After a memoir and essay collection, McCall's first novel, Them, takes an unflinching look at gentrification's race politics.
How did you choose Martin Luther King's birthplace to set the novel?
Something I read years ago that has stuck with me verbatim, is deeply true: “the value of real estate is assessed according to its proximity to white people.” That, and the fact that my wife and I had been going to Ebenezer Baptist Church—Martin Luther King's Church in Atlanta's Old Fourth Ward, a district that has some great old houses. One day I saw this white guy, clearly a newcomer, sweeping his walk, and there were black people walking up and down the street. And I said to myself “Gee, I wonder what this experience is like for him, moving into this historically black neighborhood. Is he afraid?” And I looked at the black people and I thought, “What are they thinking?”
What did you discover?
It struck me very early on that the kind of white people who will move into black neighborhoods—it can't be the red neck good ol' boys, you know? It can't be people who say they hate black people. It has to be people who consider themselves fairly progressive, and have a certain comfort level with diverse groups. People who are trying to work on their own thinking about race. I wanted to explore that struggle, and to look at its history.
Which is where Martin Luther King birthplace plays in?
As a journalist [formerly at the Washington Post and Atlanta Journal-Constitution], I knew I had a jewel. You have whites moving into a black neighborhood with the idea of integrating—this is a new paradigm—and it happens to be the neighborhood where King was born. You drive past his house, and there are always lines of people and buses there from all over the world, all of them going into this house. Everyone in the neighborhood is always aware of the King presence. And King really preached the virtue of what he called “the beloved community.” So the symbolism is very powerful.
Do you agree that what people say to each other, and what they call each other, is really the heart of the novel, down to the title?
The title is ambiguous: “Them” goes both ways. People who are placed in the same environment tend to view the other as them—with preconceived ideas of “them.” In the book, there is a white character named Sandy who struggles mightily to do otherwise, to try to talk to her black neighbor Barlowe without bringing all of that in, when they're both looking at, say, a burned mailbox. During the course of the story, she learns just how utterly difficult that is.