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I’ve been listening to The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead on my commute because it’s this month’s pick for a book group I’m invited to on Monday. Audiobooks are not my first preference but I figured it was a way to squeeze in reading another book, especially since I had a Kirkus assignment to read and review. The narration of The Underground Railroad, by Bahni Turpin, is very well done, if you do happen to be an audiobook fan.

If you haven’t already heard about this book it is a highly acclaimed novel by an author who was already well regarded before The Underground Railroad, which  won the National Book Award and drew reviews comparing it to BelovedLesMiserablesThe Invisible Man and other literary greats.  I think Whitehead’s brilliance in this book is in the way he mixes the actual American past with speculative history but hews always to the core truth of his novel: that racism is not going anywhere without justice, and that justice is impossible unless people choose it. Mabel, Cora’s mother, has her own very brief chapter towards the end of the book, in which readers finally learn what became of her (Cora believes she abandoned her, Ridgeway the slave catcher believes she is the only one of his quarry ever to elude him). As she is deciding what to do herself, Mabel thinks, “The world may be mean, but people don’t have to be, not if they refuse.”

Simply put but true. That’s the central theme of this book. Unfortunately in Whitehead’s imagined nineteenth century America, very few people refuse, and those who do suffer unspeakable horrors from which they never fully recover, if they even survive. Nearly every character who helps Cora, black or white, ends up dead or hunted by those who wish them dead. Royal, who rescued Cora from Ridgeway after he’d finally caught her, tells Cora “. . . that every one of her enemies, all the masters and overseers of her suffering, would be punished, if not in this world, then the next, for justice may be slow and invisible, but it always renders its true verdict in the end.”

It’s hard to know what to make of this; Cora’s story and those of the other black characters in The Underground Railroad are unrelentingly painful and hopeless — even if they reach “safe” territory or are “freed” they are not free of racism and they live in a nation where racial injustice and violence are the norm. The pain of reading this book isn’t in reflecting on America’s history — after all, Whitehead takes creative license with history, speculating enough that this is not merely historical fiction but something more radical, a work of imagined  historical fiction — the pain comes from the fact that the truth of the novel is not in our past. It’s our present, it’s the root of many of America’s problems today.

Reading this book in light of the recent actions to roll back many civil rights actions taken by the last administration, and to “double down” as the New York Times reports, on the war on drugs, despite much evidence that harsh penalties and harsh policing did not work, and has increased racial inequality and caused untold suffering, especially for women of color, is especially painful. The America we live in today, ruled by fear of the “other” based on a highly delusional sense of superiority, is quite recognizable in The Underground Railroad. While Cora’s America is somewhat more lawless, and some of the crimes perpetrated in The Underground Railroad would be prosecuted today even if they were directed at black citizens, there is still today official sanction of racist policies in the name of “justice.”  Perhaps this is even starker to me because I am in another book group reading The New Jim Crow month by month, one chapter at a time and sharing articles and talks with each other on racial inequality and injustice.

So, did I enjoy The Underground Railroad? That would probably not accurately characterize my experience of the book. I think it’s an amazing piece of writing. I certainly sat in my car more than once to hear a few more lines before it was time to go into work. It will stay with me, and I was left wondering about Cora’s fate – the ending was perfect. It entered my consciousness and interacted with other things I’ve read and thought. Parts if it threw me for a loop — it’s not straight narration — but that is in service to the story, not some writerly trick. All of that makes it a great read.

But be warned it’s also wrenching, and at times nauseating. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Feeling slightly wrenched by another’s fictional experiences is good for helping someone privileged, as I am, to try to wrap my head around what black Americans experience every day. So read it. Be ready to let it work on you. And then do something; take Mabel’s words and live them: refuse to be a part of the meanness of the world. One thing I’ve come to understand is that it’s not enough to reject racist ideas, what’s required in this world is to openly oppose them, in thought, word and deed. Call or write an elected or appointed official to oppose racist policies. Tell someone you hear victimized by racist talk that you are with them and you are sorry. Tell someone saying racist things that you will not listen to such talk. None of this is easy but it’s what’s required if justice is ever to come. The thing I will take away from The Underground Railroad is what it says about the role of free will in the world. Refusing isn’t just refusing, it’s choosing.

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NoViolet Bulawayo grew up in Zimbabwe, where her 2013 debut novel, We Need New Names, opens. Darling, a ten year old girl, spends her days with a small group of friends, stealing guavas in wealthy neighborhoods, playing games in the dust of Paradise, the collection of shacks where their families started over after their middle class neighborhood was bulldozed. Darling can remember their previous life, when her parents had jobs, and she went to school. It’s the early 2000’s; the children play “Find bin Laden,” and one character who dies in political unrest has a sign on his grave that lists his date of death as 2008. The story follows Darling for a few years, from Paradise, where her grandmother turns to God as interpreted by a preacher named Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro, to Michigan, where her mother’s twin sister, Aunt Fostalina, lives.

I chose this book from a display at my library of books with yellow covers, one of the categories in our summer reading program’s book bingo. I usually like novels about places I haven’t been and lives I haven’t experienced.  Although it’s fiction, this book is firmly rooted in reality, and for a privileged white reader, it’s pretty uncomfortable. People from NGOs and the BBC watch and photograph Darling and her friends and their families, as if they are an exotic species. Americans are clueless and judgmental about African countries and cultures. And of course, our immigration system denies people the new life they hope for; even as various people feel sorry for what’s happening in Zimbabwe, the African immigrants in the book work menial jobs, regardless of how educated they are. They can’t go home, because without official resident status they won’t be allowed to come back to their homes and work — and their American born children. The way Bulawayo portrayed whites caused me to feel as if I didn’t really even deserve to be reading Darlings’s story.

Although reading about the poverty, violence, and pain of Darling’s early childhood is tough — she has a friend her age whose grandfather rapes and impregnates her, her own father returns from South Africa, where he went to try and find work, when he is in the final stages of AIDS, Darling and her friends watch a group of young black men smash up a wealthy white couple’s home — the despair she feels in America is worse. Her family in Zimbabwe pressures her to tell her aunt they need money for a satellite dish; they are living in a nice house now, that Aunt Fostalina has purchased by working two jobs and getting herself into credit card debt. Darling has begun working two low wage jobs herself. Towards the end of the book, she tries to Skype with her mother and the only person home seems to be her old friend Chipo, who named her baby after Darling, but who scorns her now, telling her Zimbabwe is not her country because she left.

Of course, Darling didn’t choose, her mother and aunt decided she would go to America, and in America, adults — either those she knows or those who created the laws and cultural norms that influence her young life — decide much of what she does. The ending is a flashback to a painful memory seared in Darling’s mind, from her early days in Paradise. This has the effect of illustrating what a circle of futility Darling’s life has been to this point. She thinks she has not been at home since the time when her family was stable and safe. She is not home in the place that was meant to offer a new beginning. She can’t go back to the home she left, where her heart seems to remain.

Bulawayo conveys all that longing and unfulfilled promise and the geopolitical and cultural mess the adults in Darling’s world have unthinkingly unleashed upon her generation. She writes Darling’s voice as a small girl and then as a young adolescent and finally as the book ends, as a young woman. Darling, like many children, often thinks figuratively, as in this passage describing mourners at a political activist’s funeral, who had only recently been praying after the election: “They were awesome to see, and when they were in full form, their noise lit Fambeki like a burning bush, songs and chants and sermons and prayers rising to the heavens before tumbling down the mountain like rocks, mauling whoever happened to pass by. And when afterwards no change came, the voices of the worshipers folded like a butterfly’s wings, and the worshippers trickled down Fambeki like broken bones and dragged themselves away, but now they are back like God didn’t even ignore them that time.” A book I’m glad I read for the same reason I exercise — I know it’s good for me, even when it’s hard.

 

 

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Last spring I read Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community  by MLK, Jr. This week I finished Why We Can’t Wait, which was written four years earlier. King recounts the momentous events of 1963, including the actions undertaken by civil rights leaders and ordinary citizens in Birmingham, the cruelty and violence that the white establishment in Alabama, especially under Bull Connor’s leadership, perpetrated on nonviolent protestors that galvanized national support for the movement, and the March on Washington. And he writes, as very few others can, of his hope for the future. Last spring I found that encouraging. It was harder to feel hopeful this year.

In 1963, King believed that with continued effort, the nonviolent resistance would not only prevail in bringing about equality for black Americans, but that it had the potential to help bring about an end to economic injustice and even war as well. In the final section of Why We Can’t Wait King writes of his belief that “In measuring the full implications of the of the civil-rights revolution, the greatest contribution may be in the area of world peace . . . . Nonviolence, the answer to the Negroes’ need, may become the answer to the most desperate need of all humanity.” He was talking specifically about not only ending nuclear proliferation, but he armed conflict altogether. A few years later he was struggling to remind his own movement of the benefits of nonviolence in the face of calls for armed resistance to institutionalized racism; that made it very painful to read his optimistic words here.

The other thing I found disheartening was King’s description of Congress in 1963. He described a “stranglehold” by a minority devoted to preserving the status quo  (wealth and power, at the expense of justice) and called for “the growth of an enlightened electorate” to break this hold. Clearly decades later there is still a minority — people wealthy and powerful enough to hold office, — strangling the legislative process in this country. Enlightened is not a word I’d use to describe the electorate.

King also called for “a massive program by the government of special, compensatory measures which could be regarded as a settlement” for the violation of African Americans’ human rights since the beginning of American history. He cited Nehru’s efforts in India to end mistreatment of the Untouchables as an example. But as recently as this summer, the mistreatment of Untouchables in India made international headlines, and around the world in many cultures, there are comparable groups who are treated as lacking in human dignity. Even in America various privileged groups (I say that as someone who is privileged) demonize and discriminate against various “others” like immigrants, young black men, poor women, the mentally ill, muslims, etc. Would restitution have prevented the further entrenchment of institutionalized racism in America? I doubt we’ll ever know.

I think it’s common around the national MLK holiday (still observed as Great Americans Day in Biloxi, Mississippi) to wonder what King would make of the  continuing racial injustice in America. I don’t dare speculate, as a privileged white woman, but I like to hope that he would still believe love can win. On good days, I still believe that too. But re-reading Letter From Birmingham Jail and then reading about the way our president-elect went after civil rights veteran and U.S. Congressman John Lewis this week on social media, I feel as if love and progress have their work cut out for them.

 

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