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.
Black Boy by Richard Wright
Native Son by Richard Wright
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
The Colour Purple by Alice Walker
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute