Cross Currents

A cross cultural blog
MARCH 28, 2010 3:50AM

Five Books That Changed My Thinking About Race

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Yes, I’m starting with Gone With the Wind. Bear with me. 

 

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell.  I loved this book when I read it in 5th grade. It took me a day and a half to plow through all 1047 pages. I peered in the mirror and discovered by grayish eyes have a tinge of green. I called my eyes green, like Scarlett’s for years afterwards. I still appreciate Mitchell’s ability to make the reader sympathize with her less-than-admirable characters and her masterly depiction of Scarlett’s character arc. 

 

However, reading it at age ten, I absorbed all the racism in Mitchell’s book. Her southern aristocrats treated their slaves well. The slaves were not quite capable of looking after themselves and better off with their kind masters. GWTW was the first book I’d read about the antebellum South. Maybe if my school had been a bit better about teaching history, I would have had some counterbalance. 

 

I didn’t generalize these ideas about slaves to the few black Americans I knew. They were not slaves. They were my schoolmates, the children of my father’s colleague and a member of my mother’s church group. They were no different from us and I found one of my acquaintances’ claims of racism in my school to be a bit hard to believe. Because, you know, like Mitchell’s slave owners, every white person I knew was kind and well-meaning.  

 

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I hated this book when I had to read it. I liked the GWTW view of slavery -- benign whites, childlike dependent slaves. Slavery wasn’t right, but it wasn’t so bad. In TKAM, Lee depicted most whites as racist and willing to kill/condemn an innocent man to preserve the social order of the Jim Crow South. The book was fiction and it happened long ago and far away. So it had nothing to do with me. 

 

I was assigned TKAM in Junior High. I lived in the suburbs of Boston in the era of court-ordered busing in the city. I was reluctant to believe that my nice world might hold some parallels to the events or attitudes in the book. A few stray thoughts on the issue did emerge, which I did my best to suppress. I was 11 or 12 and not ready to deal with the real world. My school shied away from any controversial topics, like current events, rape or race. My liberal school liked discussing values, but not when there was any real risk of hearing the wrong values, particularly since the prevailing theory was that there are no wrong values.  

 

The one redeeming element of the book was the hero, Atticus Finch. He did the right thing, defending the falsely accused black man, Jim Robinson and protecting him from a lynch crowd. Although the book hinted otherwise, I was sure he was really a liberal from Massachusetts and one of us, not like the rest of the whites in the book, who were southerners and racists. 

 

 

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. This book was assigned to my roommate in college. I devoured it. Not only is it extremely well written, but it was the first book I read that showed life from the point of view of a black American. Angelou’s depiction of the daily indignities of racism was eye-opening, not to mention the Southern habit of attacking any black man for “crimes” committed by some black man. This made me understand for the first time why some blacks were angry at whites. Maybe it wasn’t so unreasonable, even if we’d all get along much better if they’d just change their attitude and realize that the vast majority of us were nice and full of good intentions. 

 

 Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families, by J. Anthony Lucas.  I read this by propane lamp in my two-room, daub, wattle and cement hut as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Haiti. This is when I learned the history of Boston’s busing that had been on the front pages of the Boston Globe every morning and that I had so effectively ignored, while pawing through for the comics. By this time, I was ready to accept complexity. 

 

The book discusses the effects of busing on the lives of one black family, a working class white family and an upper middle class white family. In the end, the upper middle class family leaves Boston for a suburb of the sort I’d grown up in to protect their children from the consequences of busing (hours in a bus going to a lousy school far from home). By their choices, my parents avoided direct contact with the main social issues of my childhood. I grew up happy and secure, unlike the kids who went to schools in the busing zones, a few miles from my hometown. Finally, I could realize that it wasn’t long ago and far away. Living in Haiti made it easy for me to understand that being an average American was to be one of the most privileged people on earth. And to believe that with that comes an obligation to the rest. 

 

Behind the Veil: Documenting African-American Life in the Jim Crow South by Kate Ellis.  She’s more known for her radio work. What I read was her master’s thesis and I’m not quite sure about the title. I recommend her radio works which can be found here:http://publicradioexchange.com/pieces/42224-remembering-jim-crow. She interviewed blacks, whites and Cajuns in Louisiana about their experiences with segregation. Many of the whites remembered their families as being benevolent to blacks with whom they ties, such as current or former employees. They were probably from the same era as Margaret Mitchell. Certainly their beliefs were the same. Yet, it was clear that the blacks had to ask for charity from the whites with whom they had ties because they were paid so poorly that a hospital bill or other similar expense was out of their budget. The system fostered dependency.  You could understand why the whites’ experience was of benevolent whites and dependent blacks. Few people questioned the unwritten rule that blacks should be paid a pittance. Even the progressive whites could be seen as, like Atticus Finch, enablers of the system that kept blacks poor and dependent. 

 

More striking was the group of blacks who tried to organize a training school to teach blacks the skills they’d need for well-paying (all things being relative) jobs in the oil industry which was then moving into Louisiana. The whites didn’t like this because their farms depended on underpaid black labor. The group of blacks organizing the school included the most prominent and well-educated blacks in town: the doctor, the teacher, etc. Rumors of a KKK action circulated and the blacks left town in the dead of night.

 

One of the most frequent complaints of the whites was that the blacks were lazy. They didn’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Yet when you looked at this incident, you could sympathize with black parents whose message to their children was, ‘don’t make waves,’ rather than, ‘look at So-and-so, he studied hard and became a doctor ---’ and had to abandon his home, possessions, and business and start from scratch in a new place. Maya Angelou’s grandmother certainly repeated the message, ‘don’t make waves.’ Maybe the blacks did exhibit less initiative. Their life experience more closely fit the theory that the nail that sticks up gets hammered back down. 

 

My takeaway from the book was how tangled cause and effect are and how impossible to separate truth from perception. Whatever we take as our understanding is colored by our perception. 

 

GWTW: Rereading Gone With The Wind as an adult, I saw so many things that escaped me as a child. The kindly slave owners are not so nice. Even the saintly Melanie says that she doesn’t want to move to the North because then her son might have to go to school with N**ers. Both the sentiment and the words shocked.  Prissy, the bird-witted, teenaged slave, is became more sympathetic and understandable. In Haiti, there were kids who stayed with other families and helped out, supposedly in return for education. These rest-aveks ranged from well treated nephews to distant relatives who were expected to work all the time. Rest-avek was synonymous with stupid. However, I noted that some of these kids acted stupid because they saw no benefit in being smart. If they were judged more competent, they’d be given more work. They daydreamed while mopping slowly, because doing an efficient job only meant they’d get the next chore sooner.  This attitude fit Prissy perfectly. Her lack of initiative and bird-wittedness are probably an accurate depiction not of a dumb black, but of a common response to being a slave.  Again, a tangled web of cause and effect and a huge change in my perception of the characters. 

 

Mockingbird: Reading To Kill A Mockingbird as an adult, I found Atticus Finch a more enigmatic figure. While he stands up to the lynch crowd and defends the innocent Jim Robinson, he is not, as Malcolm Gladwell observed, “brimming with rage at the unjust verdict.” Atticus accepts the unwritten rules of Southern racism, although he tries to protect Robinson from the injustice of them. Viewed this way, he’s an enabler, not a hero. Such a perception is a wholesale condemnation of my former conviction that if everyone would just play nicely bad things wouldn’t happen. 

 

Caged Bird:  Reading it again as an adult, I was struck by all the small ways in which Angelou and her family’s lives are blighted by racism. Her smart, well educated brother was lucky to get a good job as a Pullman porter.  Had he been white, he might have gone to Harvard. Many of the messages Angelou’s grandmother gives to her and her brother echo the ideas developed from Ellis’s book of how the experiences of racism shape the messages that parents and grandparents give to children.  Attitudes and values shaped in one set of circumstances get passed to a generation living in a different world. Is it surprising that our first black president is not the descendant of slaves?

 

To reach a post-racial world, we need to constantly challenge our perceptions. To seek out other points of view and understand how they are formed. Most importantly, to effectively eradicate racism, we have to work to change perceptions. Can anyone recommend other books that have changed their perceptions of race in America? 

 

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Comments

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I love that you compare your views of the three books now with the way you first saw them. Challenging the way we think about things is the only way we grow. I never thought of Atticus as an enabler. Very interesting and thoughtful post._r
It is amazing how time and circumstances can change your views of the world.
Please read "The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother" by James McBride. It should be required reading for the human race to make them colorblind.
Joan:
It's really Malcolm Gladwell's idea that Atticus is someone who, by not fighting the system is doing nothing to change it. Gladwell's mother is Jamaican, and he probably read TKAM with a very different perspective. But it fit with my frustration that Atticus did his best, lost and accepted the fact.

Ocular: And isn't a damn good thing we can change. It gives us hope. I'd hate to still be the naive kid who so rejected unpleasant reality.

Burgess:
I'd be interested in your tour, but I suspect you live on a different continent from me. I do find books help me get in someone else's skin, rather than judging them from my perspective.

Cartouche:
Thanks for the recommendation
A really well done review of works showing a progression, not only of viewpoint, but time. The reread brings to mind "when I was a child I thought as a child".
Boston seems to be an enigma. Far above the Mason-Dixon line it has still been torn by the effects of racism.
It appears that racism is woven into our core from the earliest age, and even well meaning liberal southern whites are sometimes confronted with their own prejudices. I know I have been confronted with mine.
I read two of these (Lee and Angelou), about 50 pages of GWTW. I read about Lucas' book.

I like the format here, filtering it through books.

My grandmother passes as white her whole life. She introduced Mockingbird to me when I was a precocious 5th grader. As an adult, getting her real story in bits and pieces, that novel gained added poignancy.
I noticed your comment on another site, came over to find you....
Very nice post, I'd also recommend "Five Smooth Stones", by Ann Fairbairn? I believe...one of my absolutely favorite books.
Nice writing...
Also, what can I read that you feel is a good glimpse into your world, from 60 years ago like the books you've posted about our race struggles (not that one could say it's over), and now?
Just thinking:
I'm not sure what you mean by 60 years ago. I'm kind of out of books to recommend --- although I really liked Skip Gates's Colored People. It was about his journey through the liberalizations of the 60s, from the perspective of a black boy.

I don't live in the US and so my access to books is limited. I'd love to get an e-reader, but too many bookstores (Barnes and Noble, I mean you. Apple, too) have geographic restrictions. You can buy e-books in America, but you're out of luck if you want to access an immense variety of English language books from outside an English language speaking country.
I have only read two of these—Gone with the Wind and Mockingbird. GWTW in book form was a much more thorough treatment of the South than the film, and I found the details of how even the "kindly" white treated the slaves enlightening. As a southern child, I needed to read such a frank description of my history no matter how disturbing.

As far as Atticus Finch, I found he did show outrage. He knew he couldn't change circumstances on his own, but his conclusion in court was filled with anger at the system, calling racism "evil." And when talking to his children and sister, he warned them that the rotten world they had created would come to roost one day, warning Jem that things will change but not necessarily in his life time. I found him to be a stead soldier, doing right against wrong within his small sphere. What more could we expect from him?

I am always perplexed when people defend historical figures by saying "they were a product of their age" or "you have to view them in context," as if those are acceptable reasons for remaining quiet. I think, considering his age and context, Atticus was bold and outspoken against the wrongs of his world.