Some books I’ve read recently…Posted: November 26, 2011
I miss writing full-length blog posts for each book I read—and, maybe, I’ll get back in the habit when I start reading for my qualifying exams, since I need to take some sort of notes on those books anyway——but I have a huge backlog of books that will never get full posts. Here, then, are short (and pithy?) post-lets on the books I read in my “Race as Text” seminar (led by the inimitable Steve Weisenberger).
William Faulkner, Light in August (1932): Dude named Joe Christmas (seriously) rolls into a Mississippi town in the 1930s, takes a job shoveling sawdust at a mill. That shit job is cover for his lucrative bootlegging operation. Nobody—not even him, because he’s an orphan—knows if he’s black or white. Lots of flashbacks: turns out his dad was a carnie, and either black or Mexican, which makes Joe black, at least in the South, especially in the 1930s. He kills a white woman (they’d been having lots of sex, by the way, and everyone hated her because she was a Yankee), and then he gets shot—but he deserved it, because he was black. (Just to be clear: the novel and its characters are racist, but I’m not. Really.)
William Shakespeare, The Tempest (1610): An exiled duke (Prospero), his marriageable daughter (Miranda), and their not-exactly-human servant (Caliban): they live on an island. The duke, who’s also a magician, shipwrecks his brother (who betrayed him) and some other folks (who were also involved in said betrayal) on the island with them. Some stuff happens. The villains eventually repent, Prospero forgives them, Miranda marries the son of the King of Naples, and everybody goes home to Italy—except Caliban, who stays on the island, because nobody wants him. Nobody dies, which is disappointing.
Henry Neville, The Isle of Pines (1668): One white (English) dude, three white women, one black woman: shipwrecked on an Edenic island in the Indian Ocean. They don’t have to work for their food, so they have lots of sex. Their kids have sex. They get divided into clans. Eventually there’s clan-on-clan violence, because the descendants of the black woman just can’t behave in a civilized manner. A Dutch merchant ship happens across the island, helps the three nice clans put down a revolt by the “bad” clan, and then leaves, taking the story (scandal! sex! incest!) back to Europe. Also: “pines” and “penis” are anagrams. Because, you know, penises.
Aphra Behn, Oroonoko (1688): An African prince and his true love are separated—as all true loves are—sold, separately, into slavery in Surinam, where they’re reunited—as all true loves are. The prince (Oroonoko, who gets renamed “Caesar”) eventually leads a slave rebellion, but the rest of the slaves decide they’d rather not. Oroonoko beheads his very pregnant wife, and is going to then go on a killing spree, but instead spends several days on the ground, in the woods, next to the body of his dead wife. He’s eventually captured, at which point he disembowels himself—which is pretty awesome—and the colonial governor has him sewn back up and nursed back to health so that he can be executed properly (castrated, dis-armed, burned).
Mary Hassal, Secret History, or the Horrors of St. Domingo (1808): Letters from an American woman in Haiti to Aaron Burr—written during the brief period (1802-1803) in which the French attempted to retake control of the island following the 1791 revolution. Mostly the letters are about the narrator’s sister’s unhappy marriage to some French dude (the letters are vaguely fictional, but not far removed from “what really happened”: the author, whose real name was Leonora Sansay, was married to an unpleasant Frenchman, and was probably having an affair with Burr, who was—and I’m quoting Weisenberger here—”a notorious womanizer”). Not nearly enough horrors: somewhat disappointing.
Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (1787): Lots of stuff about forests and rivers and ports and census data and blah blah blah—I skimmed a lot of this book—with some fairly vitriolic anti-black rhetoric in the middle of a chapter on “Laws.” An example: black people smell bad, because their kidneys don’t work as well as white folk’s kidneys, and so they secrete from the skin what white people piss out. Seriously. In his defense, I guess, he wanted to abolish slavery—but he also wanted to send all freed slaves back to Africa, because he thought whites and blacks couldn’t coexist without killing each other in a war of total extermination. Our third president, ladies and gentlemen!
David Walker, Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829): “Fuck you, white people. God is going to punish you for making us slaves, and—in His great mercy and justice—he’s going to punish you by letting us kill you all. Get yourselves ready.” (This is an eloquent and passionate pamphlet, despite the fact that it’s also fairly violent in places—lots of “God’s going to let you fill your cups to the brim with wickedness and then pour out His fiery wrath on you.” Good stuff.)
Charles Brockden Brown, Edgar Huntly (1799): A tale of two sleepwalkers: the Irish Clithero (such an unfortunate name) and the American Edgar. Things get really interesting when Edgar wakes up in a cave, with no memory of how he got there. He proceeds to kill a panther with his “tom-hawk,” eat it (or part of it) raw—in the dark—and then he kills a bunch of Indians on his way home. Spoiler: Clithero drowns at the end (he is, after all, Irish, and therefore unfit to survive).
Herman Melville, Benito Cereno (1856): Impossibly, stubbornly unperceptive American (merchant) ship captain encounters Spanish ship at a watering-hole in the South Pacific. Spends almost the entire novella thinking that the Spanish captain is both rude and mentally unstable—finally realizes that the slaves have taken over the ship and killed the real captain, and are planning to murder him and his crew, and take their ship, too. Lots of killing, at the end—and based on a true story!
George Schuyler, Black No More (1931): A satire: A black doctor (Dr Crookman) invents a cheap, quick, painless process to turn blacks white (by giving them accelerated vitiligo): no blacks means no racism, right? No, not really. Follows the exploits of Matthew Fisher, a whitened black, who goes to work for the Knights of Nordica (the new Ku Klux Klan), stoking white fears of blacks who don’t look black anymore but are still really black underneath—making lots of money in the process. In the end, white is the new black, and everybody’s still racist.