt horrified by the limitations of my own privilege. Meanwhile, professionally I was editing self-help nonfiction written by marginalized authors to support each other’s mental health. Early successes showed I can support own-voices books with an open approach. I began wondering if I might apply the manifold truths I was learning to the story I had received, and was demanding to be written. So I refused advice to switch the novel to a more objective, third-person point of view, and committed to a first-person account, limited to a privileged white woman’s experience of a divided country.

It takes bravery to face the social climate of today, and it took a long time for me to be willing to imaginatively enter the social history of the nineteenth century. But the story of Annabelle and Cecie require it. There is a lot to the story. As the series unfolds, it explores marriage, books, art, publishing, race, political climates, religion, and economics in settings across America. But what is dearest to me is the complicated relationship between these two women, as they support and fail each other, are compelled by choice and circumstance, and find their own private motivations. Because we all have so much to offer each other, yet there is a lot standing between us. My novel series is my effort to portray our connection by contributing to the literary conversation that explores how we live. Because who we were informs how we are now.    

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