Single Voice Reading Series Introduction

Allegheny College

October 10, 2019

 

by Pearl Cooper

 

 

Malcolm Hansen’s debut novel, They Come in All Colors, is a powerful, heartbreaking exploration of biracial identity and a story of what it means to come of age in America. Hansen offers us a fresh perspective on the Civil Rights movement through the eyes of Huey Fairchild, a biracial teenager looking back on a turning point in his life. Hansen’s novel does not give us the clear, easy-to-swallow reflection that might come with a more experienced adult narrator. Instead of taking us back to a neatly remembered past, Hansen finds ways to wrench history into the narrative present through Huey’s intimate and authentic voice as an unwilling witness to history.

With little introduction, we are plunged into Huey’s world and the complex mind of this precocious, “highly impressionable” 8-year-old. Huey’s universe is centered entirely around his segregated hometown, Akersburg, Georgia, which, in the summer of 1962, erupts into protests and violence with the arrival of Freedom Riders. Huey’s limited understanding of his world is dependent entirely on what his parents tell him—that he is white and has nothing to worry about—and his own observations and experiences, which tell him another story. Huey’s confidence in his world starts to collapse as he realizes that his parents have been hiding the truth about his racial identity from him and he is forced to confront the complications of growing up black in a divided America.

In my own writing, I work to explore the ways that young people navigate the binaries constructed by our society, and so I was especially inspired by the way Hansen crafts the point of view of Huey, a child who exists along the blurred line between black and white identities. As a narrator, Huey is wonderfully unreliable and has no idea what is going on most of the time. Despite his confusion, he is smart, observant, and demonstrates an unapologetic desire to hold others accountable. At one point, Huey goes so far as to criticize God’s creation of the earth in seven days, saying that “If things weren’t going right, it was no wonder. [God] should have just slowed the hell down and taken his time” (46). While this moment is certainly amusing, it also shows Huey’s ability to see through the racial boundaries that the adults around him see as inevitable and part of human nature. Hansen reminds us that children are in the best position to question injustice, as they have not yet been conditioned to accept it at face value.

Even though Huey, in his naive attempt to get to the bottom of the unrest in his town, would like to think that he is older and knows more than he does, we never lose sight of the fact that he is a child. When Huey overhears his mother crying, he hides, noting that “as curious as I was, I also kinda didn’t want to know what was going on” (120). Even though Hansen allows Huey to remain in control of the story, he reminds us that we are witnessing a childhood interrupted by trauma, and that Huey is being forced to grow up before he is ready.

What I admire most about Hansen’s writing is how deeply I was able to empathize with Huey. Throughout the novel, Huey makes mistakes, jumps to conclusions, and is admittedly not always the most likable character, but Hansen ensures that we are always rooting for him, and wishing that he could grow up in a better world.