Many years ago, Ms. magazine had a “No Comment” feature on the back page. Maybe they still have it today. Anyway, the following literary microaggressions made me want to roll my eyes and say “No comment” . . . though I just might have a few.
From By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham:
We—we men—are the frightened ones, the blundering and nervous ones; if we act the skeptic or the bully sometimes it’s because we suspect we’re wrong in some deep incalculable way that women are not. Our impersonations are failing us and our vices and habits are ludicrous and when we present ourselves at the gates of heaven the enormous black woman who guards them will laugh at us not only because we aren’t innocent but because we have no idea about anything that actually matters.
Wow, that’s the Magical Negro, Mammy, and Sassy Black Woman tropes all rolled into one. (Caution: Those links are to TV Tropes, a magnificent site but not one focusing on racial justice.) By the way, the book is all about white people, but I didn’t have to tell you that.
From Dear Money by Susan Cheever:
Before [the Second World War], mortgages were a bit more complicated. Panic-driven runs on banks caused the banks to create callable loans, meaning that if a bank needed to, it had the right to ask for the loan back for any reason, at any time. This made loans nearly impossible for the working-class family. After the war, all of this changed. The government stepped in with greater force and a housing policy that subsidized a vast portion of home mortgages, making them affordable for almost everyone (except African Americans, because it was believed that they would bring down neighborhood property values, thus making loans riskier).
Dear Money is a novel about a novelist (but I read it anyway) who accepts a dare to become a bond trader. The discussion of mortgages, which goes on for several pages, is part of the book’s mission to make visible the influence of money, or the lack of it, on artsy types. (Mary Gordon’s Spending has a similar plot, but Meg Wolitzer did it best with The Interestings.) The jacket calls it “the classic American story of people reinventing themselves.” I would suggest that, first of all, that sentence needs a “white.” Second, if you’re aiming to write a keen-eyed novel about equity in America, maybe don’t relegate the people who’ve been systemically denied it to an aside. What would the book have been like if race came out of parentheses?
From The Pact by Jodi Picoult:
For once, History was interesting. Gross, but completely riveting. Mr. Waterstone had taken a break from the dry unit on taxation without representation and was detailing life in colonial America. They’d spent the past week learning the going prices for a bolt of calico, a crop of cotton, a healthy slave. Today, they were studying the Indians.
Actually, I can’t really criticize Jodi Picoult for this one because it’s probably quite realistic. Slavery could very well be taught that way in many American schools (I wouldn’t know, since I never learned about it at all). Never mind that it’s like teaching the price of a cannister of Zyklon B in a unit on the German economy. Whatever. As Assata Shakur writes: “What we are taught in the public school system is usually inaccurate, distorted, and packed full of outright lies. Among the most common lies are that Lincoln freed the slaves, that the Civil War was fought to free the slaves, and that the history of Black people in amerika has consisted of slow but steady progress, that things have gotten better, bit by bit.”
More striking was Picoult’s comment in the “conversation” in the back of the book:
The most bizarre research I did for The Pact was go to jail—something my four-year-old gleefully announced in nursery school that day. It was like being in a zoo full of humans—very demoralizing—and the inmate who spoke to me during an interview was incredibly enlightening. You know all those little tidbits in Chris’s jail scenes, the ones you figure had to be made up? They’re not.
I’m glad she did her research, but I bet the only readers who assume the prison details were made up are the ones who are white.