Skunk Spray: Racial Injustice and Complacency in The Turner House

Racial tension, though not the central story line of The Turner House, is ever-present in Angela Flournoy’s rendition of the Turners’ lives. The 12th Street Riot, which serves as the backdrop for a single flashback scene, demonstrates the cultures of both racism and resistance within the city of Detroit. Interested in the historical significance of the riot, I did some research and found that when the riot occurred in the summer of 1967, it was one of the most destructive in this country’s history with 43 deaths, 342 serious injuries, and 7,000 arrests. These severe casualties were the result of building tension between the predominantly white Detroit Police Department and black members of the community who were being fed rumors of police brutality. On July 23, the first day that shots were fired, the police department had conducted a raid of an illegal club hosting a celebration for recently returned veterans. Those in attendance, a mainly black group, resisted police orders to exit the club leading to the arrest of 85 patrons. As the arrestees waited in the streets to be taken away by police, hundreds more gathered in the streets and protested the aggression they were witnessing. It escalated into a historical riot that left Detroit bloodstained (12th Street Riot).

I was further drawn to Flournoy’s poignant glimpse of this horrific event through the experience of the eldest Turner child, Cha-Cha. “Afterward, a burning house became an olfactory norm akin to skunk spray; as long as the source of the odor wasn’t too close, you eventually ignored it” (page 89). Though the use of odor in this context was literal, it could be interpreted figuratively as anything repulsive and upsetting to the senses. Based on that interpretation, this quotation states that with time the repulsive becomes familiar, dulling our senses. Humans will become complacent in any situation if only given the time to do so. In one scene of The Turner House, Cha-Cha confronts issues of childhood and Francey tells him to be grateful it was not worse. He could have been much closer to the odor. “Slavery. Did there ever exist a more annoying way to try to make a modern-day black man feel like his troubles were insignificant, that he should be satisfied with the sorry hand society dealt him?” (page 82) Though Cha-Cha was the Turner child to observe the curious skunk spray phenomena, here he rejects its validity in terms of social justice. Yes, of course it was worse to be bound to the fields by someone who treated you as subhuman, but he would not adjust to the repulsive odor of injustice as it continued to invade his modern life.

“A feather-bed resistance” as Zora Neale Hurston describes in the epigraph of The Turner House is not uproar. It does not appear in the flames and loss of life of the 12th Street Riot. Instead, the feather-bed absorbs discrimination and then functions in spite of injustice. This resembles the philosophy of civil rights leader Booker T. Washington, which was a “strategy of accommodation and emphasis on industrial education.” The opposite approach was taken by W.E.B. Du Bois, who believed that the black community should demand equal treatment, rather than strive to work their way up. He believed that equality was a right inherent to all races that did not need to be earned (W.E.B. Du Bois).

By including Hurston’s work in the epigraph, Flournoy set us up to be thinking about race in our reading of The Turner House. Therefore moving forward we must be aware of the characters’ proximity to the “skunk spray” as well as their complacency or lack thereof.

Edit: This was my first blog post, and I did not realize until later in the semester how exactly I meant to connect this to more overarching themes. Distance from skunk spray is a way to understand space. If a person belongs in a certain place then is met with skunk spray, then while escaping the stench may be in their best interest, it is displacing that person. Maybe you can’t continue life in your neighborhood because of the crime, as on Yarrow Street. In that case, putting distance between yourself and harm is a compromise between autochthonous identity and livable conditions. By simply walking away and seeking better for yourself where you are permitted to, you would be offering a gentle resistance as described above. The reason that people like W.E.B. Du Bois are important is because they defend the right to occupy space that is rightfully deserved. Assertive tactic refuses to let society push some people to the margins or to willingly travel there to escape the stench of injustice. The 12th Street Riot and similar uprisings were by people who refused to be content with a space that was unfit for them.

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