July 8, 2020
Will the retroactive reckoning deshelve books?
by Athena Bryan
After a massive, popular outcry about the indiscriminate and unchecked violence of police officers towards Black people across America seized the attention of the nation earlier this summer, a certain amount of the movement’s energy has been siphoned into checking and editing our collective cultural output.
Toeing a fine line between eliding hurtful, inflammatory and racist ideas and saying “whoops, that didn’t happen,” episodes of various popular streaming TV shows from The Office to Golden Girls have been carefully excised from popular consumption for featuring tropes like black face and… actually I think it was mostly black face.
What this means, of course, is that a handful of monopolistic streaming services decided to pull the plug on said episodes as part of their “listening and learning” initiatives. Their immediate and frictionless omission is an interesting sign of just how consolidated the distribution of entertainment properties are these days but I digress!
The more important next question, or at least the reason that we’re covering this today is: what about books? This is what Ron Charles asks in a recent Washington Post column.
On deck for consideration, Charles submits Shakespeare’s Othello.
Is it openly, explicitly, and constantly racist? Or is it a comment on being openly, explicitly, and constantly racist? Charles pulls a quote of the Moorish prince to consider how it can be read: “Haply, for I am black and have not those soft parts of conversation that chamberers have.” And much as I’d like to analyze in the context of defunding reckless and uncontrollable armed forces in our cities, I am not able to tell you exactly what a “chamberer” is or why they were known for their delicacy, so I can’t determine if this is racist or not at this present moment.
Charles, on balance, believes that Shakespeare would probably be called out today, but being from so, so long ago (“250 years before the Emancipation Proclamation”) and insanely complex in his moral and lexical output, it’s too hard to really pin anything on him.
Next up, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Actually, I’m gonna skip this one. It seems not that complex, but you can read Charles to hear more about whether or not it is still worth our time. He ends on the admirable sentiments on the nature of literature:
The words on the page may be frozen, but we’re not. To engage with them carefully and with each other civilly is to reap a better understanding of who we were and are.
Ah, that’s nice.
Which takes us straight to book that foregrounds every discussion of “it’s a work of literature, but…it just uses the n-word so so much…” That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, we’re talking The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
The irony of this particular title in this particular discussion is that a lot of the early censorship of the novel was because Huck was such a little shit, and it only gradually got more into the issues of how Jim was portrayed or, um, his name.
What Charles hastens to emphasize in conclusion, though, is two-fold: one is that literature is complex enough that it is both impossible to analyze on an absolute scale and second that the racism contained therein is a result of syntax and not the raw data of verbiage, so racism can’t be easily detected with a sort of yes/no binary.
For my part, I think that the comparison between books and streaming television is a little misguided. Again, the reason that it is so easy to make racist episodes of TV shows go away is that only one massive corporation controls the rights to distribute them at a time. The distributor is the copyright holder. Where books are concerned, though, the copyright holders (publishers) and the distributors (book stores, wholesalers, libraries) are separate entities. Amazon doesn’t have to buy the copyright of a book to sell it the way Warner Media swallows up intellectual property to shove it down your throat via HBO Max.
And this doesn’t even begin to cover books that are no longer under copyright—which are freely and readily accessible on the Internet.
Charles is ready for a fight, but what would the process by which we all collectively decide that Shakespeare and Twain are done for look like, exactly?
And more importantly, what does this have to do with defunding the police?
Athena Bryan is an editor at Melville House.