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Big-City Texas in the ’80s: Oil Money, Racial Tensions — and ‘Black Water Rising’

by Jerome Weeks 5 Aug 2009 7:21 AM

Attica Locke made money as a screenwriter but no movies ever got made. So this time, she wrote a novel — inspired by incidents from her childhood and her father’s life in Houston in the ’80s. Now, her debut thriller, Black Water Rising, is getting her compared to such masters as Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos. Jerome Weeks reports.


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1358614Attica Locke is a bit of a rarity. She’s an African-American, female novelist from Texas who’s made her debut with a big-city crime novel. It’s called Black Water Rising, and rarer still, Locke is getting compared to such master thriller writers as Dennis Lehane, the author of Mystic River, and George Pelecanos, who wrote for the HBO series, The Wire.

Locke has already been a successful screenwriter in Los Angeles for more than a decade. But while her scripts got sold they never got made. Partly, this was just because of the cumbersome economics of filmmaking. Partly, it’s Hollywood’s very limited openness to serious movies about African-Americans.

So Locke decided that this time, she’d write a novel. And she’d set it in Houston in 1981. She was inspired by an incident that happened when she grew up there.

ATTICA LOCKE: “My dad, who did not have a lot of money, wanted to do something for my step-mother, for her birthday. And he knew somebody who knew somebody who ran boat tours on Buffalo Bayou. And you dock in downtown Houston which is kind of, you know, city lights and somewhat picturesque, but the ride takes you into parts of the city that are not so nice.”

Somewhere in the darkness, a woman screamed. Then, gunshots. Locke’s father did not play hero. He wasn’t going to endanger his wife and children by abandoning them to leap unarmed into a swamp at night.

In contrast, in the opening of Black Water Rising, Attica’s main character, Jay Porter is in the same situation. But he jumps. And he lands in a world of trouble. Real estate swindles and big oil money and racial violence.

Those are the other reasons that Locke set her novel in Texas in the ‘80s.

ATTICA LOCKE: “Texas in the ‘80s, particularly Houston and Dallas were emblematic of the early optimism about the Reagan ‘80s – before people figured out that wasn’t going to work out for everybody [laughs]. There was just a lot of oil money going around, the cities and the state were getting international attention. Kinda just like a really interesting time that represented a country trying to transition from a segregated America into an integrated America.”

In Black Water Rising, Jay Porter makes for an unusual hero. He’s scared. He was once a black activist, a student associate of Stokely Carmichael. But then he led a protest that ended in violence – and in his own trumped-up murder trial. Ever since, Jay has slept with a gun nearby. He’s left the movement, satisfied to scratch out his own legal career and a married life — but the fear has never left him that everything could suddenly be taken away.

Jay’s racial paranoia is not true for all African-Americans, Locke says. It reflects her own experience. She grew up bifurcated, as she calls it, bused from a black neighborhood to an integrated school.

ATTICA LOCKE: “Being thrust into a newly integrated American culture that still had some serious problems, I was always scanning my environment to figure out who I could trust – because you would make friends with someone on the playground one week and the next week they might call you the ‘N’ word. And I’m not even saying that is genuine racism – some of that was just kids. But they knew that if you used that word, ooh, you can really hurt somebody.”

genelocke2Gene Locke is Attica’s father. In the ’80s, he was a struggling criminal defense attorney, just like Jay Porter in Black Water Rising. But the similarities don’t go much farther. As Attica insists, Gene is not Jay. Still, reading his daughter’s novel took Gene back. And he was struck by the novel’s accuracy in depicting portions of unpleasant, big-city Texas life that aren’t normally found in fiction – like the labor community and its racial tensions.

GENE LOCKE: “All of that’s part of the rich history of change in Houston, You know, rather than deny it, let’s acknowledge it and acknowledge that it was some of the very struggles that she has in the book that has given rise to the Houston we are quite proud of now.”

The Lockes themselves embody those changes in Texas’ racial history. Attica Locke’s husband is white, and they have a two-year-old biracial daughter. As for Gene Locke, he’s no longer just another criminal defense attorney. On Monday, it became official.

Gene Locke is running to be the next mayor of Houston.