In my eighth-grade U.S. History class, each student read a novel written by an African-American writer, about African-Americans. There were a few books to choose from, but the only ones I remember are Native Son by Richard Wright and Roots by Alex Haley. Because the latter was so long, no one chose it. No one but me, that is. I had never heard of it, nor the adapted mini-series, but the book was big and intimidating, and I was nothing if not a nerd and a show-off. In my certainly-revised memory, I pick up a copy from the pile, and the class gasps with admiration and foreboding. I carry it back to my desk, head held high.
A little background. I’m white (shocking, I know), and I went to a mostly white, public elementary school in Laurel Canyon, that rock ‘n roll, bohemian enclave in Los Angeles with its bungalows and crumbling mountain-sides. (In recent years, it’s gotten much fancier.) Back then, I felt left out that my parents weren’t British, or former addicts, or ostrich-owners (don’t ask), or screenwriters. If you think my name is odd–well, you didn’t know Chantilly, or Swan, or America, or Ole, a kid who was only there for a few months before disappearing to who-knows-where. In the sixth-grade, Spike Lee’s X came out, and a couple of students wore those baseball caps with the letter X on the front–I’m not sure they knew what it meant. A few had that shirt that read, “Love knows no color.” This was the same year as the L.A. riots. Our graduation dance theme was “Rebuilding the Peace.” The teachers decorated the tables with tiny wooden hammers.
Around that same time, my father got a subscription to The New Yorker. (For the cartoons. I’m serious.) I remember one cover had something to do with Malcolm X, and there were these small illustrations of white faces on it, with the words “white devil” floating around them. I saw this magazine in the bathroom a few times a day for a week, and it stung and confused me every time. I didn’t understand it. Why were they devils? Was that even okay to say? Was I a white devil? What the hell did I do?
The next year, I went to junior high in west L.A., a bigger and far more racially diverse school than the one I had graduated from. Because everyone was different at this school, because I was different, I began to truly understand what difference meant. People sometimes identified me as “white girl” in the hallways, and it made sense. After all, I was white. Really white: I burned easily, I wore Converse and shorts from the Gap, and my parents listened to The Grateful Dead. Twice I was asked, snickering, if my name was Becky. I learned some Spanish slang. I learned that some kids went to school on Saturday, to master their parents’ native tongues. A boy in English class pointed out that Black History month was the shortest month of the year–and that blew my mind. It had never occurred to me.
It was at this school, with my sense of self and the world all shook up, that I read Roots. Haley called his book “faction”–fiction mixed with fact, and later genealogists debunked his claim that the book told his actual family history. None of that mattered to me then–or matters now. My teacher had assigned it as a novel, and like all good fiction, it felt authentic. I devoured the book, and I couldn’t get it off my mind. I can still remember how I felt reading the section on the slave ship, Kunta Kinte packed in with hundreds of other slaves: the darkness, the suffering, the stench of bodies. I had learned about the Middle Passage in school, but it wasn’t until it was translated into narrative that it affected me so. I was appalled and frightened by a history I already knew, for the story of slavery is far more powerful than a “unit” on it.
In the eighth grade, I began to understand that I, and every American, had inherited something shameful. I began to connect race to history to power, and it was all because of a book.
Reading narrative requires empathy. The character’s perspective becomes your own, and through this relationship you begin to feel as another person would. As I read Roots, I felt what Kunta Kinte felt, saw what he saw, and by becoming him, I understood intimately the horrors of slavery. It’s why nonfiction slave narratives, like those of Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass, were so important to the abolitionist movement, and why fictional slave narratives persist today.
But stories also require complicity: the reader participates in the action of the story simply by imagining and interpreting it. As Zadie Smith points out in this short interview:
Fiction is like a hypothetical area in which to act. That’s what Aristotle thought—that fictional narrative was a place to imagine what you would do in this, that, or the other situation. I believe that, and it’s what I love most about fiction.
I agree with Smith here, and it’s why I don’t like books that make that arena of ethics too simplistic. I don’t need my characters to be heroic; in fact, I prefer them not to be. Their choices should be difficult, their situations complicated, and if they emerge from events unaffected or unscathed, then they do not seem authentic. They stop mattering to me.
But what if a novel’s “hypothetical area in which to act” is a historical landscape that places pressures on its characters that we haven’t experienced ourselves? What if that landscape is the antebellum South? My empathy is immediately ignited by these stories, but so too is my complicity. As a white reader, I’m simultaneously made to understand the experience of slavery, and I also must wrestle with how I’m implicated in that past. For although I identify with the book’s main characters, there’s another part of my brain that knows I can’t. If this book were made into a movie, I think, I’d look more like the overseer’s wife than the protagonist. I know I’m not the only one who’s experienced that awful feeling. On goodreads a few months ago, some dolt wrote that he hated books about slavery because, and I paraphrase: “I wasn’t the one to rape your great, great, great grandmother!” In other words, it wasn’t his fault slavery happened, he didn’t want to hear any more about it. And that’s the thing: slave narratives keep us hearing about it, they keep that chain between the past and the present alive. For me, reading one can be complicated and uncomfortable business, and it’s partly why I continue to seek them out.
But only partly. In Victor La Valle’s Year in Reading post, he wrote:
I don’t know about you, but when I read that book takes place during slavery my defenses go up immediately. It’s going to be “serious” and “important” and “teach us something” and….oh, I’m sorry, I almost fell asleep.
He’s right–“serious” and “important” are sometimes just synonyms for “boring.” But good books about slavery are readable, very much so. Is it wrong to say they’re entertaining? Well, they can be. This isn’t “tea towel” fiction, it’s fiction where the stakes are high, and people’s lives are at risk. There are secrets. There is real fear. The power dynamics between characters are complicated and fascinating, or they should be. People are fighting for a sliver of self that isn’t owned and denigrated by another person, and that makes me care and keeps me turning the pages.
One novel for which this is especially true is The Book of Night Women by Marlon James, the very book that LaValle recommended in his post. James’s novel takes place not in America, but Jamaica, at the turn of the 19th century. Told in dialect, it’s about a young female slave named Lilith who participates in a plot to overthrow her plantation master. Though it takes some time to get used to this voice and particular syntax, it’s wholly absorbing once you do, perhaps because the language is a kind of bridge into this past. The prose pulls you into Lilith’s consciousness, which reflects the violent and brutal world in which she lives.
And let me tell you: The Book of Night Women is one of the most violent and brutal books I have ever read. One day I read it for four hours straight, and the world was all wobbly and terrible after I put it down. Its unflinching depiction of slavery reminded me of something from Wyatt Mason’s profile of Edward P. Jones, whose novel The Known World, about black slaveholders in antebellum Virginia, explores the tangled, contradictory ways that slavery can involve and affect an entire community. In that novel, which I (and many others) consider a masterpiece, Jones quotes census numbers and scholarly texts–all of them made up. Mason writes:
What research on the subject Jones undertook was, in fact, quickly derailed after he happened upon an account of a white slave owner who spent her days abusing one of her black slaves, a little girl, by beating her head against a wall. “If I had wanted to tell the whole story of slavery, Americans couldn’t have taken that,” Jones told an interviewer. “People want to think that there was slavery, and then we got beyond it. People don’t want to hear that a woman would take a child and bang her head against the wall day after day. It’s nice that I didn’t read all those books. What I would have had to put down is far, far harsher and bleaker.
Marlon James, on the other hand, did seem to read all of those books, and his novel faces those harsh realities head on. But Jones and James’ books are similar in that their characters are multidimensional, no matter their race, and the smallest dramas are specific and deeply felt, which makes these historical backdrops all the more real for a contemporary reader. In the Book of Night Women, for instance, Lilith becomes romantically involved with her Irish overseer, Quinn. He believes, as an Irishman, that he understands oppression as she does, but she knows that can’t be (and we, as readers of this narrative, know it, too). Their relationship is tender and sexy at times, and weird and upsetting at others. And usually it’s all of those qualities simultaneously, and you feel at once turned on, repelled, skeptical, nervous, grateful and vulnerable.
Kindred by Octavia Butler asks the reader to feel myriad emotions, too, and it proves literally that a character cannot emerge from important events unscathed. Butler’s book is not only about slavery, it’s about time travel. That’s right: its main character, a black woman named Dana (actually her full name is Edana–which I loved), is again and again sent against her will to nineteenth-century Maryland to keep her white ancestor, Rufus, safe. If he dies too soon, she will never be born. The book’s premise reminds me of the comedian Louis CK’s routine about being white. (“Black people can’t fuck with time machines!” he jokes. “A black guy with a time machine is like, “Hey, nothing before 1980, thank you, I don’t want to go.”) Every time Dana returns from these trips as a slave, only a few minutes or a few hours have passed in her real life in 1970’s L.A. Nevertheless, she carries her experience of slavery on her body–she returns injured, scarred, and by the end of the book (it’s also where the book opens), she returns to the present without an arm. In other words, the past will always interfere with the present. She can’t fully understand this history without it damaging her.
Dana’s white husband Kevin is also taken into the past with her, and it’s here that the book is most compelling and thought-provoking to me. In Maryland, Dana and Kevin must play slave and master in order to spend the night together, and after Kevin’s trapped in the past for years, he takes on the same speech patterns as the whites during that time. The couple want to believe that their personal relationship can remain pure, that the political and social climate of slavery won’t infect their interactions, but that’s impossible. The very first time Dana returns from Maryland, she momentarily mistakes Kevin for a white southerner, out to hurt her, and she is frightened of him. The past has already trespassed onto the present, where she is supposed to feel safe and equal. It happens quickly.
With Kindred, I identified with Dana, even if, were I to time travel back to antebellum Maryland, my problems would probably be more similar to Kevin’s. But like Dana, I’m a woman who lives in Los Angeles. Like Dana, I’m a writer. And like Dana before she time travels, I’ve read about slavery, and so I can only approach it as a reader. Because Dana is a modern woman, she is wearing pants when she is transported, and in antebellum Maryland, characters ask her why she’s dressed as a man. They want to know why she talks as she does. And how she learned to write. They wonder aloud if she thinks she’s white–she sure does carry herself that way. Maybe Dana’s belief in her own equality ties her more strongly to me, a contemporary female reader, than race ties her to the black slaves in antebellum Maryland. Or it only does, until a point. Or it does and it doesn’t, at the same time. Either way, Butler has performed a kind of identity magic trick with her novel. By experiencing this world as Dana does, as any contemporary person would, I too must suffer at the hands of slavery.
When we’re younger, it feels like the only books we’re given about black people are about slavery, just as the only books we’re given about Jewish people are about the holocaust. There’s a danger there, as we might be led to believe these are the only stories such writers are allowed to tell. Not at all. As many contemporary black authors have proven, there are a zillion ways to write the black experience, and using slavery as a subject is just one of them. But writers like Marlon James, Edward P. Jones and Octavia Butler (and others, like the inimitable Toni Morrison–my God, have you read A Mercy?) prove that the fact of slavery is still upon us, it still haunts us, and that it can be told and retold in powerful, surprising and evocative ways that engage a reader. Or this reader, at least.