Posts Tagged With: racism

Bone by Bone by Bone by Tony Johnston

This novel is told through the eyes of David Church, a young boy (the novel covers four years, from when he is 9 to when he is 13), living in Tennessee in the 1950s.  David makes friends with a boy called Malcolm – but David is white and Malcolm is black, and it is a dangerous place and time for a white boy and a black boy to be friends. David’s father tells him that if Malcolm ever sets foot inside their house, he will shoot him.  His father expects David to obey him, but David finds himself questioning his father’s beliefs, and the events that he sees going on around him.

Set in a Southern state in the 1950s, and narrated by a child, comparisons with To Kill a Mockingbird are inevitable.  I personally don’t believe that this book is as good as TKAM (which is one of my all time favourite books) – but it is certainly a good read, aimed at younger readers.  Hopefully it would open up the subject for discussion.

As it is narrated by a child, a certain naivety is to be expected, and certain events are therefore somewhat simplified.  However, the book very ably portrays David’s distaste (and later disgust) with his father’s views.  The writing flows easily and the story moves on at a rapid pace, and I felt that the author did a good job of getting into the mindset of a young boy.

I did feel that Malcolm was not really explored as a person, although he is one of the main characters.  I would also like to have seen more of David’s Uncle Lucas, who does not share the father’s racist views; Lucas was one of the better fleshed out characters, despite being on the periphery of the story.  The one character who was most fully rounded was probably that of Franklin Church – David’s father.

The Ku Klux Klan also appear in the book, and indeed a couple of the scenes filled me with a genuine sense of unease.  There are a couple of genuinely upsetting parts of the story, which might be worth bearing in mind for younger readers.  Overall though, I would certainly recommend this book – as mentioned earlier, it’s aimed at young adults, but I think it’s a worthwhile read for adults of all ages.

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Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin

In 1959, white Texan John Howard Griffin used a combination of medication and skin dye to turn his skin black, and then travelled through the Southern States as a black man, to see for himself how he would be treated by people there.  This book is his diary of his journey and his experiences.

It makes for uncomfortable reading at times.  This was a time when segregation was still very much a reality – and in fact the expected norm – in certain states.  Black people could not use many of the cafes and public toilets which white people used, and always sat at the back when using public transport.  What is equally disturbing is the contempt with which strangers treat people on the sole basis of the colour of their skin.  In one incident for example, a bus stops for ten minutes and while all the white people are let off to use the bathroom, the black people are prevented from getting off, seemingly for no reason other than to make them uncomfortable and to show that they are considered second class citizens.

Most people are well aware of how segregated the deep south was at the time of the writing of this book, but here we see it from a personal standpoint.  Griffin knows that in all ways except for the colour of his skin, he is still the same person he has always been…but where he has previously been treated with courtesy and respect by fellow white people, now he is feared and distrusted.

Also disturbing is the description of the repercussions of the experiment which he and his family suffered after his experiment was over and people found out what he had done.

Griffin examines how people who don’t consider themselves to be racist do in fact show themselves to be exactly that in their speech and mannerisms, although in the interest of fairness and truth, he also details incidents of kindness and kinship shown to him by both black and white people.

The book was easy to read – the writing flowed and never got boring – at less than 200 pages, it didn’t have chance to.  However, there were times when I felt that the author was second guessing what people were thinking.  In one part, a young man is abusive to him, but his insults are never related to colour.  Griffin presumes that this would not have happened if he were white, but the truth is that he and we cannot know whether this is correct or not.  Other than this though, it is an interesting book which held my attention.

It was written just over 50 years ago, and therefore feels somewhat dated.  The segregation laws described no longer exist – thank goodness – and people are more enlightened.  However, there is no doubt that racism still exists, and this is one man’s account of his personal experience of it.  It may not teach us anything we didn’t already know, but it is certainly interesting and disturbing reading.

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The White Family by Maggie Gee

Alfred White has always ruled his family with a mixture of tenderness and toughness.  Such was his toughness that he has alienated his two eldest children and doesn’t understand what’s happening in the life of his youngest child, but when he collapses at work, they all rush to be by his side.  However, just when the family should be pulling together, they find themselves fragmenting.  Oldest son Darren is married to his third wife and comes over from his home in New York and old resentments float to the surface.  Daughter Shirley upset her father years ago by marrying an black man, and after being widowed is still at odds with her father over her new relationship with another black man.  Youngest son Dirk hates all non-white people and his anger at Shirley reaches boiling point.  Things must come to a head, and when they do, who will step up and see that justice is done?

This book is told from the point of view of all of the different family members as well as a few other people who know the family.  The different viewpoints make for an interesting narrative, as accounts of events overlap and are seen through different eyes.

I thought this was a fabulous read.  Each character is realistically brought to life, and are very distinct from each other.  Many of them are not sympathetic characters (Shirley is easily the nicest one of them all), but in each case their motives and reasons for their beliefs and actions are explained , although certain actions are certainly not excused or softened – and nor should they be.  Opinions are explained and while it is impossible to agree with how certain people behave, I could certainly understand why they behaved that way.

Maggie Gee has written a beautiful novel, which explores the prejudices which people hold and live with, and which certainly pulls no punches.  I thought it was a very thought-provoking book, which while heavy at times in subject matter, was always compelling.  I will certainly be seeking out more books by this author.

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Mudbound by Hillary Jordan

This is a fabulous and utterly compelling debut novel, set in Mississippi in the 1940s, a time when white people and black people were not friends, and did not socialise together.  It is a novel about hatred and intolerance, about anger, about family and about love.

Laura McAllan is not happy when her husband Henry decides to move them from their comfortable life in the city to a remote cotton farm in the Mississipi Delta.  She misses her home comforts, and struggles with the harsh and sparse lifestyle (she names the farm ‘Mudbound because that is precisely what it is when the rain falls and makes the bridge to town unpassable).  What she hates most of all is that they have to share their home with Henry’s hateful father, ‘Pappy’.

Into their home comes Henry’s charismatic younger brother Jamie, who is more sensitive to Laura’s unhappiness than her own husband, but having recently got back from fighting in World War II, Jamie is fighting his own demons.

Ronsel Jackson is the eldest son of the black family who work on Henry’s farm.  He too, has been fighting in the war, but in the South in the 1940s, there is no hero’s welcome for a young black man.  Jamie and Ronsel become friends, but in such a heated and claustrophobic atmosphere as they are living in, such a friendship can only lead to tragedy.

I was gripped by this book from the very first page.  There was a sense of impending doom all through it, and the final denouement was shocking.  The book disturbed me in many ways, especially in the way that the racism displayed is just accepted as normal, by white and black alike.  The book is told from the viewpoints of several of the characters, and the author successfully gave each character their own distinct personality.

Highly, highly recommended.

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Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black by Harriet E. Wilson

Date of Publication: 1859

Number of Pages: 131

Synopsis:

This is the story of Frado, a mulatto girl who grows up in antebellum New England. Her mother, a poor white woman, abandons her after the death of her father, a black man, at the home of a rich, white family, the Bellmonts. Frado’s life with the Bellmonts is a mixture of happiness and agony. Mr. Bellmont and his two sons, Jack and James, and his daughter, Jane, take an instant interest in the pretty Frado, and send her to school to be educated. Her experience in school is a happy one, and she makes friends easily, much to the annoyance of Mary, the Bellmont’s other, more wicked daughter. Mary and her mother heap abuses on Frado, both in the form of beatings and scoldings. Frado is an indentured servant in the house, and is obliged to stay until she turns eighteen. She endures years of abuse, which only gets worse as her few allies leave her behind, whether by marriage or by death. The abuse takes its toll on her health, causing her to become gravely ill during her last few years in the family. Her faith and her self-reliance, plus the encouragement of her friends, enables her to survive and to find her way to supporting herself, both financially, and emotionally.

Review:

It’s extremely important to note Harriet Wilson was most likely the first African American to publish a novel. And yet, this book remains largely unknown to the reading public. It deals with the life of an indentured servant in the northern United States, and her experience with the racism of her white neighbors and employers. Wilson wrote the book for financial purposes: she wanted to be able to support her infant son. Unfortunately, her son died six months after the novel was published. With the little information that is known about her, it appears that the story she wrote was essentially autobiographical. With that in mind, it is startling to recognize that blacks in the North suffered the same indignities and abuses as blacks in the South. The book is a quick read (I read it in about 90 minutes) and is sentimental in tone. Frado is indeed a tragic character, and the descriptions of the violence against her are gruesome. I think this book is important for everyone to read, as it will enlighten readers as to the realities of our common past.

Rating: 9/10

Reviewed by Sarah

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