Literary Perspectives on American Racial Inequality
Racial inequality in the U.S. continually startles me. The knowledge that the life expectancy in some low-income African American communities is lesser than parts of rural Algeria is a bit irreconcilable with my image of the U.S. as the world’s most powerful and free nation (questionable as that image is). To that end, I’ve been working through some literature on race, identity, and prejudice in America, and below is a description of some of my reading experiences.
Fiction: The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead (1999)
With metaphors and delightfully convoluted plotlines galore, this novel is both inventive and thought-provoking in its exploration of racial identity. While Colson Whitehead is known more widely for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Underground Railroad (which I would also recommend), The Intuitionist appeals a bit more to my penchant for the absurd. In the novel, there are two schools of elevator-related thought: Empiricists, the traditional group who inspect elevators based on defined and established methods, and Intuitionists, who have more intangible ways of detecting elevator problems, and are generally more successful. The plot revolves around an African American woman named Lila Mae Watson, whose career as an Intuitionist elevator inspector is threatened by an Empiricist conspiracy to usurp her. As she unravels the schemes of the deceptive Empiricists, she also searches for the perfect elevator amidst barriers of prejudice.
Categorised as “speculative fiction,” the novel does indeed speculate—about division and hatred, prejudice and ambition, all within the captivating mystery of the Empiricist subterfuge. The story is a cleverly written analogy about racial prejudice—elevators act as a metaphor for social mobility and rising above injustice—but without the blunt symbolism of allegories such as Animal Farm. It requires work by the reader to disentangle the strands of the plot and unveil its complex themes. My main takeaway? The idea that “There is another world beyond this one,” a world of social progress and change, and that elevators (and ambition) are vehicles to take us there.
Nonfiction: The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein (2017)
While the American spelling of “colour” still peeves me—what’s next? Jornalism? Tamborine?—this is an informative and meticulous account of residential discrimination in the United States. The thesis of the book is that “African Americans were unconstitutionally denied the means and the right to integration in middle-class neighborhoods, and because this denial was state-sponsored, the nation is obligated to remedy it.” Through delving into the demographic history of the United States, from California to Illinois to Oklahoma, his claim becomes near irrefutable. I think people (myself included) most generally associate instititutional discrimination with slavery and the obsolete practices of the early 1800s. What’s surprising to me is that explicitly racist policies continued well into the late 20th century, and not just in confederate states like Louisiana and Alabama, but in reasonably liberal places like Massachusetts. These were policies that were never acknowledged or repaired by the state, despite their effects having undeniably seeped into the modern-day paradigm of inequality. In cases where, for instance, black families were denied housing loans and forced to live in the poorest areas, the intergenerational ripple effect can be linked to the presence of urban slums, and even income inequality, where the median household income of white Americans is almost 30 000 USD higher than that of African Americans.
Given the Jones v. Mayer decision of 1968, where the Supreme Court ruled that residential discrimination was a badge of slavery contravening the thirteenth amendment, the argument for constitutionally required desegregation becomes stronger. The Color of Law provokes important conversations on the extent to which institutions are still responsible for issues of inequality, and is in my opinion well worth reading. Overall, the book is a bit dense at points, although I suppose that’s the price we pay for its level of specificity and detail.
Fiction: Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (2018)
A far cry from the explicit and empirical style of previous book, Washington Black tells the story of a young African American man who is freed from slavery only to encounter a variety of obstacles in his adventures around the globe. The novel is at times reminiscent of Gulliver’s Travels or even The Odyssey with its description of otherworldly phenomenons and settings, and appealed to my secret desire to abandon high school and go gallivanting about in a hot air balloon—the hot air balloon in the book does end up crashing in a river, which diminished the whimsy a bit. Reading this book is an interesting mixture of historical fiction and fantasy action, and the elements of adventure did make the plot a bit less depressing (although the sentiment of despondency is perhaps inherent to all slavery-related literature).
I think the central message here is a question of how we define freedom. The protagonist is not free just because he is no longer a slave, in the same way that racial discrimination didn’t end in the United States at the conclusion of slavery. That said, it would be incorrect to distill the novel to nothing more than a stale commentary on inequality. The book’s main value, in my opinion, is not to impart a conceptual understanding of racial inequality, but to tell one man’s story of liberation and self-actualisation. In that, I think it is very successful. My one criticism is that there were times when the elaborate plot points and, oddly enough, investigation of marine biology inhibited a more in-depth analysis of the themes the author was trying to examine. Had there been a little less going on, it could have left room for more emotionally engaging prose.
Memoir: The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton (2018)
My personal favourite of the four, The Sun Does Shine is a beautifully written narrative of the author’s experiences being falsely convicted and spending twenty-eight years on Alabama’s death row. While I’ve been exposed to all sorts of statistics on how corrupt and broken the American criminal justice system is—“a criminal justice system that treats you better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent,” as described in the book—I think reading this narrative is altogether a different experience from looking at the data, and it is unsettling to picture what exactly it means for an individual to be imprisoned in the United States. For him, discrimination false conviction was not a statistic: they were twenty-eight years of his life that he didn’t get back after release. This book encourages us all to look critically at issues of structural injustice towards African Americans.
But more importantly, I think Hinton’s story has broader implications for the way we think about justice: as he puts it, “We need to think about the fact that we are all more than the worst thing we have done.” When examining issues of morality, we are quick to condemn others for their shortcomings, without considering what we would or wouldn’t be willing to do if things were different for us. I wonder what our justice system could be like if it were less about punishing people for making mistakes, and more about the potential for redemption and change. If it is true that we are more than the worst thing we have done, then our identities aren’t fixed upon our failures, and we have the capacity to evolve as human beings.
Literature is a powerful way to understand the world around us. It allows us to connect with the individual characters in a thoughtful and to some extent depoliticized way, and has the potential to unpack our misconceptions in a way that our increasingly oversimplified media isn’t always capable of. If you’re in the same boat of wanting to learn more about a political issue, reading some literature that isn’t explicitly political might be worth the effort. After all, here I am many books later, still understanding very little, but with a little more perspective and information to at least understand how little I know.