Suppressive listening: Book review of Darktown

Darktown by Thomas Mullen is the first book I’ve read this year, and I do recommend it. It’s a police-procedural suspense book set in Atlanta in 1948, the year the Atlanta Police Department opened a police precinct with the APD’s first Black officers. The APD, somewhat cleansed of its KKK elements (although not really), was a hostile, undermining, patchily corrupt group of colleagues who did not welcome these new officers in the least. Here’s a snippet from the New York Times’s review:

One incendiary image ignites the next in this highly combustible procedural, set in the city’s rigidly segregated black neighborhoods during the pre-civil-rights era and written with a ferocious passion that’ll knock the wind out of you.

One of the minor characters is a U.S. Congressman with a reputation for being an ally to the civil-rights cause. Protagonist Officer Boggs is investigating a murder victim’s possible connections to this Congressman. In pursuing a meandering and suspenseful path to the answer, Boggs comes to speak with a civil-rights activist who knew both the victim and the Congressman, described as such:

“We have written him a few letters, asking for better funding for Negro schools, in Atlanta and in the country. But I’m not holding my breath. Sometimes it’s the ones who claim they’re progressive who are the worst, because they act like they are the very boundary between the possible and the impossible, and they never let you cross them. Know what I mean?”

The story speeds past this tiny moment, but it gave me pause. It’s a kind of listening I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. One way to describe it is “suppressive listening.”

It’s the kind of listening that lends an empathetic ear. The listener does it all by the book, providing a comfortable setting and full focus, giving the speaker a chance to really be heard. It feels good to say what happened or what is needed, and not be judged or face retribution. There’s value in that kind of listening.

And then, the response: “I’m willing to take this up further. Here’s how I see it playing out.”  “This is important, but we are playing a long game and this may not be the time.” “Do you really want to do that?”

It’s phrased with empathy, and the listener may in fact experience empathy: “I want this whole system to change too—I wish we could tear it down. But I don’t want to make things worse right now either.”

The result of suppressive listening is that advocacy is suppressed. Complaints are suppressed. Listening provides an outlet for whoever is in need, but the listener also acts as a gatekeeper wielding (and preserving) power and discretion. Some ideas are never shared; some needs are never known. Some secrets are kept. Some become “open secrets.”

One message of Darktown is that mysteries may be neatly solved, but power does not let go, and institutions hold on to it by whatever means necessary. The white power structure of the 1940s responded to Black Americans’ attempts to vote—as well as simply to be seen in uniform marching as a U.S. veteran—with violence. There are some moments of connection in the book, but they are forged by action and by shared risk, not by talk alone, nor by listening. The conversations that restore and replenish are not the ones from activist to congressman or from black cop to white ally. A moment of quiet listening is shared between a mother and her adult son, telling him she sees his struggle and knows he is making a difference. She doesn’t hold the keys to what is possible, only what her son needs in that moment.

3 thoughts on “Suppressive listening: Book review of Darktown

  1. Jennifer,
    Great observation! We are always told to sit down, shut up and things will improve. I have heard it said that power is never willingly shared. It has to be taken/forced.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Nancy. I was drawn to your use of the phrase “sit down and shut up.” Let’s not forget the more passive-aggressive “stay in your lane.” These cliches can be shorthand tools for managing/suppressing voices seeking change.

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