1 July 2020 Susannah

I am not a ‘political’ being

University student

I am not an especially ‘political’ being, but I am currently feeling enraged! How can the Australian government suddenly drastically raise the costs of doing a humanities degree? Do they not realise that this is the most important degree anybody can do? It is the humanities which teach critical thinking, skilled use of language, a considered awareness of the past and a more realistic view of the future. Studying the humanities teaches us empathy, how to consider every side of a question, how to think creatively, and how to value the arts.

Surveys show that more people who have a humanities background do well in business, politics and government, and that such graduates are in demand from employers. In our era of mass media and global communication, surely good communications skills are highly important and marketable? I feel angry and upset to now be living in a country that charges so much for the degree that I consider the most important, and I despair of politicians who do not read books, or encourage the arts. The arts make you think, and we need rational thinkers in our world today.

And while I’m on the political bandwagon … The protest marches around the world for the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement have made me think about what books I’ve read by black American writers. I have to conclude that it is embarrassingly few. My university literature course did not include a single one and it was really only the prospect of leading a literary tour in the Deep South that started me reading books which depicted the racial discrimination in America from the black perspective.

Richard Wright’s 1945 memoir Black Boy is a very powerful book (telling a grim story of an intelligent young black boy growing up in the South), as is his 1940 novel Native Son. Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is another deeply moving memoir of life in the South in the 1930s, while Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple depicts vividly the hardships faced by young women in the Deep South if they were black. But I have read no books depicting life in present-day America for those who are black.

Most of us have read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and we shake our heads over the hideously unfair treatment of the black characters in that novel. But that is a book written from the white point of view and I was intrigued recently to read an article by Roxane Gay, a black critic, showing that not everyone loves this classic. She comments: “I don’t need to read about a young white girl understanding the perniciousness of racism to actually understand the perniciousness of racism. I have ample firsthand experience.” You can read the full article here at the NY Times.

Fiction is such a powerful way to fight racism and perhaps those in charge of required reading at schools need to redress the balance of authors in the curriculum. We may not always find it comfortable reading, but such books will widen our experience and give us more empathy. It has been said that, when you read a novel, you “try another life on for size”. Through novels, we can walk in another’s shoes and get a sense of the injustices that people of colour face. There’s a movement called We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) and their website lists many resources and books for further reading. So how about making a July resolution to read more books about fighting racism and how we can all change our world for the better.

My Reader’s Guide for next month is Nevil Shute’s A Town Like Alice. It was published in 1950. I loved re-reading it (or rather, listening to the excellent audio version), but when I read it as a teenager, I failed to notice the racism in the book. It reflects so clearly the way Aboriginal people were treated in 1950s Australia, all so casually that you get a strong sense of how taken for granted racist attitudes were.

There are calls at the moment to ban books and films that are not politically correct. I am 100% against this. I feel it is extremely important to read novels which depict racism, or the subjection of women, so that we can learn from the lessons of the past. I am NOT one of those who feel that Gone with the Wind should be removed from Netflix because it is a white woman’s depiction of slavery and the Civil War. You may disagree, but the place of fiction in giving us history lessons is, in my view, vital. As writer George Santayana said, “those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it”. I believe that fiction helps us to avoid that mistake.

So, will you resolve to read one book that deals with racism, or perhaps one written by a black writer in July? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

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Featured image credit- University student, https://pxhere.com/en/photo/1610927
Body image credit- Promotional still from the film To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) with Gregory Peck and Brock Peters. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3560213
Body image credit- Nevil Shute, A Town Like Alice. Bryan Brown and Helen Morse in A Town Like Alice (1981), https://www.facebook.com/pg/atownlikealice/photos/
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Comments (10)

  1. Graham H

    How hard can it be. Jane Austen became Susannah’s favourite novelist after writing three great novels on a portable writing desk. Agatha Christie became the world’s top-selling author of all time after jotting down her stories on spare bits of paper at the kitchen table – or, wherever she happened to be. And it’s a million times cheaper and easier for the young folk of today. They can read any novel, or any poem, for free, at the touch of a button. Bartleby.com. Gutenberg.org. They can watch any play, for free. Youtube.com. Do they need it explained, clearly and in depth, by the world’s top academics? They can go to a Lifeline book fair – they can buy York Notes and Brodie’s Notes and all the rest, on any classic, for 50c each. If they don’t have the get up and go to do that, without the taxpayer subsidising them for a squillion, I very much doubt that they’ll have the gumption to write Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      You are assuming that all young people will be motivated to seek out great literature and then study it themselves. The advantages of a university degree in English is that you are made to read authors you might never have heard of, you can discuss texts with fellow students and learn from their ideas, and you have literature put into its social/ historical / political context by a good lecturer. I will never ever forget the first English lecture I listened to at university. It was on Marlowe’s Dr Faustus. I thought I’d died and gone to literary heaven, and came home knowing that I would go on to do a masters degree as well.
      But I agree that you do not need to study English Literature to write a great novel – that’s a different matter altogether and involves being born with great talent as well as having persistence and courage.

  2. Miland Joshi

    I remember two books of fiction written by black South Africans in the 80s: Mbulelo Mzamane’s collection of short stories about life under apartheid, “My Cousin comes to Jo’burg”, with its unquenchable good humour, and Miriam Tlali’s “Muriel at Metropolitan”, a heart-warming story about how narrow-minded people can slowly change.
    However they may not be easy to get hold of.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Many thanks for the recommendations. My husband is South African, so I will also mention them to him.

  3. Miland Joshi

    On the other main subject: I remember feeling sad when the UK government removed the subsidy to the Open University which had enabled many people to study cheaply by correspondence (including myself), thogh this covered all subjects. In future people would need to take out loans as they do if they are full-time students.
    It’s all about cutting public expenditure, of course.

    Regarding the value of Humanities generally, Dorothy L. Sayers wrote an essay “The lost tools of learning”. Here’s a link:
    https://classicalchristian.org/the-lost-tools-of-learning-dorothy-sayers/?v=a44707111a05

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Thanks for the link. I love Dorothy L. Sayers, so will have a look.
      Open University was a wonderful institution for so many.

  4. Rosaleen Kirby

    Hi Susannah, I agree entirely with not removing these items from the canon but they should be taught/read with awareness and sensitivity so that the reader understands that it is not a glorification of those times. And it’s not just racial attitudes, if we follow such re-writing of history to its logical end we would have to (I hope you’re sitting down Susannah) ban all of Jane Austen’s work because of the way the servants are treated!! 😉

    If people want to read some amazing black writers they would do wonderfully to start with Toni Morrison, sadly died last year, a remarkable woman.

    Rose x

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Well, if the world bans the novels of Jane Austen, I think I’d have to depart it!
      Yes, I agree that novels with difficult issues need to be taught sensitively. But they should not be banned. And of course I agree about Toni Morrison – a fabulous writer.

  5. ‘It is the humanities which teach critical thinking, skilled use of language, a considered awareness of the past and a more realistic view of the future. Studying the humanities teaches us empathy, how to consider every side of a question, how to think creatively, and how to value the arts.’ I totally agree Susannah: however, this is not how the humanities are taught any longer unfortunately! And you don’t dare speak out if you don’t follow the latest fads for fear of being branded a racist, bigot, or whatever epithet the ‘woke’ choose to throw at you – and all in the name of ‘diversity and tolerance’!! It was going on back in the day when I did a Communications degree at UTS and I’m quite sure it’s now got worse, having witnessed the hysterical response to the proposed degree in Western Civilisation.

  6. Diana Paulin

    I have not read Maya Angelou’s book “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” – looking forward to that. Loved Toni Jordan – superb writer. I do not have a University degree but books are my main solace in life.

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