“You must read literature, for there you find how people live.” That’s not a real quote, but Robert Turnbull said something similar in my “Theological French” class six years ago. I don’t know why they slapped “theological” on it since it was really a whirlwind course in French grammar, but alas…
Seminary was an interesting time for me. I had started considering that maybe I didn’t want to pursue theology. But still, when he said those words, I had an internal reaction. Theology was reality. All I needed to do to be right with God and people was to read theology. This would order my life and life would be grand.
This isn’t to say that I hadn’t enjoyed novels. I had read The Da Vinci Code while in seminary and absolutely enjoyed it. I don’t know how many would call that literature, but then again, what is literature? Is it merely a piece that literary critics have declared part of “the” canon? Is it a piece that has something of timeless, enduring value? Is literature a book people say you should read but never have themselves?
As I was performing a meticulous, mindless task at work, I began listening to Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.
What have I been missing all this time? Sure, gritty shows like Mad Men, House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, or The Wire have a similar “realness” to them, but their writers, directors, or producers are somewhat invisible to me. Furthermore, I cannot see and hear the internal workings of the characters. These shows also seem to match a lot of my experience in the following way: white protagonists.
What would happen if I continued to read non-fiction about my research interests, but augmented it with literature, pop- and classic? What sort of things would I come across that I might otherwise miss? As the narrator in Invisible Man speaks of his youth, I wonder how much that voice reflected a generation.
How much did young African-Americans in the 1930s and 40s wish to be successful, but only in a way that didn’t upset white supremacy? How many constantly feared that they had upset whites? How many had tried to be “good blacks” as defined by their white lords? As I listen, I wonder how different a person I would be if I were raised in a different body, time, family, and social setting. The big value that shines through early in the novel is to speak to whites in a humble way or else incur their wrath. Is that assumption still present in the minds of African-American minds today?
Perhaps it’s my Millennial sense of entitlement, my narcissism, my white privilege, or healthy sense of self, but I don’t generally put on airs with people. But to approach an entire class of people as if they don’t use toilets, as if they were gods? It doesn’t compute.
How many voices are absent in my life? Not only do I not have a very diverse group of friends at work or church, but also at school. They’re primarily straight white Protestants. I don’t have anything against straight white Protestants. I am one. But I along with my group are not the only people in my city, state, and country. If I cannot find different voices in my experience, is it at least desirable to hear alternative voices in literature? This is elementary, but I probably have a lot of unconscious opinions that I never become aware of because I don’t have Difference showing me how much my assumptions don’t reflect everyone else’s reality.
If you have any good novels that deal with the following topics, send them my way: gender, sexuality, race, class, age, rites of passage.