3 Books on Race

I've been on a reading kick lately and unintentionally read a succession of books that have given me a perspective on race in America that I've never really had, especially not with such a personal narrative historical lens.

1. Island Beneath the Sea by Isabella Allende
This somehow ended up loaded to my Kindle, though I have no recollection of downloading it or having heard of it before. The book starts in the late 1770's in Haiti with a slave named Tete and a French slave owner named Valmorain, and winds its way through Haiti's revolution (the only successful slave uprising in the Caribbean!), to settlement in Louisiana, throughout Valmorain and Tete's lives, and their children's lives, covering issues of free slaves, mixed race men and women, and white people who hated the whole "just because you have a drop of black blood mean you are considered a subservient human/animal" thing.

This is a time and place I have never ever really considered fully. I've pictured slave sales, the ships across the Atlantic, and as much of the awfulness of the day to day as I think is possible for a white girl born after the Civil Rights movement. But Allende does a really beautiful job bringing to life the details. Particularly memorable for me was recognizing the emotional and logical disconnect that whites had to make to maintain their superiority. The other major takeaway was insight into those that didn't fit the black vs. white mold: a white man who had a black wife and black children whom he loved, but who kept them hidden; a mullata (mixed race) woman who gained power through (high class) prostitution; and a mixed race child who looked white, was educated with whites, but was raised with people of color (impossible in its own complicated way). These perspectives reminded me of just how diverse the experience of racism can be.

2. Grace by Natasha Deon
I heard an interview where Natasha Deon read an excerpt of her novel and did something I very rarely do: bought a brand new, full price, hardcover book off Amazon and was impatient for how long two days shipping felt (I'm usually a library/used books for $1 kind of girl). This book is set twenty years before the Civil War and during/after the Civil War, told from the perspective of a mother and the life her daughter. Deon writes with such strong voice I could just picture Naomi, a young black woman who both experiences and observes racism in the South. I can't think of many books I've read that have a more compelling first chapter (I'm sure hearing that author read it herself helped).

Another time and place I've thought little about (checking my privilege, presently), I learned a lot about the chaos of the Civil War. Like how when the Emancipation Proclamation came out it wasn't as if slaves could just up and leave. And how the Underground Railroad only went as far south as Virginia. There were interesting race relations in this book as well: a white brothel owner who saves Naomi and technically frees her but is all sorts of manipulative about it, a white man who I belive truly lived Naomi but who ultimately sucks at life, and Naomi's mixed race daughter, Josie, who also looks white (I didn't think blonde hair was possible in scenarios like this, but these two books are telling me otherwise).

There's a scene at the end where Josie and her black husband are being chased by some white supremacist vigilantes and I had this sinking realization that all this ugliness drudged up by Trump and Co. this election season is VERY OLD. This sense of not just racial superiority but a sense of responsibility to make right what 'them activists and yankees' are turning wrong (that being, you know, actual racial equality and integration). It's truly nauseating to think of how generations learn from their elders and that racism is one of the things that sticks so strongly.

3. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
I'd never read it! Not even I high school via SparkNotes. This, I had picked up a couple months ago from a friend offloading her bookshelves so I got to read her 8th grade son's margin notes along the way. After my 18th and 19th century looks at slavery and race, it seemed only appropriate to move onto one of America's greatest classics. Most people know the premise, but basically it tells the story of a young white girl in Alabama whose lawyer father Atticus Finch defends an innocent black man accused of a crime.

I'll be honest, I spent the first half of the book wondering why everyone loved it so much and guessing at all the ways Boo Radley was going to show up to either save or ruin the day to justify how much time was spent talking about him. But by the time they got to trial, I finally can see why everyone loves Atticus and how obvious it is that we, as white folk, are just awful at coming clean with our own racism. I get really frustrated when I hear people say they have no racial bias. I just don't buy it. Studies prove it, and I can look at my own heart and see the best of intentions but the reality of preconceptions and unfairness. For the town of Maycomb, it was a lot worse than what's in my heart, but the major takeaway for me way this obstinacy we as humans can have to admit our wrongs and fears. Fear of the other, fear of change, fear or admitting that these things we've been telling each other and we've learned from our grandparents are not only untrue but are unjust.

I'm halfway through Go Set a Watchman, (To Kill a Mockingbird's sequel/prequel/first draft) set in the 1950's and am enjoying it so far, but I have a feeling I'm going to finish it feeling even more discouraged.