In the 1960s, Robert Coles was the child psychologist who treated Ruby Bridges, six years old, black, integrating a white elementary school in New Orleans. He would hate my use of the word treated. Rather, he listened to Ruby’s story as he counseled her through the massive life disruption and trauma that was integration during the Civil Rights movement. Later, he would write a book about what he learned from these brave children, and he would win a Pulitzer for it. In another book, The Call of Stories, Coles wonders: What if we don’t jump to conclusions trying to fix others? What if, instead, we “listen carefully, record faithfully, understand as fully as possible”?
Coles also talks about the novels that formed his childhood—not only the ones he read, but also the books his parents read aloud in the evenings. What a boring thing to do! When the young Coles pressed his father about why he and his mother read together and discussed Dickens, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky, his father explained that these stories held reservoirs of wisdom. “Your mother and I feel rescued by these books.”
In 2017, I attended the first meeting of a multi-ethnic group that meets in my city. The facilitator asked, “What is something you appreciate about your culture?” That’s often a difficult question for white Americans to answer. We have trouble pinning down just what our culture is without throwing it in relief against other cultures, other ethnicities. After long thought, I decided, Books. The wealth of Western philosophy and storytelling that has come down through the literature of my European ancestors and American contemporaries. But something rubbed uncomfortably when I said so in the meeting. A grain of sand in the oyster shell.
Here is what you really look like, the best books show, like a mirror, like a blow to the skull. Like rescue. Rebecca D. Martin
When I was in college twenty years ago, majoring in English Education, American Literature was not my jam. But it was required, so I struck out and enrolled in Contemporary American Lit, and to my horror, found myself reading Richard Wright’s Native Son. I read the initial chapters and then put the book down, and I could not, I could not make myself read the rest of that disturbing, galling story. Prejudice, terror, accidental murder, dismemberment. Who wanted to saturate their imagination with these things? What good could come of reading this? I withdrew from the class and retreated into a more comfortable mental space. I enrolled in an American Naturalism and Realism course, in which the stories, though dark-edged if I had known how to listen, were less challenging to my daily narrative.
Black poet Amiri Baraka tells the story from another perspective. His grandmother would return home from dressing white women’s hair in the 1940s and bring her grandson white literature for him to read, including Dickens. He tried those books, but the pictures they painted didn’t reflect the life he lived. Instead, he says, “I knew the stories of the Black South,” the stories of African American writers, like Richard Wright. Baraka was stunned by Richard Wright when he first read him, and in fact worried for the author’s safety; surely someone was out to kill Wright for the kind of racial things he had put in print in mid-century America.
Poet Wanda Coleman says, “At home, I lived in a Black world and no matter what [books by white writers] I read, it did not reflect my life.” She discovered Richard Wright’s 1930s and 40s fiction belatedly. Literature written by black men was taboo in her school until the late 1950s. Imagine! “Contraband,” she says; you’d get suspended for bringing it on campus.
When she started reading what she calls Black literature—W. E. B. DuBois, Ann Petry—she found rescue. “There was the entrance to my world as I was struggling to survive in it.”
The grain of sand in my oyster shell shows itself: a lack of recognition that there is just as rich a culture of literature and thought cherished by other ethnicities than mine, by people of color. More than cherished—held onto as a lifeline. And my own imagination and conscience are, in fact, in dangerous waters without it. I can picture the withdrawal slip I filled out for that American Lit class back in college. Reason for Withdrawal Request: “I prefer to focus on a different type of literature.” Never mind the famous, controversial words Franz Kafka once said in a letter to a friend:
Altogether, I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow to the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? . . . What we need are books that hit us like . . . suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.
Do I wish to alter what I said the other day in the racial unity meeting? Like Baraka, like Coleman, I was an avid reader as a child. I was formed by fiction, by the practice of listening and learning, of putting myself into the stories of others. But whose stories? At worst, petty escapism (though often with a troubling strain of racism that my eyes weren’t open to). But at best, Dostoevsky and Austen, the Brontes, Marilynne Robinson. Dickens’s Little Dorrit, which is about how being imprisoned can become a lifelong internal identity, and A Christmas Carol, which is a story not about Christmas, but about social justice. It makes sense that white books did nothing for Baraka, but Dickens’s British culture was my inroad, driving his stories into my soul. Here is another reality, these good books say, when I listen. They show forth the oppressed, the poor, the forgotten, the economically-draining, the socially threatening, the wounded, the imprisoned, the worn down. Here is what you really look like, the best books show, like a mirror, like a blow to the skull. Like rescue. Their words have been picks, pounding these forty-some-odd years, though the cracks in my privileged consciousness have taken a painfully long time to appear.
What will drive the pick straight through and crack my world wide open? Another black poet, Toi Derricotte, asks, “How can we wake / From a dream / We are born into”? If Baraka and Coleman’s experiences told them nothing of the white world’s stories, how can I hope to understand theirs? Baraka challenges:
Afro-American literature . . . is one of the most influential and important in the world. Particularly given the contest of its creation, in the cauldron of racism, racial violence, and dismissal. It reveals American lives, culture and history in a depth that nothing else is able to do.
Kafka uses that word, suicide, and I don’t think he uses it lightly when he says books should hit us this way. When we are touched by the terrible instance of someone taking his or her own life, we are gutted. We sorrow and grieve. We wonder what could have been done differently. We resolve to pay better attention. We are changed. . . or at least we should be. Jesus speaks of a different kind of death, a good one. “Whoever loves his life loses it,” he says. And, “Go! Sell all that you have.” And again, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”
What life? What wealth? The grain of sand rubs me again, and I see it for what it is. Self, I say, You wealthy white woman, give away the riches that are your white privilege. Lay your own story down. Yes. I can choose to set aside my own narrative, and let others sound forth their stories, even if they leave me shaken. Because if I ignore the real narrative of this country, if I stop being formed and informed by the lives of others, what is left? And how can I wake from the dream—or is it nightmare?—I’ve inherited, a citizen of this beautiful, broken, blended nation, if I won’t listen to stories that bite and sting?