My private sincere ideas on race in books as somebody going by all of the books I used to be pressured to learn from highschool as an grownup
Hiya pretty folks of /r/books ! I’ve gotten again into studying by audible and the library however largely audible over the previous few months and have been loving it. I began going by books I used to be pressured to learn from highschool since they’re thought-about classics and I needed to kind my very own opinion.
Up to now in that vein I’ve learn One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Subsequent, Of Mice and Males, 1984, and Animal Farm. I’d take into account the LOTR Guide 1 a “traditional” however they by no means gave fantasy/scifi at school, and I wasn’t a fan of the ebook anyhow.
I simply needed to share my perspective on these books as a black man who lives in America. Going by Cuckoo and Mice and Males, the writing and plot and characters had been AMAZING. It was a bit arduous to acclimate myself however I could not put issues down as soon as just a few characters had been developed. That stated I discover a standard theme in these American books from the 1900-Nineteen Nineties interval.
I am actually getting kinda drained and a bit of put down that all of those books has making enjoyable or torturing a black individual as a required a part of the story. I don’t assume these type of issues needs to be canceled or abridged, completely not. Artwork shouldn’t be tampered with and it displays actuality of the time interval. However on the similar time, after I learn these items and I see we’re instructing these concepts to youngsters in colleges, I legitimately really feel prefer it’s folks celebrating the “good ol’ days.” Sounds absurd? Positive. However that’s how I actually really feel. At a look many extra of the American classics like Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, and so forth share comparable plot gadgets.
In a bit extra reflection I discover as a child and nonetheless to this present day, I’ve gravitated in the direction of scifi/fantasy. There are nice themes in them that align with my persona positive, however it’s such a blessing when being a coloured individual in a narrative shies compared to some alien or magical speaking canine. I personally am of the assumption that if a chunk of artwork shouldn’t be created by a coloured individual, will probably be EXTREMELY troublesome for me to narrate as a result of a lot artwork that we supply as “classics” that we construct foundations for a lot of extra years of artwork are in actuality made by white males, who by no means have to contemplate these issues that I do, as simply one other negro in America.
Comments ( 6 )
Literature needs an audience to survive. It acquires a readership through growth or pandering to an existing base (or some degree of both, usually.)
I have no problem with authors who strive to present a form of truthful insight through entertainment. Some female authors present male characters incisively, and some male authors do the same for women. Shakespeare created Othello and Shylock who each represented universal human weaknesses. People in societies all over the world are striving to move beyond cultural xenophobia (racism, misogyny, religious intolerance, atheist intolerance, etc.) The overarching message of *Taming of the Shrew* is hilariously specious, as viewed from the perspective of the kind of moral philosophy I admire most. And don’t get me started on Will’s use of ghosts, fairies and other ridiculous non-scientific explanations of the physical world. Or his lavish undemocratic kissing up to foppish, ignorant trust-fund kids who underpin the reasons for their social status as ones of genetic superiority, and not because of naked greed, willingness to commit great acts of sudden violence and/or luck and the unfair twisting of laws and the appeal to a boogie man in the sky.
From an aboriginal perspective, I must say it is better nowadays that Indians aren’t being played on TV and movies solely by European colonists in dark paint anymore and that cartoons are no longer considered witty, like Popeye, where aboriginals are portrayed solely as vicious, ignorant rapists after white women (“Big Chief Ugaamug gotta gettum squaw!”)
Books in school do an uncomfortable double-duty in that they are often used not only to introduce literary topics but to introduce historical ones as well, so even when you end up with books with minority representations, those representations are stereotyped, so yeah, you read a book about a Jewish character, maybe even a Jewish author, and it’s going to be…about the Holocaust. Read one with a Black MC and even author, you better believe it’s gonna be about slavery or the Black Civil Rights movement. Even books about white people run into some of these problems; see the persistence of the much-hated *Scarlet Letter* because it gives an opportunity to introduce Puritanism.
Historical literature is, of course, not history. Some of these historical settings are notoriously inaccurate for the purposes of narrative just as plenty of stories about the here and now involve outlandish or unusual aspects of our day to day lives because those are interesting. Overall, the goal is less to promote true understanding of the historical period as it is to inculcate understanding of a cultural sanctioned periodization: these are these important eras, these are the kinds of people associated with that era. This has the effect of erasing the existence of minority groups in periods that are supposedly not “their” focal periods. There have been Jewish and Black people in America for 400 years but you’re not going to read a novel about a Jewish family in the Carolinas during the early colonial period…
There is certainly something suspicious about the way that these representations just happen to be of the historical moments when the pain and degradation faced by a group are front and center, featuring characters actively experiencing that degradation. The intent, I believe, is to humanize and explain, but the effect is often to encourage a racial catharsis by allowing white people to engage with and even sympathize with perspectives they may not be able to openly acknowledge today.
So that’s to say, I both agree with what you’re saying, and would take it a step farther by saying that *even when* the books are written by Black people, there is a selection bias that privileges Black pain over Black excellence and joy. That selection occurs both in the process of publication and then in the process of curricular formation.
I will say, let’s put it this way, if you had *never* read books by or about the white male experience I would say, give them a shot, there’s a lot to learn. But of course that’s not the case. We get plenty of that whether we want it or not, so there’s no reason to go out looking for it anymore.
Try reading autobiographies such as Booker T Washington Up From Slavery that you may identify with while also learning about history. Forming your opinion on classics is a great thing to do, but it’s important to remember these books aren’t “classic” because you’re supposed to think they’re good. In fact, my experience in reading the classics I missed as a kid, is the surprise that many of the books are in fact NOTHING like they’re supposed to be. Reading the book for yourself, discovering what it all means and then thinking about how or why they made a social impact. At the end of the day, you have to read the book yourself, if you have an opinion on any work, own it, you’ve earned it. There’s much to be gained about learning in this style, the books that were popular can teach us valuable lessons: surprising ones about the world, and that truth is not always what has been told to us.
I don’t think that what you’re putting forward is absurd at all. I feel like we should teach these books, and when we address those sections, we should confront it head on, note how common it was at the time, then hammer the point home that it should have been unacceptable then and sure as hell is unacceptable now, that the world has change and should continue to change.
I know that sounds preachy, but some kids need to hear that messaging from a trusted adult, especially if they aren’t getting that education at home. Unfortunately, that requires some progressive thought and acceptance on the part of educators and students (*perish the thought* /s)
I had a course in college called Race, Class, and Gender in Science Fiction Film. One of its main points was that a lot of the black community felt disappointed by classics, not just in film but also in literature like you’re expressing and in music as well. So there was a sort of mass movement into science fiction and science fictional ideas. So I think you have a lot of company with your feelings.
Science Fiction trends futuristic while Fantasy trends regressive. As much as I love Lord of the Rings, it’s pretty regressive once you step away from its antiwar messaging. And there are a lot of racist tropes in it. Which tend to get copied by everyone else in Fantasy because LotR was such a defining book.
There’s also the unfortunate choice that many writers make to try and reflect the mistakes of the past by simply trying to put a new tone on the same action. So there’s a lot of repetition when there doesn’t need to be and it just ends up being more of the same. The essential problem with books like To Kill a Mockingbird or The Adventures of Huck Finn which are both extremely anti racist in sentiment for their times, is that they illustrate their anti racist sentiments by showing racism as a dominant force in the world and having the characters, mostly white, react to that to show how wrong it is. It is, implicitly, for a white audience to be shown that normalized racism is wrong. Which, if you’re not white, doesn’t quite fit the same.
This is the deep problem with most of the classical canon. They are mostly books that were written for a mainstream white audience. And mostly for a male one. Yes, they point out the problems in society but they mostly do so from that implicit point of view that you, a white anglo saxon protestant male, should heed this warning and be better. It’s still not FOR the person who is the sufferer of racism.
One of the most interesting and powerful books I ever got in high school was Monster by Sanyika Shakur. It was the total opposite of most of the other books I got in school. Written by a black man about suffering injustice as a black man. And it really manages to turn the idea of “justice” on its head. That the system of order in place to supposedly make the world better is designed to keep him and people like him in pain and misery. There isn’t “justice” merely a system to keep things in place.
After high school, the books I was given often confirmed that idea. And particularly the idea that the literary canon we give to children in school is part of that system. It is meant to reflect the system we have and keep it in place.
Even something like Pride & Prejudice which is definitely for an implied woman audience, can be easily read to recapitulate what the system wants from women: to forgive men their faults in exchange for their trappings and to desire above all to recreate the nuclear family as it was, as it will ever be.
Which is a very long winded way of saying that the feeling you’re having probably is the intended effect of the canon. It’s meant to say what you’re feeling. That you’re the object for society to act on rather than the actor driving society. That’s part of why these books were chosen. To make “compassionate conservatives” out of white kids and to tell children of color that they had no hope except to make white friends by taking up these ideals in spite of themselves. The canon alters over time as certain books do a better or worse job of putting pressure toward the status quo.
It’s not just made by white men. It’s made FOR white men. And given with the intent that anyone who isn’t a white man will take it as the argument that they must somehow, impossibly, strive to become the same thing to be part of society or just give up because they clearly aren’t meant to benefit from society.
The only book you mention that I recall such plot devices in is To Kill a Mockingbird. I don’t remember any such tropes in The Great Gatsby or LOTR, and I may not ever have read Of Mice and Men, so I can’t speak to that one.
I myself recommend people not read To Kill a Mockingbird. Not because of what you mention but because racism is a serious issue in our world today, and the book gives very poor guidance as to how we ought to deal with it, in my view. Very misleading guidance. Really, as far as I can tell, it’s “racism porn” in the same style as Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Not helpful at all.
But I can understand how such plot devices might tire you out completely. I’d be interested to hear how you view Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which to me is a timeless classic for real. A lot of people have called the book racist, and it does depend on the tribulations of a so called black man (I say so called because race is largely a fantasy) for some of its oomph, but to me it uses racism in a very different way from every other book that uses such tropes: to educate us about ourselves.
Specifically, there’s a sequence in which Huck (the title character) is pretending to be another character in the book, interacting with that character’s aunt (or something like that, don’t remember exactly) and in this conversation he says his arrival was delayed because the boiler on his steamboat blew up. Gracious! says the old lady. Was anybody hurt? No’m, says Huck. Killed a (n word).
Very soon after Huck muses (I think to himself) that if his conscience was a yellow dog he would shoot it, as it seemingly was not doing the job it was there for. My belief is that this is one of the fundamental truths about living, that no one ever tells us (and maybe most people don’t know): we cannot tell right from wrong. That’s one of the fundamental characteristics of human beings, I think. I’ve never read any other author who made a similar point, and I think it’s a very important one.
Well, as I say, the book depends heavily on the tribulations of a so called black man, and so it may be painful for you to read, but if you can manage it, I’d be very interested to learn what you take from it.