March 27, 1998 in City

Sometimes, Formulas Can Fail Us Badly

Ellen Goodman Boston Globe
 

It was one of those controversies that rock the Bay Area as regularly as an earthquake. Can you judge a book by its color - the color of the author?

This national brouhaha began when two members of the San Francisco school board decided to fuse math and literature. They proposed that seven of 10 required reading books for school children be chosen from a designated list of multicultural authors.

The predictable headlines were all about kicking dead white male authors while they’re down. The regular suspects took their posts, praising diversity or lambasting political correctness in a fuss unmatched since the city across the bay, Oakland, started talking Ebonics.

The teachers, meanwhile, wanted to flunk the pols. In a city where the white “majority” is a school minority, many teachers insist there is already a whole lot of diversity in the curriculum.

Finally, a raucous school board meeting ended last week in a political compromise that was more deft than deep. Among other points, the board ruled for diversity without quotas, saying: “Works of literature read in class in grades 9 to 11 … must include works by writers of color.”

But before we head out to recess for some fresh air, may I register dismay at how any “dialogue about race” deteriorates into a shouting match. This time, as the participants kept throwing names like Mark Twain and Toni Morrison about, I wondered if any of them had completed the required reading.

I had just spent a week in “Paradise” with Toni Morrison. This is her fictional meditation on race and gender, on the game of us and them. It’s a novel about a promised land of safe sameness that disintegrates disastrously.

Morrison tells the story of an all-black town in Oklahoma. We get to know every citizen and every corner, every shade of color and every nuance of character.

The town of Ruby was founded by the descendants of slaves shunned first by whites and then - more devastatingly - by lighter-skin blacks. In response the men establish a hierarchy of color in which the darker reject the lighter.

Ruby is a harbor of patriarchal peace, near an old convent that becomes a retreat for women refugees from the male world. The first line of the book, as the men attack the convent, is starkly about race: “They killed the white girl first.”

It wasn’t until the end that I realized I had no idea which of the convent dwellers was white. Flipping back, looking for clues, I finally understood that this was precisely Morrison’s point.

Morrison’s work holds this riddle at its heart: This is a tale in which skin color is at once the point and beside the point.

By raising the issue of color at the outset and then erasing it, Morrison said she wanted “to have the reader believe - finally - after you know everything about these women, their interior lives, their past, their behavior - that the one piece of information you don’t know, which is the race, may not, in fact matter. And when you do know it, what do you know?”

This Utopia that is ruined by its own rigidity reminded me of more than racial strife in America. It echoed with the sounds of Israeli conflicts over who is a Jew, with Serbian passions for ethnic cleansing.

This, after all, is what literature does at its humane best. In the colors of Mark Twain or Toni Morrison, it is also colorblind. Black and white and re(a)d all over. It’s specific and universal.

These are odd times in this country. We are racially divided and diverse. More of us want to check off the multicultural box on the Census form and more of us worry about resegregation.

In this climate, an African-American author rises to the top tier of the best-seller list by taking race seriously enough to imagine Paradise. And taking the human condition seriously enough to expand the color palette.

Ironically, only an exquisite racial consciousness may lead readers into and beyond race. This is the intricate dance of reading-list controversies that arise from time to time. This is the duality at the heart of food fights between adults - a misunderstanding that is warped by political screaming matches and school board duels.

The color, gender, life experience of any author is at once central and irrelevant to her world view and therefore to ours. Our children need writers who see the world through different lenses to enlarge their own vision, but the numbers game seems to divide us instead.

In the end, we don’t learn this by the numbers. It’s the words that matter.

xxxx


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