Good morning. It’s a lovely Sunday morning in New Orleans, as I look at the start of a relatively easy and short week for me at work. Good Friday is a paid holiday for me, so I only have four days to get through, and I have short days on both Monday and Thursday (horrifying long days on Tuesday and Wednesday, of course), so it’s kind of a ‘win some lose some’ kind of week. I ended up not writing much yesterday; instead I read Underground Airlines (which I am enjoying) and when Paul got home from his errands, I made dinner and we watched Rogue One and then the first two episodes of Five Came Back, a wonderful documentary about five Hollywood film directors (Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, William Wyler, and George Stevens) who spent World War II making documentaries about the war rather than directing films in Hollywood. It’s narrated by Meryl Streep, and is based on the book of the same title by Mark Harris (who also wrote the documentary). It’s very well done; and it does a really good job of capturing the era it’s about, while at the same time not only exposing how easy it is for film to be used as propaganda, but raising questions about the ethics of making propaganda during a time of war. As we as Americans are currently wrestling with the notion of news as propaganda, and how to tell what is real and what is not–a horrifying place to be, quite frankly–and how the news was controlled for the American public during the Second World War to keep them behind the war effort (which was prodigious) as well as buying war bonds to finance it, it raises difficult questions about truth, ethics, and the media. I cannot recommend it enough; I’m really looking forward to viewing the final episode.
I will undoubtedly spend today in a mix of cleaning, writing, and reading. My friend Stuart is in town, and hopefully we’ll get to have lunch or an early dinner together today, if not, it will be tomorrow.
Underground Airlines, like The Underground Railroad, is not an easy book to read. I’ve never read much alternate history (Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle being one of the few exceptions), and that’s what this book is; alternate history, and one that, as you learn more about the ‘history’ of the United States and its ‘peculiar institution’ the deeper you get into the book, is terribly disturbing because you can see how it might have gone this way.
American history, as it pertains to questions of race and equality, is difficult; and the truth of American history, as opposed to the deeply sanitized version we are taught in public school (or at least, the deeply ‘rah-rah-rah’ version I was taught in the 1960’s, predicated on the manifest destiny of white Europeans to take dominion over the Americas while eradicating the natives and enslaving Africans, required a lot of unlearning; I told one of my co-workers the other day that I’ve spent most of my adult life unlearning everything I was raised to believe while re-educating myself on the truth), is actually kind of ugly. I remember reading James Michener’s Centennial when I was in my teens, and realizing everything I’d been taught, read, or seen in movies about the native Americans, and their clash with white Europeans, was actually incredibly biased against the native ‘savages’. (If you’re interested in re-educating yourself on American history, please read Howard Zinn’s histories of the United States, starting with A People’s History of the United States.)
Anyway, when Underground Airlines was released, there was some controversy, given the subject matter and that author Ben H. Winters was white and writing from the perspective of an African-American who worked as a runaway slave catcher. Questions of cultural appropriation often dog the work of white people who write from outside their own experience; yet at the same time there is also a clamor for diversity within fiction and there has long been a Twitter hashtag #weneeddiversebooks. I don ‘t think–and I could be wrong–that the problem is so much cultural appropriation as it is that authors of color do not have the same easy access to publishing that white people do; it’s easier for a white author to get a book published with a person of color as the main character than it is for an author of color to do so. I’ve personally enjoyed seeing the progress made by film and television to cast people of color; when I was a kid I would have loved to find books or television shows or films where gay men weren’t tragic figures doomed to die, or the butt of the joke, or figures of contempt; I can only imagine the positive impact this is having on young minority children to be able to see characters like themselves on films and television shows, or finding them in books.
This is not a bad thing.
The book is very well-written, and I am enjoying it tremendously, but it’s not an easy read, as I said earlier. I had always, as I’ve said before, intended to read it and The Underground Railroad back-to-back, to get a sense of comparison and to see how the differences between how an author of color deals with the issues of race and white supremacy vs how a white author does. Both books have made me think about these issues–the racial divide/conflict that is so deeply woven into the fabric of our society and culture, and how it always has been there from the very beginning.
That’s not a bad thing. Being made to think, to reexamine your values and beliefs, to unlearn things you were taught that are wrong and to reeducate yourself is never a bad thing. I think we, as a country and a society and a culture, can do with some reexamination.
Heavy thoughts for a Sunday morning before I head back into the spice mines.
Here’s a happy Sunday morning hunk for you, Constant Reader.