Why We Need Stories about Racism

We haven’t achieved a color-blind society, even after many decades of progress. Whether we like it or not, race still plays a role in how others perceive us, how we perceive others, and how we perceive ourselves. So it behooves all of us to confront a key question: What will we choose to do about it?

Even as I write that last sentence, I know it’s easy for a white woman to say.

When I was young, my first exposure to fictional portrayals of racial injustice came in the form of the sham trial of Tom Robinson, the African-American man accused of raping impoverished incest victim Mayella Ewell in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird — first the movie, then the book. I knew even at the tender age of ten that Robinson’s only “crime” was being the first and only person of any race to show Mayella kindness, and felt the fire of outrage in my belly when he ended up paying for that “crime” with his life. To this day, each time I watch the 1962 film, I hold out a vain spark of hope that this time the jury will return the right verdict.

I love To Kill a Mockingbird, both book and movie. I admire Lee’s evocative prose. I adore its narrator, the tomboyish Scout Finch, the first fictional heroine I imprinted on in my youth. But as this book, commonly taught in middle and high schools, has met with disapproval from both conservative parents, who don’t like Scout’s use of profanity (“pass the damn ham, please,” a line I always wish the movie could have gotten away with including), and liberal parents, who dislike the copious use of the “n word” and the portrayal of lawyer Atticus Finch as a “White Savior,” who defends the unjustly accused Robinson yet reacts to the racists in his midst with winking tolerance, I’ve taught myself to look at it with a more dispassionate eye. I can’t take the criticism of Scout’s profanity seriously — I remember practicing “cussing” outside my parents’ earshot when I was her age — but I’m aware that I saw the first story of racial injustice to make a strong impact on me through the lens of a young white protagonist, a safe perspective for a young white girl.

I could have been Scout. I had much in common with her. I loved to make believe, to act out the stories I read in books and saw on movies and TV. Scary houses fascinated me. I had an older sibling whose nerves I got on. I idolized my dad. Of course I embraced her and the story told in her voice. Yet from the vantage point of adulthood, I wonder — would I have seen so much of myself in Scout if I’d been a young African-American girl? Would my takeaway from the story have been the same? I’ve read of a student, the only black student in her class, who felt more like an outsider than ever when she and her classmates studied this book. She found the depictions of the story’s black characters alienating, Tom in particular, characterized more as a symbol than as an individual. Since writer and reader create meaning together, is her reaction wrong and mine right?

I don’t agree with those who suggest schools should jettison To Kill a Mockingbird. Yet I’ve come to believe it should be studied alongside other books, such as Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, Kacen Callender’s King and the Dragonflies, and Jewell Parker Rhodes’ Ghost Boys — all novels that that portray the experience of growing up African-American in a racist America. Yet these are the very books that some politicians and parents don’t think young people should read. Books that depict racism and racial injustice in too strong a light, they argue, will damage the self-esteem of young white students. The stories will make those students see themselves as oppressors; their sense of worth will sink under the weight of shame and guilt. The unspoken thesis of all this is that it does young white people no good to read stories that look at bigotry and its effects from an African-American perspective.

In the course of my life as a reader, student, and teacher, I’ve read some pretty bleak depictions of racial injustice written by black authors, observed and experienced by black protagonists. I’ve read Richard Wright’s Native Son, in which a poor black man employed as a chauffeur experiences his first sense of real power after he accidentally kills his boss’s daughter. I’ve read Toni Morrison’s Beloved, in which an escaped slave kills her baby daughter rather than see the little one captured and returned to slavery. Then there’s Octavia Butler’s Kindred, which I wrote about in my previous post, which details the moral disintegration of a young white boy, the son of a slaveholder, from a likable kid to a violent, abusive rapist. I can attest that while these stories disturbed me to my core, as well they should, not a one of them made me hate myself.

What they did do is make me think. They forced me to wrestle with that crucial question: faced with racism, what do we choose to do? Where will we stand? All of us, of all races, most confront that question. If we simply ignore or deny the injustices in our past and present, nothing will change; all of the progress we’ve made over the past decades will be stalled as we walk in circles. We need those stories, not in spite of their making us uncomfortable but because they do.

Nineteen years ago, when I first moved to Gainesville, GA, I attended a meeting of the Gainesville Theatre Alliance. The previous year, the GTA had mounted a production of the musical Ragtime, based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow. The story has three protagonists, one white Protestant, one Jewish, and one African-American. The black protagonist, Coalhouse Walker Jr., is no persecuted innocent cypher like Tom Robinson. He’s a philandering musician who has finally decided to settle down with his child’s mother and who purchases a Ford Model T as a symbol of his good intentions. Just when all seems bright, a gang of white policemen vandalize his automobile. The outraged Coalhouse’s quest for satisfaction takes a tragic turn when his sweetheart is killed in an effort to advocate for him. The loss maddens him and sends him on a murderous rampage. Persuaded by Booker T. Washington, the man he admires above all others, to turn himself in, he is hanged. It’s a bleak story and, with songs by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, a tremendously moving one. The GTA gave special performances of Ragtime for children from local schools. At this meeting, the head of the GTA told of one particular child who saw the show.

In a letter, this child’s teacher mentioned she’d been concerned about how he would react to the story, since he was the son of one high-ranking Ku Klux Klansman and the nephew of another. The children ate picnic lunches after the play, and the teacher noticed this boy was unusually quiet, and he was frowning as if he was thinking hard. At last, just before the students returned to their bus, he approached her.

“It was a wrong thing they did, to hang that black man,” he said. “It was a wrong thing they did, to kill that black woman. They shouldn’t ought to have done it.”

That play taught this student something he might well never have learned at home.

This is why we need stories about racism.