Race in America—in Fiction


Earlier in this series of blogs, I talked of the rewards of reading novels whose characters are swept up in the crises and “hot topics” of our times. In the discussion, I sympathized with readers who find topics such as the Holocaust and race done to death and given to ideological preaching. I recommended novels that break those bonds, give fresh new perspective on those outworn topics and move us to a new place. World War II and the Holocaust were the topic last week. I told of my own personal response to those books as an example of the rewards of reading them. This week, I will do the same for novels on race in America.

The Civil Rights movement opened the doors of publishing houses to minority writers, and we have since had an explosion of novels on the American experience from the non-white side of the coin. Some of them, such as Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, Alice Walker’s, The Color Purple, Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, John Nichols’, The Malagro Beanfield War, T.C.Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain, have forever changed our view of America and its people. If you have missed any of those titles, you should add them to your bucket list, for they are powerful movers as well as classics.

However, few white or mixed race writers have tackled race, probably out of fear of being seen as racist. That same fear has silenced an important topic, for surely white attitudes shape the country’s experience as well. Therefore, I’ve focused this blog on stories that give us the experience of living through racial strife from the inside and from across the racial spectrum.

The HelpKathryn Stocket, The Help
This best seller mixes bitterness and humor with such gift it lifts readers hearts. The southern story of a maid and her socialite mistress gives us heartbreak and laughter on both sides of the racial divide. Not only does it reach deep inside Southern tradition, it gives us characters–both white and black–who reach beyond those traditions to justice—and so move us.


Half A heartRosellyn Brown, Half a Heart
A woman dedicated to civil rights takes in the daughter of her conservative sister. I related personally and intensely to this story because it reaches deep inside the family bonds and its characters struggle with the conflicts that split this family. There is no preaching, no good guy/bad guy, simply humans struggling. Thus, it is an intimate story of what it’ like to cope with the polarization of our times. A similar need gave rise to the next book, Nowhere Else To Go..

Nowhere-Else-To-Go-Cover-thumbnailJudith Kirscht, Nowhere Else To Go
This is the story of a college town torn apart by the movements of the Sixties, and was borne of the effect of those days on my young children, their school, and our neighborhood. It is told from the point of view of the junior high school principal whose school and marriage are at stake, of the children of an integrated neighborhood, of parents of both races. It gives a very different, anti-ideological, view of the Sixties. I think anyone who finds themselves split between ideologies, cultures, or religions—and most Americans are, at some point—will relate to this story.

Sweet Song-cover-lowTerry Persun, Sweet Song
A compelling story of a mixed-race boy’s struggle to find identity in post-Civil War America explores the heart of our racial past and speaks truths that resonate with our racial present. Again, if you’ve heard enough about race in America, don’t be put off. This, too, is a very different take. In an account Terry Persun wrote for my blog, he says his interest in race was personal—his father is of mixed breed (aren’t we all, he asks) and as a child, he was identified by others as of one race or the other. Years later, as he read about growing up along the Susquahanna River near Williamsport, a stopping place on the underground railroad, he was moved to understand his racial past more deeply.

The Inheritors by Judith KirschtJudith Kirscht, The Inheritors
I relate very personally to Terry’s story because I think this novel was born of my own need to understand my racial attitude, which was always at odds with my fellow liberals. By hindsight, writing The Inheritors brought me to an understanding of why. Like Terry, the story took me home to Chicago, where I grew up. Like Terry, I created a mixed-race protagonist, a heroine in search of her identity, the like Terry, I never intended to write an historical novel, but was carried into Chicago’s immigrant past. Both of these books move the reader out of the rut racial topics have fallen into. When Terry says “Aren’t we all?” he clearly refers to the fact that to be an American is to be a mutt—who do you know who hasn’t experienced mixed cultures, mixed nationalities, mixed religions, mixed social class. This is what the reader brings to these books—they join their own histories to them.


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