Joyce Hinnefeld


Friday, October 29, 2010

Simple Heroes

Driving to Lansdale, PA on Monday morning, en route to a train to Philadelphia and then Washington, I heard a fascinating interview on WHYY's Radio Times. The guest that morning was Danielle McGuire, a historian who was to speak at Temple University Monday afternoon, and the topic of the interview was McGuire's new book, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance--A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power.

The book sounds fascinating (and I'll be heading to my local independent bookstore soon to order it). A big part of my fascination with the story of John Fee's founding of Berea College (the fascination that led me to write Stranger Here Below) is rooted in a desire for a more complete, and more nuanced, understanding of American history--the kind of understanding that's nourished by books like McGuire's. We need, for instance, a clearer sense of who someone like Rosa Parks was--not just a polite and weary seamstress, but a genuine and committed political activist.

Apparently McGuire's book emerged, at least in part, from a similar desire--to right the record, so to speak: to tell the real story of Parks's serious work for civil rights. In learning more about what Rosa Parks did, though, she also learned some disturbing stories, many of them untold (at least outside the circles of the victims' own families), of sexual violence directed at African-American women during the civil rights era. During her interview McGuires spoke at some length about one particular victim, Recy Taylor--a woman who, as a 24-year-old wife and mother in rural Abbeville, Alabama, was abducted and gang-raped by a group of white men in 1944. Despite the threat that she'd be killed if she said a word, Recy Taylor reported what happened, and one of the people who spoke to her and advocated on her behalf was Rosa Parks. But in spite of the efforts of Parks and the NAACP, countless letters and petitions, and even the eventual support of the state's governor, Taylor's case was dismissed by not one but
two all-white, all-male juries. You can read more about this heartbreaking case at Danielle McGuire's blog, and in a recent AP story by Errin Haines.

As Haines points out in her article, and as McGuire stressed in her Radio Times interview on Monday, there is no statute of limitations for rape cases in Alabama. Recy Taylor is still alive. Apparently some of her attackers are as well. It seems that, at the very least, an apology to Recy Taylor and her family is in order.

Something that McGuire said during her interview has stuck with me. Why, interviewer Marty Moss-Coane, asked her, do we seem to need to simplify a figure like Rosa Parks--to change her from what she was, a committed activist, into a quiet and unassuming seamstress on a bus who was finally just too tired to give up her seat? "I think we like our heroes simple," McGuire said in response.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately, about our need for simple heroes and simple villains. I do think this is part of the reason that books like To Kill a Mockingbird and, more recently, Kathryn Stockett's The Help are so incredibly popular with white readers. Here are white characters--simple, uncomplicated heroes like Atticus Finch and Stockett's Skeeter--who do what many of us white folks want desperately to believe we would do as well: the right thing. Ultimately, we want to believe that we'd be capable of "speaking the truth to power," as the Quakers say. Characters who do that are the kinds of uncomplicated heroes we like to read about because they're who we like to imagine ourselves being.

But of course racism is both more sinister and more mundane (as in habitual, customary, day-to-day) than it often appears in novels. And heroes (and also villains), like all of us, are complicated. None if us, and none of it, is simple.

1 comment:

  1. I knew Rosa Parks. She was a committed person who trained at Highlander before refusing to sit at the back of the bus. We don't simplify our heroes, we sanitize them. I managed to get thru enough college English classes to get a master's degree without hearing or reading about (in my classwork) the political lives of the writers we studied.