Tag: race

Booker Longlist Review: Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

This novel has now been longlisted for both the Booker and Giller prizes. It was one of the novels I especially looked forward to, and I found its themes interesting and ambitious, but the execution ultimately unsatisfying.

George Washington Black is a young boy, an outdoor slave on a Barbados sugar plantation, when he is plucked from the fields to assist the scientist brother of the villainous plantation master. When a cousin of the family dies and Wash is likely to be implicated, the brother, named Titch, and Wash take off in an airship. Thus begins their adventure, which takes Wash from Barbados to Virginia to arctic Canada to England and beyond, all in a brisk 350 pages.

The novel has the structure of an adventure story but Wash is a slave and Titch is the brother of his master and it’s 1830s US and England. So there’s much more going on than the normal coming of age story (Wash is barely a teenager when the novel opens). The first part, set on Barbados, is unsparing in its depiction of the horrors of plantation slavery. The villain may seem cartoonish and the conditions exaggerated, but the historical record pretty much confirms that this depiction is not unusual. The publisher’s blurb calls it steampunk, but none of the science is far-fetched. Airships, diving suits, and the types of scientific inquiry and specific experiments being conducted were all around at the time the story is set.

Since this is one of the Booker longlist choices a lot of people have been reading it at the same time, and I have felt as if I’m reading an entirely different book from them. Some readers have focused on the adventure aspects, calling it a rollicking story. I never had that feeling. Wash is a fugitive slave for a large portion of the book, and he’s chased by a bounty hunter for most of it. He’s at risk for capture in the US portion, especially since slavery is still legal, and in Canada and England he’s frequently treated as something less than human. When he falls in love and enters into a romantic relationship it regularly puts him at risk. His great scientific and artistic achievements are appropriated by white men, who encourage him but either can’t or don’t find ways to give him credit for his contributions. The story is suffused with the knowledge that he will probably never have a fully peaceful, satisfying life, because the world will not allow it.

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Return of the links

I beefed up my RSS feeds to make up for going on Twitter hiatus, and luckily for me several of my subscriptions link me to interesting stuff.

The Awl has a terrific piece on time travel movies and books and how they are grounded in (mostly unacknowledged) white privilege:

Whether it’s Marty McFly in 1950s Hill Valley or Jake Epping in segregated Texas, the entire genre of American time-travel fantasy, with its chaos theory nerdery, butterfly-effect affectations, and desire to reshape the present, is irrevocably linked to the very real idea of white privilege. No narrative of time-travel makes this case more powerfully than Octavia Butler’s masterpiece “Kindred,” which both deconstructed and revolutionized the genre by using time travel to explore the experience of slavery and its lingering effects on the present.

Unlike Back to the Future and “11.22.63,” there is no clear mission to speak of in “Kindred,” at least not one that Dana, the black writer at the center of the novel, is aware of. The circumstances for her time travel are ambiguous and entropic and, for a while, aimless. No rabbit holes. No flux capacitors. The time travel just occurs, suddenly, to Dana, and soon, to her white husband. Butler’s point is not that we are better and more self-aware than the backwards people of the past, nor is it that the past only fills rooms with roaches and erases photographs of family members. Rather, it’s that the past can weigh on the present in devastating ways. “Kindred” reminds us that, for some protagonists, traveling back in time is the opposite of escapist fantasy. The past is alive, says “Kindred.” The past is us.

Next up, the wonderful, inimitable, invaluable Laurie Anderson in a wide-ranging interview at The Atlantic. She talks about politics, blockbuster Broadway musicals, and concerts for dogs (OMG she doesn’t love Hamilton! and is brilliant on Trump):

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Race, Identity and Identification

The discovery that the head of the Spokane, WA chapter of the NAACP, Rachel Dolezal, has been claiming an African-American identity for the past decade despite having white parents and being raised as a European-American white female has been dominating online news and social media for the last couple of days. In the process, race, ethnicity, and identity have been mashed together in ways that make sociologists and other social scientists who study the topics cringe. Repeatedly.

I’m not much interested in contributing to the many, many thinkpieces on the person, her motivations, and What It All Really Means. But I research, teach, and write about ethnicity and race, I’ve been contributing to this literature since graduate school, and I’ve spent a lot of time parsing the differences between various social categories and constructs. So I’m going to write about that.

Let’s get one obvious issue out of the way. Race and ethnicity are both socially constructed. But they aren’t constructed the same way, or according to the same criteria. And they don’t operate the same way in social practice. Although race is subjective in terms of how categories are constructed and in terms of the assignment of those “racial” categories to individuals and groups, it is measured objectively. Whether or not you are of a given race is entirely dependent on whether it is found in your genetic makeup (though a direct ancestor; DNA attribution is much more recent).

Ethnicity, on the other hand, is a combination of genetic makeup (your ancestry) and social practice. A black person raised by white people in an all-white setting will be identified as black by most Americans (they won’t necessarily be considered “culturally” black, but that’s a separate issue). A person born to Italian-American parents but raised by Swedish-American parents in northern Minnesota will be accepted as having Italian ancestry, but she will almost certainly be treated as culturally Swedish-American by most people.

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