Racism (was Re: Hugh Lofting)

Melissa Proffitt Melissa at Proffitt.com
Thu Feb 6 14:16:32 EST 2003

On Thu, 6 Feb 2003 12:53:49 -0600, Ian W. Riddell wrote:

>>I TOTALLY agree with you about altering books for modern readers.  For one
>>thing, the originals reveal a lot about the sensibilities of that day that
>>are valuable parts of the historical record.  And if we readers can't tell
>>the difference between modern racism and entrenched historical social mores,
>>well, shame on us.  I've been buying reprints of the original Nancy Drew
>>books for that reason.  (Not many of them.  They're expensive.  But the
>>prefaces are worth it.)

>Except that those "entrenched historical social mores" ARE racist and 
>evidence of the racism of the authors.

>I'm not advocating changing the writings, mind you, just not willing 
>to gloss it over with "they didn't know any better, poor souls." We 
>need to acknowledge those attitudes for what they are. That doesn't 
>mean that this has to take away from our enjoyment of the stories.
>Maybe I'm saying the same thing you are. Not sure.

Maybe.  I'm not suggesting that we just gloss it over because they didn't
know any better, but there's a big difference between being racist because
everyone around you is racist and being racist when you have plenty of
examples to the contrary, and I think we ought to be able to tell the
difference.  We should be able to recognize what it was like to live in a
time and place where certain attitudes were never questioned, and STILL stay
"this is wrong."

There are also a number of books from those eras that document racist
attitudes without condoning them, and far too many readers can't tell the
difference and insist on treating them with the same disdain as deliberately
racist texts.  (Think _Huck Finn_ here.)  When books are edited to remove
offensive-to-modern-eyes passages, it's not for the sake of redeeming the
author.  What's more, such editing sometimes overlooks the more subtle
attitudes that may in fact be more harmful, if you're worried about that
sort of thing.  Is it worse to have a white character who uses the word
"nigger" all the time, or one who is sweet, loving, condescending, and
generally thinks of black people as a servant race?  Which one is more
obviously racist--and more likely to get the ax?

I think what I'm getting at is that we tend to apply our own understanding
to the past and then think, "Boy, they were so evil and stupid, I'm glad I'm
not that way."  This glosses over both the complexity of race relations in
the nineteenth century (and the twentieth, and all the other centuries) and
the fact that if we lived back then, we'd be just as likely to have those
attitudes.  We're not more righteous; we're just more fortunate.

Melissa Proffitt

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