14 September 2007

(Color) Blind Readers

Q: Are there any stories you've written that you feel have been misunderstood?

A: I've tried to write stories that expect a reader to do some work, to go back and reconsider. I hope there are many layers to explore, not all of which may be tapped in one reading.....I feel that folks might gain from stories....if they look beyond them simply as stories about African-American life. That the characters are Black is important, but not as important as the other ideas and contexts that shape the complexities and realizations in those stories.

William Henry Lewis
(on his collection I Got Somebody in Staunton)

According to my tags on LibraryThing (aka Crack for Book Lovers), my bookshelves are not color-blind. Far and away, I have cataloged more of my books as "African American". My top three in fact (African-American, Poetry, and LGBTQ) could "tell you" quite a lot about me -- this guy likes reading about people like himself: Negroes, Poetizers, and those pesky same-sex types.

I don't think that's 100% accurate, but it's not far from wrong either. I think we all do this. Some folks, however, would rather not admit it.

Author David Anthony Durham recently wrote about the notion of a 'Color Blind Reader', suggesting that the idea was absurd on its face:

I'd be interested to ask each "color blind" reader when was the last time they read something by a black author. They might shrug and say, "I don't know. Remember, I don't pay attention to an author's race." My translation of that - they probably haven't read a black author since a college lit course, because if they had they'd KNOW they had. They’d remember it, and likely they’d have learned things from it....

For white readers that shop at Borders - when was the last time you went browsing for a novel in the "African-American" literature section? They'd likely respond with, "The what? There's not an African-American literature section. Black history section, sure, but..." To which I respond that yes, yes there is a section of Borders - usually a small corner about a shelf and half wide - where the vast majority of fiction by black authors is shelved....I know all of this because that's where my first two novels go - when they're actually stocked at all....So, to the "color blind" reader that has no idea they have NO CHANCE of coming across most black writers in the center of the store... I argue that the fact that you don't read with an awareness of color means that you're being a willing accomplice to institutional segregation. In that regard, being "color blind" also means being blind to a host of inequities, perspectives and realities that you would be able to see if you chose to acknowledge color and to see how much it affects all our lives. Doesn’t make being “color blind” seem so enlightened, does it?

Durham is a VERY good writer (many of us on staff here at the Library are quite high on both him and his work), and I admire him for the range and ambition of his works: Historical Fiction both US (Gabriel's Story and Walk Through Darkness) and World (Pride of Carthage: A Novel of Hannibal), and now S/F - Fantasy (Acacia). I admit to having a weakness for Ambitious Black Writers -- and his personal library (image below) gets me hot as well!:). I find myself agreeing with his take on 'color blindness' (Durham has also posted a number of responses to his post as well.)

Yes, I do keep coming back to people 'like me' in various ways, but in my reading I like to think I've ranged far and wide. Many times it's a conscious decision: I notice I've read a good deal of contemporary work, so I go back to Classics. Feeling overloaded with US voices, I make a decision to sneak some authors across the border. Too many men around? I'll go through a period of reading female authors. I am aware of who I'm reading, where they come from, take into account 'what they are' (gender, orientation, nationality, etc). I have other 'weaknesses' -- Latin American and Spanish authors, for example -- and I'm looking forward to one day immersing myself in Arabic Literature (beyond my crushes on Adonis and Darwish).

A new book by one of my favorite authors arrived at the library as I was thinking about this. Inner Workings: Literary Essays 2000-2005 by Nobel Laureate J. M. Coetzee, a follow up to his previous collection of essays and reviews, Stranger Shores. I note with interest that, in the new book, Coetzee writes about only two writers 'of color' (ie visibly 'non-white' or 'not European'), fellow Nobelists Gabriel Garcia Marquez and V. S. Naipaul. Caryl Phillips, Salman Rushdie and (Nobel winner)Naguib Mahfouz appear in the previous volume -- and I'm purposefully leaving out the brilliant, Eurocentric, "white" Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges.

Now, this is not an attack on Coetzee, nor am I suggesting that he review the latest Omarr Tyree joint. I simply have a suspicion that my bookshelves would be more diverse than his, even if I removed all the 'African American' tagged items. I find it interesting that he, like so many others, doesn't seem to stray too far afield from the realm of the Usual European Suspects....and only one woman (fellow South African Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer) in the mix as well.

One wonders if it would cross either his mind, or the mind of book review editors who propose titles and essays to him, to have him survey the work of an African-American author: Since there appears to be a weakness for the Nobel, how about Toni Morrison, or his fellow African Nobelist Wole Soyinka (he did have a review of a black African author in an earlier collection). How much do we really learn in the land of the (color) blind?


David Anthony Durham said...

Hey Reggie,

Thanks for all the kind words!

You know, I've heard good things about the Coetzee book, but I don't imagine I'll get to read it soon. You raise some interesting points, though, and I'm sure I'll remember them when/if I do pick it up.



BronzeBuckaroo said...

It's nice to see I am not the only one asking questions--and wanting answers. Great post!!!!