The Backstory: Dantiel W. Moniz

Dantiel W. Moniz’s “What We Make It” imagines an America in which armed neighborhood watchmen replace police, and justice is meted out by whim rather than jury. “Anything could become a crime with the Deputized on every corner, watching in grocery stores, in car lots and coffee shops. Watching over you from right next door.”

Moniz, the author of the forthcoming story collection Milk Blood Heat, was inspired by this recent story of a Florida sheriff who threatened to deputize civilian gun owners to protect his county against Black Lives Matter protesters. And yet on Wednesday, the real world caught up with “What We Make It” once again when Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old armed with an AR-15–style rifle, killed two BLM protesters and injured a third during protests over Jacob Blake’s shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin. As one Chronicles podcast listener from Wisconsin put it, “This story was tough. It felt a little too relevant and hit too close to home.”

“Everything that’s going on in the world right now is a narrative that we have control over,” Moniz explains of the title. “What’s happening is what we make it. We can choose to unmake it as well.”

Dantiel W. Moniz

Interviewed by Ashley C. Ford. August 11, 2020. Northeast Florida

Chronicles of Now: I wanted to start by asking you about the title “What We Make It.” Can you tell us a little bit about what you were thinking there?

Dantiel W. Moniz: So there’s a line that the manager ends up saying to the main character, Jaia, when she’s asking her to take off her mask and she says, “Life is what we make it.” And you hear that a lot—life is what we make it, as in you have control over the path of your life, which is true, except when it concerns these systematic obstacles that are put in place by systems such as white supremacy and patriarchy and that kind of thing. So everything that’s going on in the world right now is a narrative that we have control over. What’s happening is what we make it and we can choose to unmake it as well.

CON: The news hook for your story involves the sheriff of Clay County, Florida, near Jacksonville, who recently said he’d deputize every gun owner if his deputies couldn’t handle Black Lives Matter protestors. I remember when that was said and I remember a distinct chill down my spine hearing someone say that out loud. What did you think when you first heard about that?

This is fiction, but this is a very real terror that has been going on in this country since its foundations.

DM: I mean, honestly it froze me. I was looking and seeing the headline and I thought, Wow this is something that so many people feel. It already happens—there are vigilantes, neighborhood watch. If you look at something as simple as Trayvon Martin, that would have been a situation of a deputized person. But just to hear someone say it out loud. It just felt like that’s a moment that needs to be looked at, that needs to be examined.

CON: That sheriff, Darryl Daniels, is himself a Black man.

DM: Yes.

CON: What do you make of a Black law-enforcement official appealing to gun owners in a southern state?

DM: So that is the other complicated part of the story that I chose not to, for the purposes of the story, portray, but I felt as if it ran the lines along to me. It made sense to me. It seems as this is someone who is in a county that upholds these kind of patriarchal laws, someone who is so desperate to gain that foothold of power that he would do anything. And to me that just seems like it falls in line with, I don’t know, can I say coonery? Is that allowed?

CON: I mean yeah.

DM: I just felt like, okay so this is someone who has been given power, who feels like they want to keep it by whatever means, and if that appeals to him to say “oh let’s shoot down protesters in the street,” then let’s do that. And that’s a little bit of evil that also is just chilling.

CON: Oh yeah. But a tale as old as time. Why do you think Black Lives Matter is so threatening to some people?

DM: I think this has to do with the fact that for white people, they have been the default people since the foundation of this country, so they have not had to qualify themselves in the way that a lot of other Americans have had to. So I think for them the fact of even bringing up race is a threat. It’s like you’re making me think about something that I don’t have to think about, that I don’t want to think about, I want to be the default, I want to be that power and so I think that saying that Black Lives Matter to people that are threatened by that is saying somehow that Oh mine doesn’t matter. You’re leaving me out of it. They aren’t used to being left out of the equation. Their inclusiveness is invisible, it’s just all consuming, and so to parse it out that way is somehow you’re saying to me that I don’t matter or you’re saying to me that somehow I’m responsible for the fact that you’re having to say that Black Lives Matter.

CON: Yes. Yes. You know I have a theory that when people say All Lives Matter, it’s not because they’re thinking about white lives or even blue lives; it’s because they’re thinking about pain-free lives. They believe they have a right to a life where they do not and should not have to encounter knowledge about how this country came to be.

DM: Mhmm. A life and a history unexamined. Yeah.

CON: Yes, absolutely. It’s the right to an unexamined life. Did writing this help you process or understand this moment in a new way?

DM: I think that one of the really cool things about art is that it allows you to immerse yourself into any situation. And you know, suffice to say that we are very well immersed right now in the moment with the news and the constant barrage of different events that are happening, so I don’t know that immersion was my angle was for this. But I think that to put it in the aspects of a story that does something for some people who maybe feel like they’re on the fringe of these movements that are happening right now. Like, Oh this is happening but I’m not at the center of it, I didn’t cause it, I’m not complicit. Turning it into a story kind of removes that barrier of This is not me. It allows someone to go along in a way that you don’t have someone in your face telling you, “You’re wrong. This is what you need to listen to.” It’s kind of more palatable. So it’s not so much processing for me. But I hope that maybe other people might process it in this form. This is fiction, but this is a very real terror that has been going on in this country since its foundations.”

CON: You know, one of the things that has been a through line in these conversations about racial injustice in the country right now is the idea of deputizing. Taking matters into our own hands, almost refereeing what we think is good or bad or right or wrong. Why do you think that is happening right now?

So everything that’s going on in the world right now is a narrative that we have control over. What’s happening is what we make it and we can choose to unmake it as well.

DM: I think that it’s happening right now because it’s so much more visible, it continues to get more visible, these egregious violation of rights. Like again, that is foundational to our country. I think that because it’s more visible, the powers that be are having to answer to it more and more and I think that there’s something about “Oh no we’re about to lose this power.” I think it’s a power grab, honestly. I think it’s a last desperate attempt to instill into people who can still be controlled by some notion of some great right, which is subjective, right? I think that that’s the whole thing about make America great again, right? It’s like Okay, but who is defining that? And let’s not let people look at that question, but let’s paint this picture of goodness, but what have we had to sacrifice to have someone’s image of goodness be unsullied?

CON: Mm. Absolutely. That’s a good question. This has been the summer of the Coronavirus and of Black Lives Matter protests. Both have been happening it feels like simultaneously. Your story also takes place in the midst of a pandemic and BLM protests, is there a connection in your mind between the country’s response to the virus and the protests we’re seeing in the streets right now?

DM: I feel 100 percent. If you look at situations such as Katrina, which was a giant loss of life that wasn’t really handled the way a natural disaster such as that, on that scale, would be handled. This pandemic I think affects people who don’t have power in this country, whether that’s a class line or identity line, whatever it is I think that the response at first seemed to be “Oh we want to keep people safe.” But then when it became more and more apparent that the people who were going to be affected were not the rich, were not the powerful, were not the people who didn’t have to go out and work, I think that things have changed. The response is slower and I think that both things are very connected. The uprising and the fact that we have to be in this situation with the pandemic in the first place. I think that those are both going to look at power that has no responsibility to its people.

CON: That’s just at the heart of it is power that has no responsibility to its people, that’s what the fight is against. How personal is this story to you? Did you draw from experiences in your own life in order to write it?

DM: I mean you know at a base level if you are a Black woman who lives in America, you have consciously or unconsciously experienced prejudices and racism against you. So it’s easy in that way. But I just thought what would be the most terrifying thing, and the most terrifying thing is to go through life not being able to believe in what you believe in, being attacked for what you believe in, and then being justifiably killed for what you believe in. And whether you think Jaia at the end dies or doesn’t die, that’s left a little bit ambivalent. But I think that the point is that it’s terrifying and it’s real. It’s what happens every day in this country.

CON: Absolutely. Polls show that large majorities of Americans support Black Lives Matter in their aim of eliminating police violence against Black people specifically. Yet Trump is doing everything he can it seems to stir up a racist reaction. How do you think that’s going to play out for him in 2020?

DM: Honestly, I think it might work in his favor. I think that the people who support him, regardless of countless evidence that he is not who he says he is, he does not have the intentions for this country that he said that he has, I think that despite all of that these people have bought in and now they’re like, I have to I have to. It’s like a bad investment that you’ve put all of your money into but to take it out would be detrimental not just to your economic wealth but also your pride. I think that Americans cannot suffer damage to their pride, it’s almost like the worst thing that could happen. So unfortunately, I think that all of the discourse he is doing is working in his favor. But I’m hoping that the people who are now becoming more awake to this situation will use the power that they have and the privilege that they have to enact some different course than where it looks like we’re heading for 2020.

CON: I hope you are not right.

DM: I will see. Super same.

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Dantiel W. Moniz: What We Make It

As protests erupted across the nation this summer, heavily armed militias stood off...

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