Unchain Our Hearts
Two Books Tell More Of The Ever Deepening Story of the Black Experience In America In The New Millennium
Cultural Opinion By Robert Bernstein
As Black History Month 2018 starts to wind down we are feeling the afterglow of a seemingly groundbreaking film - "Black Panther" while at the same time we are slowly attempting to work through another tragic shooting at a public school. The loss of life in Florida has demonstrated, once again, that instances of courage and bravery are often undertaken by those individuals who act without truly considering the danger to themselves. In Florida, students and teachers placed themselves in the line of deadly fire to save their colleagues and schoolmates. The peers of these younger heroes then organized vigils and marches. One may wonder if we are seeing our own version of a "Wakanda" of sorts.
The history of this nation is replete with examples of brutality, ignorance, terror and violence against its own, particularly if those individuals belong to a minority group. Yet, here we have voices trying to deny or minimize these historical events while aggrandizing or embellishing the role of their ancestors in the same events.
With this in mind we must offer new approaches to understanding our past. Hopefully, this will permit us to gain a new perspective of these past events and even more, perhaps, help us to reach a point of view that will create a better climate in our deeply polarized environment. Through the introduction of contemporary literature we can often find these new vantage points. As such, the literature selected for this article are, in my mind, well crafted and fine examples of current historical fiction.
The two books, Colson Whitehead's "Underground Railroad" and Jesmyn West's "Sing, Unburied, Sing", have received a number of literary awards and they have been part of the very popular community "one book" programs. They present the material in manner that draws the reader into the daily lives of the characters in great detail while pulling back to remind us that these characters are intimately involved in the historical events transpiring around them. In many ways, these books may leave the reader deep in thought because they do not have endings that illustrate that bright shining tomorrow we crave as well as demonstrating the frailty of human interaction and the failures that result.
Understanding that the most seminal historical events in Black History Month are often subject to infinite efforts at minimization and revisionism these books are some excellent new sources to learn about and to further understand those times in context. They are not dry historical presentations at a lecture or in a museum nor are they big screen productions that fill the screen with images of gratuitous violence that create a sense of doubt or disbelief in the viewer. At the same time they blow up the revisionist myths that we often hear, such as - "Slavery in the south was not so bad as savages from Africa were given a job, food and a place to live" or "those that are living in poverty remain there due to sloth or laziness" along with other ignorant utterances.
In Mr. Whitehead's book we see the Underground Railroad and slavery on two levels - the complete brutality and viciousness of the violence of slavery is described in a matter of fact style without the need for gratuitousness. Observing the grind and dangers of slavery through the eyes of Cora, there is no minimization the lethality of either the slave experience for those in bondage or the attempt to escape its clutches. On the other hand the actual Underground Railroad becomes a true railroad in a fantastic and imaginative new view that offers a sense of hope tempered by reality.
Ms. West's work focuses on contemporary life in the south in the years post Katrina. She paints pictures of the harshness of the day to day experiences in the poor and largely forgotten semi rural part of the United States - a location not exactly teeming with employment opportunities or unlimited choices. We also are front and center in the struggle to maintain the tenuous bonds of family within confines of that stressful world. Through the eyes of thirteen year old Jojo we see hopes and dreams that are often pushed aside by the lack of resources or the proscribed conventions.
But what of the future of the lives of those who celebrate BHM? What will be the course for a nation that believes that a month of spotlighting the accomplishments of its largest minority group is sufficient to keep those achievements alive? We have seen, again, that those with the privilege in this country still cannot understand these "history months" and moreover cannot understand why there is not a "White History Month". This then is a question that shortly we will have another year to ponder.
In my mind, an excellent point of departure would be to sit down with a good book and imagine that world that could be.