The bestselling author and daughter of President Reagan gives her take on the 2016 presidential race, and discusses her latest book The Earth Breaks in Colors.
Author Patti Davis
Tavis: Pleased to welcome Patti Davis back to this program. The bestselling author is, of course, the daughter of President Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan. Her latest book which tells the story of a mixed race friendship that gets tested by a racially fueled incident is called “The Earth Breaks in Colors”. Patti, good to have you back on the program.
Patti Davis: Thank you.
Tavis: I want to talk about so many things with you in the time I have. It’s that time of year where once every four years your father’s name gets bandied about in the race for the White House. I want to come to that in just a second and a few other things I want to get your take on while you’re here in this political season. But first to the book, “The Earth Breaks in Colors”. Good book.
I was shocked–maybe shocked is too strong a word. I found it interesting that you set this racially tinged incident in Southern California. It’s not like we don’t have race issues around here from time to time. But when you think of a story about race and two girls, the first thing you think is the south, but you set this story in California. Tell me more.
Davis: Well, you know, I’m never quite sure how stories arrive in my head. So when I first saw the first scene of the book, I knew it was going to be in California, so it wasn’t even something I thought about.
But just because we haven’t had incidents like Ferguson or Baltimore or something here, it doesn’t mean that they don’t go on here. They do. So I found it completely probable that an incident like that would happen in Southern California.
Tavis: Let’s talk about this incident. The thing about talking about a novel is you don’t want to give too much away, so I always defer to the writer. But tell me and tell the audience about Whisper, Janice and Odelia.
Davis: Whisper is an 11-year-old white girl. Her best friend, Odelia, is Black. And at the beginning of the novel, as far as they take Black and white, it’s just skin color, you know, to them. And when this very violent racial incident happens, obviously, the world intrudes in a terrible, terrible way and they’re never the same.
They realize probably far too young, but they realize the weight of history that comes with skin color. And I have a line in the book…
Tavis: I love it. I love this line. Go ahead and say it.
Davis: “History is a river and we are all baptized in its waters.” The problem is, some people don’t realize they’ve been baptized in those waters.
And Odelia’s father, who ends up killing a man, one of the attackers in this incident, his back story from his father is one of having inherited a rage that he doesn’t even realize that he has inherited and his own definitions and preconceptions about Black and white that everything gets down to Black and white, and he’s not even aware of that.
Tavis: Why are two girls–Whisper and Odelia–why are two girls the best way in to getting us to wrestle with the race issues you want us to wrestle with? I ask that because it seems to me that kids are always–they’re unique characters in this book and they happen to be young girls. You could have told a story around these issues with different characters. Why two girls?
Davis: Because I think that that innocence is really important, you know. That’s part of our history too. We do bring with us, both white and Black, everybody brings with us the weight of history of generations. But part of our history too is that innocence and the two can coexist, you know.
We can still hold to that really in terms of human beings, it is just skin color, and then also have a deep understanding and a respect for history.
You know, there’s a wonderful quote about history of Maya Angelou’s. She said, “History with all its wretched pain cannot be unlived, but a face with courage need not be lived again.” I think, to me, that seems like the challenge of our times, you know, to take ownership of history, not to distance ourselves from it, not to minimize it.
Not to say things like, “Well, you know, slavery was a long time ago. Maybe you should get over it” which, by the way, no one would ever say to a Jewish person. No one would ever say to a Jewish person that the holocaust was a long time ago, maybe you should get over it, right?
But it is said about Black people and I think to take ownership of history means to have a reverence for it, to honor it, right? And to the degree that we do that, I think some of the anger then dissipates because it’s not as needed anymore. People get very angry when you don’t acknowledge their pain.
Tavis: For those who loved that quote that Patti just shared from Maya Angelou, it’s in her “On The Pulse of Morning” poem that she delivered at Bill Clinton’s inauguration. So if you want to read a great line and a great poem, go find “On The Pulse of Morning”, her speech delivered at Bill Clinton’s inauguration. You’ll love the piece that she did that day. If you don’t remember it or didn’t hear it, it’s worth reading. Go online and find it.
To your point now about race, I’ve always known this or certain have known it in my adult life, but I’ve come to appreciate this at another level in the era of Obama. That is that race–you were talking about skin color. Race is not just a skin color. Race in so many ways, Patti, is a political reality, is it not?
Davis: Yeah, it is, particularly now, particularly now.
Tavis: What do you make of the fact that the Pew study–Pew Research–finds that Americans are just as disappointed and disconcerted about race now almost eight years after Obama’s ascendency to the White House as they were before he showed up?
Davis: Well, you know, a friend of mine who is Black said to me, “I think things got worse when Obama was elected”, and I said, “Well, if by that you mean there is more racism since he got elected, I don’t agree with that.” I don’t think that there were people who woke up in November of 2008 and went, “Oh, my God, I never realized it before. I don’t like Black people”, right [laugh]? That didn’t happen.
But the people who already embraced what Martin Luther King called “the starless midnight of racism”, which is such a poignant phrase, I think they got riled up and they remembered and realized how deep that is with him. I don’t believe that the people who do hold to those beliefs are the majority in this country. I do, however, think they are the loudest at the moment.
Tavis: They might not be the majority, but if one takes the truth, I think, and the reality which is that Donald Trump in so many ways has played to the dark side of America…
Tavis: He’s played to the night side of America…
Tavis: As we sit here for this conversation, he’s leading in the polls. So they might not constitute the majority, but what do you make as your father’s name keeps being bandied about in this campaign for the White House, what do you make of what Donald Trump has been able to do at least poll-wise so far?
Davis: I think it’s horrifying, you know, and it is based on prejudice. I’m sure you’ve seen the same footage that I have of what’s going on in his rallies. The Muslim woman was thrown out. She wasn’t saying anything.
The Black guy was just thrown to the floor, and they yelling and the horrible things that are being said to these people at these rallies, it’s really, really horrifying. I think my father would be horrified by it. I mean, we really are in kind of uncharted waters in terms of that being the atmosphere of politicians and people running for the highest office in the land.
And it is true that Donald Trump has tapped into anger of people, but mainly anger of white people. And no one has yet explained to me what white people are angry about. I mean, we’ve pretty much been at the top of the totem pole for like forever, right? What are you angry about?
Tavis: To those who are watching right now–and I can hear them right now saying, “Tavis, you better follow up on that Patti Davis comment about her father being angry.” There are two things that come to mind…
Davis: I didn’t say angry. I said horrified.
Tavis: Horrified, okay. Fair enough. I’ll still take that because horrified is a strong word. So your father started his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi where Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney were murdered. He went there deliberately to announce his campaign. Many saw that as a nod to state’s rights which is racially coated.
In his campaign, we all recall the debate about the welfare queen. So when you say your father would be horrified, for those who look at his record and think that he wasn’t always the best on the race question himself, how do you respond to that? I want to give you a chance to respond. That’s why.
Davis: You know, I’m not an expert on the details of his campaigns. You know more about that than I do.
Tavis: I may not, but…
Davis: But I know the man. You know, were there decisions made not only in his campaigns, but in his presidency? Absolutely. But I know the man and I know what I was told when I was growing up about his intolerance for racism.
I know the story about him taking Black football players from his team back to his parents’ house in Illinois because they arrived at the hotel and they wouldn’t let the Black players in the hotel. So he wouldn’t go in that hotel either and he took them back to his parents’ house. You know, I know the man.
Tavis: Are there lessons for us in this book, “The Earth Breaks in Colors”, that we can wrestle with in this contemporary moment? That we can appreciate or embrace in this moment?
Davis: I think so. I hope so, and I think it does get down to history. You know, the white family in this book has their own history that they have tried to ignore. Both the mother and the father in that family have thought, “Well, if we don’t talk about our history and the wounds that have existed, then it won’t affect our lives”, and that never works, you know.
Then, as I said, Jackson Waters realizes that he has inherited the rage from his father. You know, the character in this book that I really, really loved was Jackson Waters’ son, Catrell. When he first sort of showed up, I thought, oh, he’s probably going to be this angry young Black man, and he wasn’t. You know, he isn’t. He has this uncommon…
Tavis: He’s a conciliator, yeah.
Davis: He is. He understands that we have to look beyond the anger that has justifiably been handed down through generations. There’s reasons for it, but there also has to be a vision beyond that.
Tavis: We were fortunate on this program, as I close here. We were fortunate on this program a couple of years ago to have Glenn Frey here for a two-night conversation about his legacy, about his life and about his career. He was here for the last album that he did, turned out to be his last album.
You, of course, dated and lived with–you and Bernie Leadon, the guitarist for the Eagles, dated for a while back in that era.
Davis: Yeah. We were together for four years.
Tavis: Four years, yeah. Your thoughts, if any, on the passing of Glenn Frey?
Davis: It’s so sad. I mean, there were people, including Bernie, who knew how ill he was. The rest of us didn’t know until he passed away. It’s very sobering, you know, when people of your own generation start dying. And we’ve had so many of them lately. David Bowie and Glenn…
Tavis: Natalie Cole.
Davis: Natalie Cole. It really makes you kind of look over your shoulder.
Tavis: I’m glad you said that because this is a great exit question, I think. I take your word that it is sobering when people in your generation start to pass away so suddenly. How do you look at what’s in front of you? I mean, you’re still writing books, you’re still doing great work. When you have that sobering moment, what does it say to you about the way you want to live the rest of your days?
Davis: Well, you know, there was a wonderful Carlos Castaneda line about keeping death over your left shoulder all the time. I don’t know why your left, but that’s what he wrote [laugh]. It could be your right. I don’t know [laugh].
But I think death–we’re so afraid of death in this culture. You know, I think we feel like, if we talk about it, we’ll invite it in and it’s going to leave with somebody. But I think, to the degree that we sort of make friends with it, that we live our life from a richer place.
Tavis: How is your mom doing?
Davis: Nice segue, Tavis [laugh].
Tavis: I’m sorry [laugh]. No, no…
Davis: That was good [laugh].
Tavis: No, no, I did not mean it like that. I’m sorry. I just wanted to ask how your mama’s doing, that’s all.
Davis: No, that’s okay. I mean, she’s 94 and frail and there you go, you know.
Tavis: You made peace with her transition whenever that’s going to come?
Davis: I have, yeah, I have.
Tavis: The new book from Patti Davis, daughter of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, is called “The Earth Breaks in Colors”, a worthwhile read. I think you’ll enjoy it. I enjoyed getting into it myself. Patti, good to have you on the program, and come back again.
Davis: Thank you so much for having me.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
[Walmart Sponsor Ad]
Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.