Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Zombies and the N-word: Notes on race in reading

Recently I read this piece on "Identity in a White Default World," written by Katelin Hansen (@StrngeFruit) and guest-posted on Mennonite pastor Marty Troyer's The Peace Pastor blog. In that piece, Kathleen makes the assertion that "Whiteness is the ‘default,’ the dominant culture against which others are compared." Here's how I found this to be true recently in my reading diet...


Last week I finished reading Colson Whitehead's Zone One, a zombie apocalypse story with some great literary sensibilities. Now, no reference to race was made in the vast majority of the book, except for one instance toward the end when the main character, Mark Spitz, has an exchange with one of his zombie-hunting colleagues. The conversation they're having makes reference to swimming and Spitz's not doing it for various legitimate reasons, but he also adds a self-deprecating remark about the stereotype that black people can't swim.

I had to stop short and re-read the paragraph another time or two, making sure I was getting what was being conveyed. Then I thought, "Huh. He's black."

This was a surprise to me, unsettling my default assumption that - in the absence of any narratively-provided details about the main character - he must be white. This despite the fact that I knew the author, Whitehead, is himself African American. Why was I surprised then? Why had I assumed all along that the main character in a book written by an African American man was white?

While there are no simple answers to complex matters such as race and identity, I do think it has a lot to do with what Hansen had to say about whiteness being the "default" or dominant culture in the U.S.

Flannery O'Connor

Then the other day I found Flannery O'Connor's Complete Stories on Kindle for cheap and I took the bait. Worried that my almost-13 year-old daughter was reading too much cheap teeny fiction on her Kindle, last night I decided to start reading her some O'Connor at bedtime. And right into the first page of "The Geranium," I remembered why O'Connor was so provocative for me when I first came across her writing in my undergrad work in English: Her use of the N-word.

Whoo! What to do when reading to your teenager daughter? Having parents who went through grad school in her pre-adolescent years, she's developed quite an intellect herself as well as some great cultural sensitivities, having spent a month in Ethiopia and being in an ethnically, racially, religiously diverse school district for four years in Virginia.

So I decided to not censor my reading of the N-word to her (like I'm doing here). But I'm also stopping to give her some context about who was writing this (a white Catholic woman) and when (mid 20th century, pre-Civil Rights) and where O'Connor often takes the use of that (awesomely subversive places!).

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