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Crime writer S.A. Cosby loves the South — and is haunted by it

S.A. Cosby's previous books include <a href="">Razorblade Tears</a><em> </em>and<em> <a href="">Blacktop Wasteland</a>.</em>
S.A. Cosby's previous books include Razorblade Tears and Blacktop Wasteland.

Novelist S.A. Cosby describes himself as a "Southerner, born and bred." A native of Mathews County, Va., Cosby attended Lee-Jackson Elementary school — named after Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson — and has lived his whole life 30 miles from the former capitol of the Confederacy.

"I love where I come from," Cosby says. "But to paraphrase James Baldwin, because I love the South, I reserve the right to criticize, because I know it can be better than what it is."

Cosby describes the South as the birthplace of the country, but also, in many ways, a "microcosm for what's wrong with the nation." As a child, he remembers being taught that the Civil War was the "war of Northern aggression," and that the conflict wasn't really about slavery.

"And those are things that are still being taught, to a certain extent, in my hometown today," he says. "If there's a place that is more haunted by its past and more overwhelmed by its original sin than the South, I'm unaware of it."

Cosby explores some of the tensions inherent to the South in his new novel, All the Sinners Bleed. The story centers on the first Black sheriff of Charon County, a small, fictional county in southeast Virginia. Sheriff Titus Crown is tracking down a serial killer who preys on Black children, while also working to keep the county's simmering racial tensions from getting out of hand. Cosby says the book was inspired by the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the uprising that followed.

"I really wanted to ... use the small-town police force to reflect the issues and concerns about policing on a larger scale," he says. "I could talk about policing, but also I can talk about religion, I can talk about sex, I can talk about class. Those are, in my opinion, the four pillars of Southern fiction."

Interview highlights

/ MacMillan

On the consequences of reframing the Civil War and denying history

I was just fascinated by the idea that some 20 or 30 odd years after the Civil War and after the history of the country was adjudicated, these folks took it upon themselves to reframe the Civil War. And I think that's a horrible, horrible thing that we're still dealing with today, that we are not able to accept the truth of our history, not just the Civil War, but of America's history in total. The idea of America is this incredible, wonderful experiment in freedom and autonomy. But the way we got there, it's filled and littered with darkness and degradation. And I think we do ourselves a disservice when we're not honest about it. ... I'll hear people sometimes, especially nowadays, say, "Oh, you're trying to make young white children feel guilty about what their ancestors did." Well, if they don't share those same sentiments, why would they feel guilty? It's that maddening fallacy of logic that drives me crazy.

On the argument that the Confederate flag is a symbol of Southern heritage — not white supremacy

I think it's an incredibly naïve, if not outright disingenuous attitude. You can't separate those two. I am a Southerner. My southern bonafides go back to 1867. My great-great-great-grandfather, Gabriel Cosby, and his brother Kit Cosby, founded the church that I attended for a number of years. When you wave the Confederate flag and tell people that it's Southern heritage, what you're doing is erasing all the indigenous people that live in the South, all the Black people that live in the South, the huge amount of Jewish Southerners that live in the South. What you're saying is that only one demographic's interpretation of history matters.

I am a proud Southerner. I have no intention of leaving. ... And I have as much right to Southern heritage [as] anyone else. And so I don't plan on ceding one inch, one foot, one iota to someone who has this sort of reimagined revisionist idea of what the Civil War was.

I am a proud Southerner. I have no intention of leaving. And every scrap of land or every pole that some good old boy erects to put a Confederate flag on, someone who looks like me, has bled and died and lived there. And I have as much right to Southern heritage [as] anyone else. And so I don't plan on ceding one inch, one foot, one iota to someone who has this sort of reimagined revisionist idea of what the Civil War was.

On Confederate statues that remain

Those statues are reminders that the people who fought a whole war to keep people in chains do not accept their loss [of the war]. And I think that's something that, again, has really worn us down as a people, as a nation, that we did not take action to make the people who were literal traitors be treated like traitors. I think it's the first time in the history of the world that the losers of a civil conflict were able to dictate the terms of how they are remembered. And so I find it frustrating, not only as a Southerner, but as an African American.

On white privilege

I think people confuse privilege with success. Just because you're not successful doesn't mean that you're not privileged. You could be in a footrace and your mom can be the one judging the foot race and your brother can give you a 10-foot head start. And if you lose, that doesn't mean that you didn't have any privileges, it just means you weren't able to take advantage of them. So I think there's this idea among some folks that their lack of success is proof that the privilege didn't exist. No, your privilege is to drive down a road without getting pulled over for nothing. Your privilege is to go into a store and have a $20 bill that looks a little janky and the person just not accepting it. You don't end up with somebody's knee on your neck. That's your privilege. Your privilege is to have an uncle, have a cousin, have a friend, have a fraternity brother who works at a bank, who gets you a good mortgage when you come in, even though maybe your credit isn't 100%. That's your privilege. ...

I've never been ashamed of being a Black man. But I'm acutely aware that my life has never been easier because of the color of my skin. Just like I have friends who are white, who I doubt that their lives ever have been harder because of the color of their skin. And again, I don't want you to feel bad about it. I don't want you to genuflect and grovel about it. I just want you to acknowledge it. I think knowledge of it goes a long way to help healing similar issues.

Heidi Saman and Susan Nyakundi produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Barbara Campbell adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Sam Briger