Empowering Conversations about Race

Newly integrated classroom in the 1960's

Newly integrated classroom in the 1960's

As I look back over this past week of entries, what conclusions can I draw?

First, that literature can serve the cause of race relations in this country. The friendship between Huck and Jim spurred my dreams of black-white friendship when I was a child being raised in segregated schools in the south, and it can continue to serve that function in a society which still experiences separation between the races. Twain’s comic masterpiece invites readers to get caught up in the lives of Huck and Jim and make the friendship a permanent part of their lives and their values.

Second, Huckleberry Finn, written by a white man in a different time, is not enough. There is an aspect of white fantasy to the book—Jim is what some whites would like blacks to be. If Huckleberry Finn is the only work taught dealing with black-white friendship, then readers gets a distorted perspective.

Third, the reaction against Song of Solomon in St. Mary’s County schools indicates that there are whites in this country—probably a significant number—that find angry black voices to be threatening. But if we don’t allow that anger to be expressed, then we don’t face up to the continuing legacy of slavery and racism but instead allow it to fester. Many whites live in willed ignorance about the anger that many blacks continue to feel, and many blacks feel very conflicted about this anger—if they try to accommodate whites by pretending it’s not there, they pay a price.

Finally, books like Song of Solomon must continue to be read by young people (actually by all people) in our country. Song of Solomon articulates both the aimlessness and the anger of many black young men. It also explores positive ways for addressing these conditions. When a reader gets caught up in Milkman’s identity quest, and when he or she experiences, as though from the inside, both the reasons for and the limitations to Guitar’s violent response, then his or her understanding of race issues is deepened. Literature helps us understand these issues in a gut way, not just an intellectual way. Ultimately, such a novel helps us establish a foundation of hope upon which we can begin to build enduring social solutions. Just because we recently elected a black man as president doesn’t mean that we aren’t still facing a significant crisis involving young black men in our society. We can’t circumvent tough race discussions if we truly want answers. Reading and talking about books like Huckleberry Finn and Song of Solomon can provide a powerful entry into such discussions.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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