Archive for the ‘literature’ Category

Today (Dec. 23) on National Public, Radio Michelle Norris interviewed Kathryn Stockett, author of the novel The Help, about two African American female domestics who work for white families, set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1950s. “Stockett has been criticized for trying to cast how a black maid might feel in a white household.”

Okay, no question that it’s a stretch for an educated, white woman in the 2000s to write from within the mind of a poor, uneducated black woman in the 1950s. But aren’t we skirting, at least, the idea that blood determines outlook? Michelle Norris is black; she was “named ‘Journalist of the Year’ by the National Association of Black Journalists” earlier this year. After attending the University of Wisconsin, she graduated from the U. of Minnesota–how much more Northern could she be? She now lives with her husband and children in Washington, D.C. Can Norris reach across time, space, and class much better than Stockett because Norris is African American?

Maybe–but I see no guarantee of that. Leo Tolstoy was a count, yet he wrote effectively–let’s not use “truthfully” except in the title of this post–about the lives of peasants and Cossacks. Should we question Tolstoy, if we could, about his right to portray a woman in passion and torment, Anna Karenina? What about digging up Gustave Flaubert to interrogate him about Emma Bovary?

More exactly on the point, what business did James Baldwin, a gay black man, have writing the story of a lynching from the point of view of a white deputy sheriff in “Going to Meet the Man”?

One answer is that we are talking about literature. That means that stories are made up; imagination rules. I find the portrayal of the sheriff in Baldwin’s story disgusting, and I believe that Baldwin contrived the character out of tales that he heard about white racists in order to make a point about racism. I have not read The Help, but I would bet dollars to donuts that the black domestics are drawn highly sympathetically.

A second answer is that when we write about characters that are not ourselves, or even when they are, whether in fiction or non-fiction, we must cross many lines. I suggest that in any kind of writing, social class is nearly as important as race–especially when we consider that race is a constructed category, dependent on one’s cultural background, itself . . . oh, well.

A third answer is that there is no such thing as a black point of view, a white one, and so on. We have multiple viewpoints depending on a vast array of factors, and our own probably change day by day. Contemplate that, and in the meantime I will continue to value the images of black people by the white writers Carson Cullers in, among many examples, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and, yes, Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn and Pudd’nhead Wilson.

Good reading to you.


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