Monday, June 03, 2002

Barbara Kingsolver, Paule Marshall, and Jo Sinclair

Almost always when I talk to you about books, I choose to talk about books that I have read very recently. That had been my plan for today, but as it happens, I have in the past weeks reread three great novels, all written in the past fifty years, and all dealing with racism and its ties to colonialism, economic exploitation, and market economies. As impressed or even more impressed than with earlier readings, I want to recommend these books and authors to you. The three authors are Barbara Kingsolver, Paule Marshall, and Jo Sinclair.

Oddly enough, when I chose these three books for a philosophy in literature course, I did not set out to choose books all of which dealt with racism and economic oppression. I am more or less retired from teaching, so I had reason to believe that I may not get the chance to teach this class again. So, again against my bent for choosing what is recent for me, and about us-here-now, I simply scanned my own book journal to note how or when I had used books in the past. Many books called to me, but three in particular caught my attention. Paule Marshall leaps out to me as a reader not only for her great skill as a writer, but because she understands so well from her own history as an Afro-Barbadian immigrant growing up in Brooklyn how racism is tied to and exacerbated by economic oppression, and how money-power hides behind racism—uses racism as a foil, a screen to obscure what is really happening. The brownstones she speaks of are the brownstones of Brooklyn. The original non-Jewish inhabitants are frightened away by Jewish immigrants who hungered for a home. And subsequently a white flight into the suburbs opened up the brownstones to people of color. The hard-working Barbadians, employed because of the second world war and resulting robust economy, and seeing southern blacks as lazy and without initiative, saved and scrimped, rented out rooms, worked two jobs, whatever it took to buy a brownstone—to buy a piece of prosperity.

And to skip for a moment to Sinclair, this time in Cleveland and a bit later, in the fifties, her main character in The Changelings (and almost certainly modeled on Sinclair’s life) lives in a Jewish neighborhood where in each home and in almost every conversation, the first thing to be mentioned is the feared encroachment of Die Schwartze, the blacks. To rent to one of them, to sell to one of them, they are certain will bring their world crashing down. The value of their hard-fought for houses will plummet; even the schuls will abandon those who are left and go, like their neighbors have, to ‘the heights’. This time, the returning soldiers and growing economy of the fifties has made it monetarily possible for black workers to buy homes, but neighborhoods, especially Jewish ones, unite in their efforts to stop the incursion . Sinclair’s lead character, a twelve year old girl named Vincent, who has already led a neighborhood gang, is one of the changelings in this book. By befriending a black girl her own age, Clara, (who has just witnessed Vincent being stripped and demeaned in front of her previous gang—just to prove that she is a girl and does not belong in the gang, let alone leading it), Vincent begins to see real people with black skin instead of threatening automata. She finds that her parents warnings about them, die Schwartze, are just like the warnings Clara has gotten from her parents about all of them, the other, the whites whom they see as blocking their paths to homes and prosperity.

Barbara Kingslover’s Poisonwood Bible takes up similar themes, but this time from a larger and more global perspective. Kingsolver describes the lives of a family of southern Baptists who have gone to Africa, to the Congo, to save heathen souls. If you have read other of Kingsolver’s novels, you know that she is an astute social and political critic who fully intends to use her novels to do political work. I have to admit that in my first reading of Poisonwood Bible, I saw primarily Kingsolver’s critique of religious fundamentalism, as a comparison of religious righteousness (or self-righteousness) and what is right. And there is no doubt that Kingsolver does intend her book as an attack on the blindness and ethnocentrism of much religious evangelicalism. But deeper and more important that this critique is Kingsolver’s critique of economic imperialism and the ways in which Africans have been exploited and deprived of the riches of their own country. Again, it is young girl characters who act as the whistle blowers, the changelings, this time a family of four girls; each of the four girls as well as the mother are given voices to tell us what they see. And what they see is an Africa that has been ruthlessly divided by foreign invaders. The Belgians, who have for decades been extracting cobalt and diamonds and whatever else they can grasp, are feeling the pressure from the native populations, and are about to retreat—at least in their role as direct governors of the Congo. But the popular election that they sponsor and that brings Patrice Lumumba to power threatens to keep African riches for Africans, a proposition that neither the Belgians nor the Americans much like. Quoting form the novel:
The Belgians and Americans agree, Lumumba is difficult. Altogether too exciting to the Congolese, and disinclined to let White control the board, preferring the counsel and company of Black.
So, with the help of the American CIA, Patrice Lumumba is arrested and eventually murdered, and one of the most ruthless and power-hungry puppets for world capitalism ever invented, Joseph Mobutu, is handed power.

The last of these three novels, Poisonwood Bible, is probably the most important of the three precisely because it understands racism and imperialism globally. Kingsolver never tries to hide and never apologizes for the overtly political nature of her novels. She means to be didactic. However, having said that, she does her ‘teaching’ by telling a wonderful story about this family, about these girls and about some of the dangers of religious fanaticism. As one student in my class put it, in spite of realizing the ambitious themes of the novel, she finds herself finally reading not by chapter or even by paragraph, but sentence by sentence. Kingsolver’s wonderful insights about sexism, about relationships, about love and racism and power occur in the detail of the novel as well as in the grand theme. She is such an important novelist of our times.

I suspect that many of you will not have heard of Jo Sinclair. In spite of writing two very important novels, each well known in its time, she never was able to support herself entirely as a writer. Her real names is Ruth Seid, so why does she choose to write under the name Jo Sinclair? You guessed it. Even as late as the fifties, several of the magazines that she publishes in do not even consider material submitted by women authors. And were it not for The Feminist Press, which literally resurrected Sinclair’s work in 1985 (as it has so many wonderful women writers), this important novel would not be available to us today. This press is also responsible for reissuing Paule Marshall’s novel, tough she has written so much since that we can hope that her later successes would have led to a reassessment of her earlier work.

At any rate, it has been a rewarding though sometimes painful and heart-rending experience to reread these three fine novels. I recommend them to you.

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