The title of this post comes from Matthew Hughey by way of Roxane Gay, author of Bad Feminist. She quotes the professor, a sociologist, in her essay-review of the film, The Help, adapted from Kathryn Stockett’s novel. In Bad Feminist she ‘survives’ Django Unchained – although I do think that she missed Tarantino’s excessive use of the N-word for what it was supposed to be: Satire. She offers praise to Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station, Lee Daniels’s The Butler, and Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, although with reservations around the role of Patsey in that last film.
12 Years, based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir, she saw as yet another “struggle narrative,” but it is the feral violence within John Singleton’s Rosewood, also based on an historical event, this time in 1923 Florida, where the White community, on what turned out to be a false allegation of sexual assault, visited horrific violence upon the Black community that warranted for Gay a “voluntary three-day segregation.” Setting aside the observation that African-American directors directed all the films that she liked, I want to address a passing comment that she makes at the end of her critique of The Help.
Gay asks and answers a rhetorical question: Can a writer write outside of his or her racial experience, sexual orientation and, by extension, culture, class, and ‘privilege’? As a creative person, as an educated woman, she answers: “Yes” but, as a Haitian-American she is cynical and suspicious of white writers when it comes to race. White writers and Hollywood, in particular, can’t help but write in the Magical Negro, she tells readers.
Journalist John Howard Griffin whited himself out (literally) to a shade of brown in order to write his Black Like Me (1961), a chronicle of what it was to be a colored man in the American South of the Fifties. The publication of Black Like Me predated King’s arrest “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” the numerous sit-ins that followed and the deputized white men in cars waving Confederate flags to terrorize peaceful protestors. Black Like Me still inspires mixed responses from readers. In 1967, Random House published William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner, which Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin praised. A year later, with a nation reeling from the recent assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy and riots, Confessions had taken the Pulitzer Prize, but not without some backlash, which had come in the form of a critical beating in a publication entitled Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond. Gay’s questions had been posed back then already. Can a white writer write the African-American experience?
Styron was vilified. The consensus opinion was that Styron had crafted an historical distortion of facts, perpetuated racial stereotypes, and substituted his own racism. That Styron was a southerner, a Virginian, amounted to self-incrimination. Detractors claimed that Styron posits Turner’s Rebellion with his character’s lust for a white woman – miscegenation was a crime until the 1967 case of Loving v. Virginia – and not with a slave’s suppressed hatred for the society that equated his personhood with private property. The other charge leveled at Styron was plausibility, since Styron’s Turner is a man who uses educated speech and demonstrates obvious intelligence. Another criticism was that Styron had sanitized white slave owners as being kind and decent to their slaves. Readers had long forgotten Northrop and did not yet have Alex Haley’s Roots. To invert Gay and Hughey’s wording: Styron had written Magical Whites and Maniacal Negroes.
How could a white man write the slave experience? Styron responded in the first edition and again, in 1992, with a special Afterword for the Vintage reprint of Confessions. Styron had been candid; he had taken wide liberties with historical facts, using the lawyer Thomas Ruffin Gray’s 1831 publication of Turner’s confessions, which served as actual court testimony. Styron had this one document and, no doubt, the biased oral tradition on both sides of the racial divide about the two-night killing spree in August of 1831. Styron was explicit that his work was Fiction.
The preface to Thomas Ruffin Gray’s 1831 publication is quoted in the first pages of Styron’s Confessions. Turner’s language is indeed that of an educated man. His master, Benjamin Turner, had had Turner learn how to read and write in order for him to entertain guests. After the insurrection, Virginia would pass prohibitive laws against educating slaves. Styron’s fictionalization fastened on two discordant historical facts: Turner had escaped the plantation but returned to it on his own. Throughout the original 1831 deposition, Turner exhibits fervent religiosity, claiming visions and an ordained purpose in life. In a word, critics claimed that Styron had besmirched an icon by suggesting that a charismatic, devout Nat Turner, who had hoped his violence would inspire waves of armed rebellion, was a psychopath, no different than Charles Manson, who believed a race war was imminent.
The violence in The Confessions of Nat Turner is graphic: axes and knives were used to murder men, women and children. Turner, however, spared poor white folks, seeing them as no better than slaves. This decision alone suggests a profound insight into race and wealth. Nat Turner was the last participant of the rebellion to be executed. His body was sold for dissection and desecrated. White reprisal after the insurrection was swift and violent throughout the South. A section of Virginia State Route 658 would become a veritable Appian Way, where the decapitated heads of suspected participants were staked and displayed as a warning to slaves. A generation later, John Brown would attempt his abortive raid on Harper’s Ferry.
William Styron would write Sophie’s Choice (1979). There was some criticism around his eroticizing Sophie, but none of the responses to that work ever approached the furor that Confessions had provoked. He was not accused of having dared to write a Holocaust story, or a woman’s story, but the tide of politically correct opinion would change that. In 2010, Yann Martel would court controversy with his Beatrice and Virgil because he was a Gentile writing about the Holocaust. It would seem that Gay is right: only the oppressed have the right to write their own fiction. Black is not only a matter of race, but it is a color that cannot be erased. Black is visible and undeniable. In 2009, Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones sparked controversy because the author, a Jew, had written a novel from the point of view of a sadistic SS officer. His crime was not a matter of authenticity, the Holocaust, but one of demonstrating poor taste.
I’ll end here with an observation; this one is from Euripides’s Medea (photo is from a South African production, 1994-96, performed by the Jazzart Dance Theatre.) Medea is the epitome of the woman scorned, but what makes her monstrous is not her gender, nor her lack of maternal instinct, but the simple fact that she is not Greek – she is a barbarian. She, too, is Maniacal. America has not accepted all of its citizens; it has mythologized some as Noble Savages, or as Magical. America sees and fears Black as Other, as Barbaric. The same logic, however, that justified slavery would rationalize Manifest Destiny. Put another way, in this social construct called America, founded on Judeo-Christian principles, society finds “an eye for an eye” a far easier modus operandi than “turn the other cheek.”
Perhaps then, I am naïve: Imagination should have no walls, no boundaries. No privilege. Judge a story by how it is told and how it speaks to this human estate of living, loving, and dying. Don’t judge it by who is telling the story, for nobody owns Humanity.