Reflecting on my rather poor performance when it came to reading authors who weren’t straight white men in January, I decided to dedicate February to reading more black authors in honor of Black History Month. As I was browsing offerings online and from my local library, I tried to think of famous black authors – maybe ones I had read in the past – and was shocked to realize I hardly knew any. The only name that came to mind was Toni Morrison, but trying to think of more black authors and black classics just resulted in a blank.
I must have read some literature by black authors in high school, though, right? Some that address black history, culture, or politics? At least one or two. But the two texts I remember reading that were concerned with the black experience were The Adventure’s of Huckleberry Finn and Uncle Tom’s Cabin – written by a white man and a white woman respectively. Even in college, the only black literature I remember coming across was maybe a short story or two and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. In a total of 17 years of education, I had one memorable black voice in my past. One. The more I thought, the more I realized just how much my education had failed both black literature and myself.
This month, I finally indulged in works like Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave, W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and Fledgling by Octavia Butler. They gave me an understanding of slavery, racism, and prejudice that my faux-black literary experience or history classes never did. 12 Years illustrated to me the horrors of slavery the sanitized and clinical passages I read in textbooks glanced over, trying to hurry readers along to cover up that ugly part of American history. Souls showed how the disadvantage of black Americans continued long after slavery ended, looking into how that hate and violence affected the spirit of newly free blacks three decades after emancipation. Beloved and Fledgling made the history of Northup and Du Bois personal, taking it to a level that made me uncomfortable, but rightfully and necessarily so.
Even as an educated adult who is aware of events like slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, and current racial prejudice, I’d never examined them on an emotional level prior to this month. I’d read about them historically, analyzed them as fact, and thought my work was done. It wasn’t until this month that I was able to feel that history, to understand it beyond fact and begin to reflect on what it must have been like, what it must still be like to be black in America. As a white woman, I will never be able to truly empathize with the black experience, but at least now I have an understanding, a place at which I can begin to sympathize with both past and current struggle when I listen to black stories.
These works were brilliant, beautifully and emotionally written pieces of literature.. These authors speak of their experiences with eloquence and make them accessible, allowing an outsider to explore their stories while still maintaining them as their own. As
However, we live in a country that silences these voices. A country filled with racial hate and violence where black men and women are killed, dehumanized, and disenfranchised. Where something as seemingly obvious as “Black Lives Matter” has to be campaigned for and is actively fought against by not a few radicals, but by many. Where these issues are put onto the shoulders of blacks – still struggling with the aftereffects of centuries of slavery – who are told fixing them is their responsibility even as they continue to be driven further into poverty and deprived of the resources they need to feed, shelter, and educate themselves, much less excel politically, economically, or socially. Most white Americans watch these injustices at best with casual disinterest and at worst with gleeful malice. They don’t see it as involving them, as being part of their experience – issues like gang violence or police brutality are just too foreign to a middle-class white person, so they marginalize these stories to keep themselves from feeling uncomfortable or guilty.
I think this failure to listen to black stories and foster empathy is where my education failed me, where education everywhere continues to fail its students. Literature has the ability to take these situations, these injustices, and these sufferings and make them tangible, real. A 30-second clip of a black man being shot by a police officer on the news is easy to disregard, to forget about in the course of a day – he becomes a footnote, a statistic. A novel that shows us that same black man’s past, shows us his thoughts and feelings, and shows us the multifaceted political, economic, and social reasons why he ended up in front of the officer’s gun that day is not so easy to ignore or brush off. It gets into our minds, our emotions and sits there, not letting us turn away from the ugliness that we as a country need to face but refuse to.
As Du Bois says, “Herein lies the tragedy of the age: not that men are poor,—all men know something of poverty; not that men are wicked,—who is good? not that men are ignorant,—what is Truth? Nay, but that men know so little of men.” This sentence was written in 1903, but is still true over a hundred years later where the divide between white and black is still as apparent as ever. To ignore the incredible power of literature to create empathy, to give someone the ability to look at another person and say, “I want to understand,” is negligent, almost criminally so – it perpetuates a culture that continues to ignore and minimize the victimization of black Americans. No child should make it through 17 years of schooling only having heard one black voice when the power to make these individuals into adults with a nuanced and sympathetic view of race, racism, and prejudice is so easily attainable – simply opening a book.