Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Balancing the Books

"I would have liked to have seen characters that were a bit more multi-dimensional. The maids depicted here were for the most part without failing, their white female employers almost universally despicable." This last sentence comes from an Amazon review of THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett, the latest "It" book, if you've been hiding under a literary rock. In it a younger white woman explores the stories of the black women who serve the establishment.

Mr. Goldengate, the reviewer, I think you're on to something. For so many years, literary depictions of non-whites, particularly blacks, Jews, and Native Americans, have been so squirmworthy to modern eyes that contemporary writers and filmmakers and what-have-you now feel compelled to balance the books. Hence the proliferation of faultless blacks, Jews, Native Americans, gays, and so on, at least in white writings and productions. Need a role model? Judge? Spirit-guide? Inspiration? God? Black is the new white. Think THE SHACK, THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES, BRUCE ALMIGHTY, THE SOLOIST.

Not that the change can't be refreshing.

Scott was re-reading HUCKLEBERRY FINN for upcoming Literary Night and absolutely writhing over the whole race issue--he'd forgotten how incredibly uncomfortable some passages about Jim are. Then there was the time on one of our early dates when we went to see CIMARRON (1931) at the old-time movie theater, only to gape at each other in shock when Yancy Cravat turns to a young black servant boy (the Help) and says, "Look at those watermelons, Isaiah!" and Isaiah makes giant vaudevillian eyes at them. Eeks! Really?

Or reading LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE to the kids and hearing Ma wax antagonistic toward the Indians. Cut her some slack--they ate the cornmeal, dang it! Still, I could breathe more easily reading them CADDIE WOODLAWN's comparatively post-Civil-Rights friendship with "Indian Jim."

Having gone to college in the politically-correct era, I might fidget and cringe my way through certain historical works, but never would I suggest they be deleted from the canon. As long as there have been people they have drawn distinctions between themselves and others for whatever reasons--we've just stopped wanting to admit it. Race is no longer acceptable as a distinction, of course, but economic class and educational class are still fair game--note the popularity of the "People of Wal-Mart" site.

Anyhow, it'll be nice when the books are all balanced, and we can go back to acknowledging that folks are folks, and you have to take them--no matter the color of their skin--warts and all.

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