No, this has nothing to do with soft porn pulp, thank you.
This is about what seems to be missing — or been cancelled — from much that I read these days. I’m giving vent to a prejudice here. I admit it. I don’t like writing out of literary prejudice. Further, I distain and would join any chorus speaking out against any form of racial or ethnic prejudice, in print or in society. And many are doing so.
I simply might say I’m being stampeded into deep suspicion, and strictly “literary” prejudice, by “woke” culture — defined as the loud and insistent and pervasive claims of a cultural elite on the subject of human motivation and matters of race.
Here’s how one hero of “unwoke” culture put it before he passed from our midst, which was before he or any of us were using the term “woke” (except as the past tense of the active verb “wake”):
If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
To which American teacher, writer, cultural critic and editor Gregory Wolfe adds the following observation:
Great literature lives along that ambiguous fault line, as willing to self-incriminate as to castigate the sins and follies of others.
This is why I am suspicious of that celebrated variety of “woke” contemporary fiction that, based on my reading of it, seems to double down for the hundredth time on the sins of those we have acknowledged to be history’s oppressors while seeming to paper over the all-too-human follies of the oppressed, once they manage to slip the yoke of oppression, their fiction writer authors or screenwriters insisting they are still oppressed and that virtually nothing can free them or repair their shattered heritage and their rightful claims to a place high up on the American table (fine, be my guest, take my place), all the time insisting on a right to unbridled acts of violent recrimination, even domination over the rest of us . Not to mention financial reparations. Or so it seems. Their angry narrative emerges often in contemporary literature, at least, again, from what I’ve seen, and read. It is an act of separation and segregation.
I could be very wrong, but….
I observe the critical — or uncritical — reception accorded Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and wonder if I’d get the same satisfaction reading it as I would the nuanced, complex but no less powerful racial testimonial contained in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Since I haven’t read the former, I must reserve judgement before I invidiously comparing it to the latter.
So, why bother casting this cold eye on “woke” story lines n print or on the big and little screens?
Well…. because I detect, nestled deep or not so deep within them, traces of that “critical race theory” now so much in the air. It is the thesis that the cure for racism is a kind of reverse racism. I know many will challenge that characteerization.
In short, there seems to be a great deal of moralistic, didactic fulminating going on in print. It’s unregenerate whether it comes from the literary left, right or middle. Literary works should, in a sense, be circular, or cyclical, with characters passing through a life cycle — through that emotional spectrum which, in synesthetic terms might, indeed, be rendered in colors — black, white, gray. It’s what all of us experience. It’s our shared humanity.
Ralph Ellison himself in a Paris Review interview, asked about all the reversals of his hero’s fate in his novel, said his “hero’s invisibility is not a matter of being seen, but a refusal to run the risk of his own humanity, which involves guilt. This is not an attack on white society! It is what the hero refuses to do in each section which leads to further action. He must assert and achieve his own humanity; he cannot run with the pack and do this ( solely assign guilt to white society)– this is the reason for all the reversals.”
Elsewhere in the same interview, he says “it’s a novel about innocence and human error, a struggle through illusion to reality” but, I must assert, he never denies that his race and racial prejudice plays a role — a central role — in his suffering and disorientation, nor does he entirely exonerate white society.
Perhaps Colson Whitehead offers us an equally complex fictive journey for his escaped slave protagonist. I hope so. And I would never suggest that any African-American’s life journey is not tangled up, to some degree, with his racial identity. But our blended journey — and I pray it blends rather than further separates — is decidedly gray, for life is like that for all of us. And we must, all of us, travel the American road together, in life and in literature.