I took a train down the California coast this week. In the seat in front of me, a woman was reading Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind.
I don’t know how popular that book is today, but when I was a teenager every girl I knew read it. White girls, of course. The movie version was made when my father was young, but it was still popular 30 years later when I was in high school.
Most people read it for the romance between Scarlett and Rhett, which is kind of depressing when you realize they are both despicable people. Why should we care what happens to them?
The best thing you can say about this book is that it is an accurate rendition of classic white southern mythology about slavery and the U.S. Civil War. It’s not the real story by any means, but if you want to know what die-hard “the South will rise again” people believe, Gone With the Wind is your book.
Given the current state of affairs in race in the U.S., I don’t think this is a particularly appropriate time to be reading that book (except ironically or as anthropology). The treatment of Black people in it is ridiculous and the glorification of the slave-holding class is despicable. Its time should be long past.
And yet someone – someone white, of course – is reading it right now. I can only hope she is doing so ironically or for research.
Another well-known American novel that I wouldn’t recommend as useful to the current discussion is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s a much better book, of course, and provides a good picture of white life in a small southern town in the first half of the 20th Century.
Atticus Finch represents a certain kind of mythological figure held dear by lawyers – the lawyer who does what’s right despite public pressure. But there is some accuracy to that myth. A fine example was Judge William Wayne Justice of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, who made a number of anti-segregation rulings to the dismay of his neighbors in deep East Texas.
Black people and their lives are not well-depicted; despite the plot, this is a book about white people. So while it’s a good book, I don’t think if offers much to the conversation that we so desperately need to have about why Black lives don’t matter nearly as much as white ones.
However, I do believe that fiction can provide some material that will help the U.S. people – particularly its white people – understand what is happening and why the country needs to make some major changes.
That may strike some of you as odd – reading fiction to gain perspective on such a serious issue. After all, many of my fellow writers make a proud point of saying that they “lie for a living.” One of the key definitions of fiction is that it is made up. It may be about something that could have happened, but it didn’t, or it didn’t in quite that way.
I’ve never been comfortable with the idea that writing fiction is lying, though, because what drew me to it in the first place was the core truth I found in the best books. The story may be made up, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
Truth can be found in fiction intended as entertainment as well as in deeply serious books. For example, Rex Stout’s novel, The Doorbell Rang, is a completely made up story with the usual three or four murders and a good deal of witty repartee. It also paints a picture of the FBI that might have swayed more opposition to that agency’s excesses than the actual work of serious nonfiction that figures in the plot, The FBI Nobody Knows.
So I think brilliant fiction addressing race – particularly our slaveholding history – can teach us things we need to know and provide a context for the serious conversations we need to have and the changes we need to make.
Below I list four books that I’ve read in the last few years that rise to this challenge. There are many more, but these are books I know can give you something new to chew on.
- Beloved, by Toni Morrison. If there is such a thing as the “Great American Novel,” this book is my choice for that honor. It gets at the heart of the evils of slavery. It’s a very painful book to read and I’m not sure I will ever be able to read it again, but it changed me in ways I did not know were possible.
- The Good Lord Bird by James McBride. This book tells the story of John Brown from the point of view of a little boy passing as a little girl, a slave freed by Brown in a Kansas raid. Up until the final pages, the story reads like a farce, but truth comes in funny packages.
- Song Yet Sung, also by McBride, is more serious, telling the story of slaves escaping from multiple points of view, and laying groundwork for the future. It ventures into the fantastical – as does Beloved – and tells a greater truth because of it.
- Lastly, Andrea Hairston’s Redwood and Wildfire, a story the begins in the late 19th Century and moves into the 20th. There are horrors here, too – these stories cannot be told without including far too much human suffering – but this book contains lots of unadulterated joy. It, too, has a fantastical side – a strong argument that use of fantasy to tell the truth is very valuable. I wrote about it a few years ago here on the BVC blog.
I hope readers will recommend other books in the comments. I’m sure there are many novels that can help us expand the discussion on race.