Friday, November 23, 2007

Entry for February 28, 2007 - In Which She Reflects on Race Relations

I cut it close, but I did manage to finish my book for this month -- here on the last day.

I knew there were kid/young adult books written by African American authors that have had good reviews, so I thought I would read one this month. I selected Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor. It's a Newberry Award winner, so I expected it to be exceptionally good. However, I was disappointed, especially at first-- in fact, I considered just dropping the book and moving on to something like Bud, Not Buddy. The book moves very slowly in the beginning -- VERY slowly. Taylor likes to use description -- the "slow the story down to a crawl" type of description, and the characters don't really seem to ring true to me. The "good" characters are totally good, and the "bad" characters are totally bad with no redeeming qualities. It seemed like a sort of cardboard morality story.

(Note: This entry is going to contain spoilers, because I can't say what I want to without revealing important plot action.)

The narrator of the story is 9-year-old Cassie Logan, who lives with her 3 brothers, her parents, and her grandmother in the Mississippi delta in 1933. The story goes through most of a year with the Logan family, who are different than the other black families in the area because the Logans own their land instead of sharecropping for the wealthy descendants of the pre-Civil War plantation owners. The family has managed to keep the land for about 50 years, though the father has to go to Louisiana to work on the railroad to get money to pay for the mortgage and taxes.

The story describes the persecution the blacks in the area suffer, starting with an incident (which the Logan children only hear about) in which three men are burned alive for supposedly making advances to a white woman. The children have to bear up under the indignity of having school books that are discards from the white schools and the taunts of the white children on the school bus that passes them every day. Over the course of the story, the persecution escalates after Cassie's parents organize a boycott of the local storekeeper, who was responsible for the burning incident. Cassie's mother loses her job as a teacher, and her father is attacked on his way home from getting supplies from a store in Vicksburg. Cassie herself is the subject of harassment when she accidentally bumps into a white girl and is forced to apologize and to refer to the girl as "Miss" Lillian Jean. But all the tension between the blacks and the whites in the area comes to a crisis point when TJ Avery, one of Cassie's oldest brother's friends, gets involved in a robbery gone bad with two white boys, who put all the blame on him. Cassie and her brothers observe the "night men" come and haul the entire Avery family out of their house, and only a fire that threatens one of the plantations keeps the vigilantes from lynching TJ.

The climax of the book must be why it was a Newberry winner, because all those things I complained about above are no longer true at that point. The scene is vivid, to the point that it is painful to read it and to know that scenes like that really happened to people. But as painful as it is to look, we can't afford to look away. It's part of the truth of the American South of the early 20th century, and recognizing and remembering the brutality of race relations at that time is important. The ending of the book was especially poignant -- "What had happened to TJ in the night I did not understand, but I knew it would not pass. And I cried for those things which had happened in the night and would not pass."

But that brings me to the thing that bothered me about this book. The message seems to be that things between blacks and whites won't get any better. Of course, we see the brutality and the harsh use of power by the whites in the story. But the blacks also do things that keep the relationship negative. Cassie's older brother Stacy engineers revenge on the busload of white kids who have splashed him and his siblings with mud earlier in the day. Cassie herself masquerades for a month in "Uncle Tom" style so she can get a chance to get back at "Miss" Lillian Jean. And it doesn't matter to her that Lillian Jean doesn't understand why Cassie turns on her -- Cassie is satisfied with the revenge.

The saddest part, to me, is the relationship between the Logans and a poor, "white trash" boy named Jeremy. Jeremy keeps reaching out in an effort to be friends with the Logan kids. He walks part of the way to school with them every day. At Christmas, he brings Stacy a present. He comes over to their house in the summer just to talk and he invites them to come see the bedroom he built for himself up in a tree. But they rebuff all his attempts at friendship. As Mr. Logan explained it after Jeremy brought the Christmas gift, "Far as I'm concerned, friendship between white and black don't mean that much 'cause it usually ain't on a equal basis. Right now you and Jeremy might get along fine, but in a few years he'll think of himself as a man but you'll probably still be a boy to him. And if he feels that way, he'll turn on you in a minute . . . . white folks mean trouble. You see blacks hanging 'round with whites, they're headed for trouble. Maybe one day whites and blacks can be real friends . . . . the trouble is, down here in Mississippi, it costs too much to find out."

I have to take a little side trip here for a minute. The other day, I was talking to a friend about this book (before I'd finished it and when these thoughts were first coming together in my head). He said he's reading a book about the Crow and Sioux Indians and the way they dealt with the occupation of whites and being forced onto the reservation. He said the book says the leader of the Crow had a dream about a chickadee, which he took as a sign that the Crow should be like the bird -- smart and adaptable and able to learn from those around them. So they began to raise cattle rather than hunt buffalo, and they prospered as ranchers. The Sioux, on the other hand, followed Sitting Bull's vision of the ghost dance, which reinforced their past identity as great warriors of the plains -- and we know what the ultimate outcome was there. My friend said the book said the Sioux had a "thin" identity that limited their world and their options to the point that there couldn't have been a different outcome.

I think the view of race relationships in Roll of Thunder is a similar "thin" identity. Just about everyone in the book -- black and white -- has a view of others that is based only on skin color. It doesn't matter that Jeremy acts more like a friend than TJ does (he's always trying to use Stacy to get the answers to tests for school, he cheats Stacy out of a good wool coat, he gets Mrs. Logan fired from her teaching job); when it comes down to it, the Logans stick with TJ because he's black and they reject Jeremy because he's white. If we identify the "other" as the enemy based on outside appearance rather than trying to get past that appearance to find out who the person is, of course racism and prejudice "w[ill] not pass."

Maybe I'm naive. Maybe it's easy for me to say that because I'm white, and I've never had to face a lynch mob or be dragged out of my house in the middle of the night. But it seems to me there's a element of risk in any relationship. Anyone -- white or black -- can turn on you. But if we allow ourselves to have relationships only with those people who are "safe" because they belong in the same category we do, or if we treat others who are different as if only that "skin" is the reality, the world becomes a small, tight straitjacket. The only way we can achieve Martin Luther King, Jr.'s dream world -- a world of "thick" relationships with possibilities -- is by opening ourselves up to the risk of getting to know the person behind the skin.

No comments: