I was thinking recently on the books that really influenced me when I was younger. I generally don’t count the books I enjoyed among them; we may all have liked the Famous Five, for example, but those kinds of books were throwaway for me, to be read and liked and then forgotten. The books that get into your head and under you skin generally have a little more depth.
First, some background: I was fifteen before I saw a black person in real life, as opposed to on television or on a movie screen. I was in Boston, on holiday with my family. We had just gotten out of the airport, and I saw a man walking down the street. If I recall right, I pointed it out to my mother – but she only told me off for being silly.
One of the books that I read when I was about thirteen was Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor. It’s a very complicated book. It’s about… lots of things, but what I absorbed from it was this is what racism looks like. There’s a difference between knowing something exists, and seeing it come alive on the page; it became so much more important because I could never see it for myself. Irish culture was so homogenous that I never learned that someone could be treated differently because of the colour of their skin.
The charm of the book was that it was just people, to me. People in a tough situation, but still loving, taking comfort in each other, finding ways to laugh and survive. Its voice felt honest and real.
The second book I read about racism was To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. If Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry taught me what racism looked like, To Kill a Mockingbird showed me that you could could take a stand against it; that the world was unjust, but it didn’t have to stay that way. The only thing I regretted about it was that I could never really hear the voices of the black characters, as it’s told entirely from the viewpoint of a young white girl. It’s also been slammed for its use of racial slurs, and even threatened with censorship as a result.
(Another thing that I wonder about – being white, apparently I shouldn’t use the most well known racial slur at all. Does that mean I can’t even mention it in context? Is it always considered derogatory, even when the writer has no cultural background that would define it as so, and thus never use it in conversation – or in reference to an actual person of colour?)
Discussions of race are a minefield in the States. Even the most well-meaning white person can inadvertantly cause offense or say something racist, only to howl that “I didn’t mean it that way!” when an African-American calls them on it. I’ve seen it a few times, and every time I question the offender, why deny it? It’s part of your cultural heritage. It will happen, despite your best efforts. Don’t deepen the insult with a non-apology (“I’m sorry if I caused offense…”). Accept what you’ve done. Take responsibility for it. And do better next time.
I know I’ve probably already done it, but there has been no one here to call me on it. It’s only a matter of time, though.
Roll of Thunder and Mockingbird compelled me to look further. I read the full text of Dr. King’s famous speech, for example, and I was inspired by it. These days I subscribe to blogs written by black people. I keep up with the news. I want to read their stories and hear their voices, and be influenced by them and find the threads that I can weave into my own.
Books can do that, you see. They get into your head and under your skin, and they can change the world.