When I first started teaching critical thinking from Vincent Ryan Ruggiero’s book, Beyond Feelings, I was stunned by the chapters about what we think we know (but don’t). Basically, chapters about how incomplete information, partial truth, fake news and biases pollute knowledge. One point Ruggiero makes — and I think we need it now — is about slavery. He says something to the effect that there is nothing special about there having been slaves in the American colonies and, later, states. What is notable (he said) is that people STOPPED owning slaves because other people were willing to die for their freedom. His perspective looked back throughout human history and there was never a moment when someone wasn’t enslaving someone else.
We don’t think about the time before motors when people and animals did everything. Humans were most valuable for their labor.
Anyway, what I took away from this burst of insight is that we’ve got it all wrong. We should be happy that we were able to progress both mechanically and in the more important humane sense we were able regard owning other people as morally wrong. We should think, “Wow. At a certain point in time it became an almost universal idea that slavery is wrong. Humans did that. Awakened to that reality. We’re amazing.”
But that’s not how we work.
Last night I read a question posed on a site that exists to stimulate respectful debate. The question was whether or not the word “Nigger” should be expunged from Huckleberry Finn. The actual word itself was not used. The euphemism, “the ‘N’ word” was used instead. I don’t like euphemisms. The thing they represent is still there. Why pretend to hide it?
I read through the thread of responses to this question and was surprised at how many people did not understand the novel, how many people thought Huckleberry Finn is a book for children, how many people thought “the ‘N’ word” should be expunged, how many people faulted Twain for not “taking a stand against racism.”
I’m not even convinced that every use of “the ‘N’ word” in the 19th century was a racial slur. I’m relatively certain it was the word people used as we use African American or Black. I think WHO used it and HOW might be the problem. Still and all, it was the word in use at the time, whatever miserable connotations it has today.
I kept thinking of a passage from Fahrenheit 451 where Bradbury (in the voice of Beatty, the Captain) writes about how people had gone through all the literature of the past and expunged things that offended them.
“Now let’s take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? Bigger the population, the more minorities. Don’t step on the toes of the dog?lovers, the cat?lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second?generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. The people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere. The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that! All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean. Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did. Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books, so the damned snobbish critics said, were dishwater. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said. But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic ?books survive. And the three dimensional sex magazines, of course. There you have it, Montag. It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God. Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time, you are allowed to read comics, the good old confessions, or trade journals.”
The result of this is depicted beautifully in the film of the novel staring Michael York. Passengers on a bus have nothing to do but feel their own faces and look into mirrors. Books are pictures, only, no words.
Anyone with half a brain reading Huckleberry Finn will get the satire, will see what’s going on, will understand that in their attempt to free the slave, Jim, Huck and Tom are on very different journeys. That the idea is to FREE Jim is, right there, pretty important.
Twain somehow saw his world from a rather high elevation and made fun of it in nearly everything he wrote. As someone who loves — and studies — history I value very highly an authentic voice from a past time. I don’t have the illusion (any more) that “now” has more right answers than did “back then.” We forget knowledge at least as fast as we create it, learn it.
I do not believe racism can be fought on a social level. It can be concealed. The rule of law is there to mandate justice and it’s a good thing it is. It’s all we have. But racism, at its core, must be confronted by individuals.
One of the saddest moments in my white, privileged (I don’t buy that, by the way) little life was when I met my next-door neighbor in Descanso, Andy. Andy is Mexican. I already knew the kids. His oldest daughter and I were pals. She was in 3rd grade, an outgoing little girl, who wanted to know me and the dogs. I knew his wife, who didn’t speak English. But I did not know Andy. When we met, Andy addressed me with the formality a Hispanic man uses to an older woman (which I expected) but also with a certain deference to my being a white lady who taught college. I saw in his approach to me a lot of what he’d experienced in his life and it made me really sad because I am not and never have been those women. Andy learned that over time and all was well.
I later learned, also, why Blanca didn’t try to speak English, even though she could, a little, at least as well as I spoke Spanish. She told me a story about meeting the wife of one of Andy’s bosses at a party and speaking English. She made a mistake; there are a lot of false cognates between English and Spanish and she got tangled up in one. The woman laughed at her and retold the story to everyone around.
To me, that’s racism, unless, of course, Blanca had been able to laugh, too, but that isn’t how she is made. She was also much younger and wanted very hard to impress her husband’s boss’ wife. The woman was uncaring and unimaginative — and she didn’t speak Spanish.
I don’t think censoring masterworks of literature written in the past is the answer to racism. I think each individual person (of all colors) learning humility and compassion is the answer to racism. I don’t think a person with a half-way decent mind and human feelings can maintain a blanket prejudice against a group of people because of something as superficial and stupid as skin color. It amazes me this lingers in our world. It’s a problem we could easily solve just by changing ourselves.