Racism (was Re: Hugh Lofting)

Jon Noble jon_p_noble at yahoo.com
Thu Feb 6 15:13:36 EST 2003


--- Melissa Proffitt <Melissa at Proffitt.com> wrote:
> 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.
> 
I too think it imporant to keep original texts intact
for a number of reasons. Firstly thats the way the
author wrote it (or perhaps the editor left it) and we
owe it to them to preserve that. If the book offends -
read something else. In the case of a book like Huck
Finn your dealing with a book that is near the top of
the short list for The Great American Novel.
Alterering that is the same thing as altering the
Bible. A book like that must be judged warts and all.
Secondly, as mentioned above the racism (or whatever
else may offend) in those books is Part of the
Historical Record, and important in understanding the
era that produced them, and also hopefully, the likely
results of those attitutes. In many cases those views
are expressed in a quite extreme, or at least
unsubtle, form and are very obvious. They can be quite
unsettling even to people who may be harbourering a
less extreme version of the same view now.
Thirdly people may wonder what implicit assumptions
are in our popular fiction that may be offensive to
future generations. This is of course virtually
impossible, however it can be instructive just to
realise that we may have implicit assumptions that our
grandchildren will find deeply offensive. Trying to
think of a possible example - gender roles may be one.
Fourthly, with  books with which we ourselves grew up,
it is important to revisit the attitudes of our
childhoods and critically examine them. In my list of
favourites I mentioned the Biggles books of WE Johns,
these books were full of all sorts of assumptions and
sttitudes. Some of these were wonderfully sent up by
Monty Python, who took a Strong Reading approach that
all the central characters were gay. One book "Biggles
in Australia" was reprinted here a few years ago
without changing the text and illustrated by a popular
Oz cartoonist as a parody of itself. The book was full
of all sorts of stereotypes of Australia and racist
attitudes (Aborigines being described as "Blacks of
the very worst type") however this book (if I remember
my Biggles chronology correctly) was fist published in
the 1950s only twenty five years or so before the
aforesaid reprint. A whole generation of Australian
(and British)  boys grew up on this. These people need
to revisit their own pasts. (and if the prices I see
on the net for old Biggles books are a guide, many of
them are - my brother snaffled the Biggles books)
((this is the price of being the oldest - you cant't
take all your childhood books when you leave home so
younger siblings claim ownership of them))
It seems that everytime i go to bed a new thread has
started on this list - I can't keep up. AAGGHHH!!!!

Jon


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