Sunday, July 31, 2016


By Bonnie Stanard

White writers who produce novels with black protagonists will find it near impossible to attract a publisher. This, according to author Carla Damron, who appeared at a book club meeting I recently attended. Her comment referenced the reaction to Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help, which was criticized in the black community. For a response to the novel and movie, see the letter published as “A Critical Review of the novel The Help”.

When I was working on my novel Kedzie, Saint Helena IslandSlave, it came as a surprise to me that a black writer in my writers’ workshop claimed slavery as the literary prerogative of blacks. I have come to realize there is some public support for her view. That my novel’s dialogue contains the word nigger, which was commonly used in the antebellum South, put nails in the coffin. In one of my blog entries on “WritePersona” I describe my experience with two literary agents. I eventually self-published the book.

Freedom of expression has come into conflict with “safe places” (protection from ideas that make one uncomfortable), which some people perceive as a right just as important as free expression. College administrators, under the gun of the federal government, have ramped up enforcement of trigger warnings (warnings professors should issue if something in a course might elicit a strong emotional response).

It’s not uncommon to read reports that students at colleges such as Columbia, Yale, and Rutgers call for warnings for books such as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (racial violence); F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (misogyny and physical abuse); Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (suicidal inclinations); and Ovid’s Metamorphoses (sexual assault).

Yale undergraduates petitioned to abolish the study of writers including Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton, saying that “it is unacceptable that a Yale student considering studying English literature might read only white male authors”. (The Guardian,June 1, 2016)

There are some people who believe they have a right not to be offended. And to a greater extent than ever, our culture is accommodating a wide swath of them. For example, an Indiana University student was found guilty of racial harassment for reading the book Notre Dame vs. the Klan. The cover picture of a Klan rally offended the student’sco-workers. He was eventually cleared of the charges.

Given today’s climate, some classics wouldn’t have made it past the query process much less have been published, books such as Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell; Imitation of Life by Fannie Hurst; or Showboat by Edna Ferber.

Salman Rushdie, who knows a thing or two about literary censorship (Iran boycotted the 2015 Hamburg Book Fair because Rushdie was scheduled as guest speaker), has been quoted as saying that people claiming to stand for free speech have "demolished what they stand for."

Political correctness, used to suppress divergent voices, becomes a tool of oppression. How are we to engage in a genuine discussion about black lives (or Asian or Mexican or Southern) if censorship is used to eliminate whatever makes us uncomfortable? Despite the criticism, I make no apologies for telling the story of a slave girl named Kedzie. I would hope blacks would see in her the courage of some of their ancestors.


Laura Puccia Valtorta said...

Gone with the Wind is so prejudiced against black people I can't even begin to enumerate the injustices in it, but I'm glad I read it. It lets me know how some white people felt about slavery in the first half of the 20th century -- and maybe even now.

I love the writer Donna Tartt, author of Goldfinch, The Secret History, and the Little Friend. This woman is a genius, not only in her humor and portrayal of young people's lives, but also in her disdain for married life, children, and families. She's a fresh voice 99% of the time. When she discusses black people, however -- most particularly in The Little Friend -- she slips back into the old ways of the white Southern woman. It is interesting, however, to read her portrayal of the black maid in The Little Friend, much beloved by the children but ready to exit employment from the household as soon as she possibly can. I find Donna Tartt fascinating.

Just Julia said...

I enjoyed this Bonnie. A fresh interpretation of some of the many issues our society is facing today. And yes, we have to be able to have a conversation before change can occur even if the topics are uncomfortable. You give us food for thought here!

Laura Puccia Valtorta said...

Why hasn't change occurred already? Why do we live in a society that blocks certain groups of people from success?