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Fiction against racism

Race, racism, and racial injustice continue to stain the fabric of our society, as they have done for many years. As they do, the importance of education as a tool to recognise, comprehend and dismantle racism, as well as its associated institutions, has moved to the forefront of conversations surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement. George Floyd’s name is added to a list of almost four-hundred others, and many more unknown, who have been murdered at the hands of the United States police force. This is not new. Tony McDade. Anthony Dwayne Harris. India Kager. The list goes on… As it does, a set on equally important parallel questions are drawn into sight. Namely: when will we learn? Or rather, educate ourselves and others when society is unable, or unwilling, to do so? In the twenty-first century, the tools are there.

Resources can provide someone with a fountain of knowledge with which to educate themselves, especially when used in tangent. However, there are “certain kinds of trauma…so deep, [and] so cruel, that unlike money, unlike vengeance, even unlike justice, or rights, or the goodwill of others, only writers can translate such trauma and turn sorrow into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination.” These are the words of Toni Morrison, the great educator. “A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity.” This is why fiction matters in the fight against racism.

There are, of course, those works of fiction which speak with great power and emotion against racism, slavery and white supremacy. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for instance, published 1902, explores and condemns with great detail the horrors of New Imperialism and the Belgium Congo. But for all its merit, for all its power and emotion, it cannot speak to that most significant and most important of elements – the black experience. We can be educated by Conrad’s text, but we cannot gain a new perspective in the same way.

In place of these limitations step in some of the greatest works of not only Black fiction, but of fiction in general. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Part, published in 1958, poses an equally visceral condemnation of white supremacy but from the perspective of Okonkwo, the leader of the village Umuofia. By adjusting the perspective from which colonialism in experienced, Achebe affords the reader a perspective which experiences first-hand the sheer scale and complex legacy of European imperialism on the minds of those it touched. Of equal note is Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, published in 1952, which centres on an unnamed black narrator’s experience of American life in the mid-twentieth century, blending harsh reality with Kafka-life absurdity. 

The selection above is by no means extensive. If I had the words to do so I’d dedicate a whole section to the power of Langston Hughes’ poetry, or the importance of Phillis Wheatley and the early ‘slave narratives.’ But instead, I’d like to focus on the works of Toni Morrison because of the power it has had on shaping my own perspective of the world.

To narrow down and choose only one of her novels is an almost unenviable task. From her Pulitzer Prize Winning novel Beloved, published in 1987, to Paradise, published in 1997 following her acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize, to her final work God Help the Child, published in 2015, Toni Morrison, to borrow the words of former president Barack Obama, “brings us that kind of moral and emotional intensity that few writers ever attempt.” Her prose is lyrical, yet accessible, direct, yet wide reaching. Her blending of themes and genres results in a multi-layered and intersectional approach to issues of race, often exploring how the toxic ideology of white supremacy disseminates into black communities and influences their relationships with one another and themselves.  

And so to end with, I’d like to echo a sentiment that Toni Morrison expressed many times over her life: “There is no such thing as ‘race,’…there is just the human race […] Racism is a construct, a social construct…” It exists so long as there is a benefit, be it socio-economic, political, whatever, attached to it. But a social construct is just that – a construct. It can be punctured. And if it can be punctured, it can be broken, and crumble. After all, if you have to make yourself tall by forcing another man onto his knees, then you’re in need of a change in perspective.  


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05/07/2020

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Tristan Pollitt