Defending Tolerance: Literature as Catalyst for Positive Change

Defending Tolerance: Literature as Catalyst for Positive Change

It’s the 21st century, yet prejudicial attitudes continue to exist within large segments of the population. Racist attitudes are not as uncommon as one might think. Here in the West, many consider our society to be multicultural, but that’s a pleasant fiction. The West might be multi-ethnic, but in reality, its culture is largely dominated by white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant values. Other cultures, including those of North America’s indigenous people, have been largely marginalized. It’s not surprising then to discover that misconceptions, prejudices, and racism are still a part of everyday life.

Although North America is home to a wide variety of ethnic groups, many are segregated for a variety of socioeconomic reasons. Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Vietnamese, Filipinos, Somalis, and other minority groups often form tight knit communities where they have little interaction with the larger culture around them. As a result, there are few quality opportunities for different ethnic groups to interact on anything more than a superficial level. When people don’t understand each other they turn to their assumptions, and those assumptions regularly lead to prejudice. However, when knowledge of cultural practices, beliefs and values are shared, celebrated, and publicized, the problem can be overcome.

Literature as a cultural bridge

Literature, and the knowledge it promulgates, is one of the most important tools in the struggle against racism. Through literature, people are exposed to new ideas, new ways of thinking, and most importantly, they are transported to a place where they may view the world through someone else’s eyes. Although many see short stories, novels and poetry as just forms of entertainment, they play an important role in enlightening the masses and combating racism. Literature is a catalyst for positive change; it influences our ideas about others and ourselves. Whether it is classic or modern, literature reveals the struggles of oppressed peoples, the value of family bonds, and imparts profound moral lessons. Two examples of literature as a cultural bridge are “Sonny’s Blues” and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian.

“Sonny’s Blues”

James Baldwin’s classic short story “Sonny’s Blues” is an insightful example of literature that reveals the hardships that were faced by many inner city black people. Though it was written in 1957, it is still relevant today. “Sonny’s Blues” demonstrates literature’s potential to inform and educate. The story centers on Sonny and his older brother as they struggle to make a living in Harlem after the end of World War II. As black men, they both face the tribulations of segregation, racism and low socioeconomic status. The community as a whole is struggling to make ends meet while at the same time dealing with crime, drug abuse and the general state of despondency. The situation for many blacks living in Harlem was dire. The opportunity to escape those conditions was almost nonexistent. The narrator describes the local school children as, “growing up in a rush [until] their heads bumped abruptly against the ceiling of their actual possibilities.” Baldwin paints a picture showing how little opportunity there was to break free of the oppressive conditions they faced. “Some escaped the trap, most didn’t.”[1]

As the story progresses, the reader comes face to face with the specter of racism when the narrator’s mother tearfully recounts the tale of her brother-in-law’s death. This happens when a car filled with drunken white men ran him down in the street. The narrator’s father was witness to the event. It affected him for the rest of his life and “[until] the day he died he weren’t sure but that every white man he saw was the man that killed his brother.”[2] Here we see the long lasting impacts of racism. Horrific events, which occur in mere moments, reverberate in the lives of those affected, spreading out like rings in a pond until they impact the lives of everyone around them.

Although the brothers have been through much hardship, they respond to it differently. The older brother passes judgment on Sonny for his use of drugs and rebellious actions. Initially, he cannot see why Sonny acts in self-destructive ways; however, in time they come together. Their family bonds, combined with the narrator’s newfound understanding of Sonny, help them mend their relationship.

“Sonny’s Blues” provides a view into a world that is obscured to many of us. By exploring the themes of racism, drug abuse, and family, Baldwin is informing his reader and dispelling many would-be prejudices. As author and professor James Tackach stated, “Baldwin played a spokesman’s role during the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, and much of his most poignant writing is devoted to the racial issues of his time.”[3] Baldwin’s stories were the vehicle used to drive social change. His literature was more than simple entertainment; it was a shout in the darkness – a shout for equality, understanding, acceptance and tolerance.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian

The modern novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, by Sherman Alexie is another example of how literature sheds light on the issue of racism, poverty and stereotypes. The novel , written in 2007, follows the experiences of Arnold Spirit (Junior) as a young man living on the Spokane Indian reservation. A somewhat geeky and awkward kid, Junior feels out of place, even when surrounded by his own people. When Junior decides that he wants to attend an all-white school in Reardan, he is seen as a traitor by his best friend Rowdy, as well as other Indians on the reservation.

Through a series of mishaps and tragedies, Alexie paints a vivid picture of life as seen through the eyes of one hopeful adolescent boy. Junior’s experiences at his new school help inform the reader what it is like to be on the receiving end of racist remarks. For example when Roger, one of the boys at school, asks Junior, “Did you know that Indians are living proof that niggers fuck buffalo?” the reader experiences the shock that comes from such an insensitive remark.[4] When Junior retaliates by punching Roger in the face, Roger calls Junior an animal.

Later in the novel, Junior faces racism again when Penelope’s father Earl tells him, “Kid, if you get my daughter pregnant, if you make some charcoal babies, I’m going to disown her.”[5] Blatant racist remarks and racial slurs are almost commonplace for Junior, but Alexie’s novel also demonstrates how poverty, and rampant alcohol abuse serve to define Junior’s existence. When Miss Warren, the school guidance counselor, informs Junior that his sister has died in a horrific accident, the reader is made witness to the cataclysmic consequences alcoholism has had on Junior and his family.[6] The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian breaks down stereotypical images of American Indians. Instead of proud warriors riding bareback through the open prairies, hunting buffalo, Alexie shows Indians in a contemporary fashion. By doing so, Alexie is using literature to change perceptions as well as to spotlight important social issues. His commentary on reservation life, although entertaining, also has another purpose: to inspire and initiate change.

Literature Prevails

Because literature can be such a powerful tool, it often threatens to upset the status quo. The evidence of this is clear. Even today – in a time when western societies claim to be open-minded and free – censorship of literature still occurs. Matthew Rothschild, a writer living in Arizona reported on one such incident:

The Tucson Unified School District banned the Mexican American Studies program. It specifically targeted seven books, but the entire curriculum, including some fifty titles, was off limits. School officials actually came into classrooms while students were present and took the books away.[7]

Often the people that aim to protect the status quo, actually give power to the very authors they seek to silence. Sherman Alexie was one of the authors whose book was banned. When asked his feelings on the banning, Alexie responded:

In a strange way, I’m pleased that the racist folks of Arizona have officially declared, in banning me… that their anti-immigration laws are also anti-Indian… You give those brown kids some books about brown folks and what happens? Those brown kids change the world. In the effort to vanish our books, Arizona has actually given them enormous power.[8]

Racism is still a serious problem, but Alexie and others have acknowledged the power of literature to “change the world.” Books like The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, short stories like “Sonny’s Blues” and many other works of literature, are part of a great library of hope. Each letter, each word, each story builds upon, and strengthens, the wall of defense against bigotry, hatred and ignorance. As long as stories are being told, as long as people are reading them, literature will continue to be a catalyst for positive change.


 

 End Notes

[1] Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues.” Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. 7th Ed. Richard Bausch, R.V. Cassill. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2006. 22. Print.

[2] Ibid. 30.

[3] James Tackach. “The Biblical Foundation Of James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”.” Renascence 59.2 (2007): 109-118. OmniFile Full Text Select (H.W. Wilson). Web. 9 Apr. 2012.

[4] Sherman Alexie. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian. New York: Hachette Book Group. 2009. 64. Print.

[5] Ibid. 109.

[6] Ibid. 201.

[7] “Censored Writers Respond.” Progressive 76.4 (2012): 17-19. OmniFile Full Text Select (H.W. Wilson). Web. 9 Apr. 2012.

[8] Ibid. 17-19.


Bibliography

Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian. New York: Hachette Book Group. 2009. Print.

Bausch, Richard and R.V. Cassill. Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. 7th Ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2006. Print.

“Censored Writers Respond.” Progressive 76.4 (2012): 17-19. OmniFile Full Text Select (H.W. Wilson). Web. 9 Apr. 2012.

Tackach, James. “The Biblical Foundation Of James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”.” Renascence 59.2 (2007): 109-118. OmniFile Full Text Select (H.W. Wilson). Web. 9 Apr. 2012.

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Traveling exhibition sparks conversation

The Berger Inquiry

Drew Ann Wake, a CBC reporter and museum curator, is traveling the country educating students about a 40-year-old government inquiry that is now seen as a watershed moment for Canada. But some are worried that recent legislation could undermine the inquiry process. “The Inland Waters Act was changed a year ago. It takes all kind of waterways across Canada out of the public investigation and public inquiry process,” Wake says.

In 1974, the Canadian government commissioned the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, led by Justice Thomas Berger. Berger had a history in politics, having been elected to the House of Commons at age 29 and the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia at age 34. Yet it was his role as a Supreme Court of British Columbia Justice and Royal Commissioner for the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, commonly referred to as the Berger Inquiry, that he best known for.

The Berger Inquiry marked a crossroads in Canadian history as the federal government sought to understand the environmental, social and economic impacts of a proposed pipeline tracking through the Mackenzie River Valley, an area inhabited by over thirty, primarily aboriginal, communities.

Three years after the Berger Inquiry was commissioned, Justice Berger released the first volume of his report and the second a few months later. It concluded areas along the proposed pipeline route were likely to suffer significant environmental damage. The economic benefits touted by supporters of the pipeline were deemed undesirable because short-term, low-wage jobs were likely to undermine the traditional economic activities such as fishing and hunting. Finally, the social impacts of the pipeline could be disastrous for aboriginal communities. Justice Berger officially recommended a ten-year moratorium so land claims and conservation could be properly addressed.

At that time, Drew Ann Wake was a young journalist living in British Columbia. Recognizing a story of great importance developing, she travelled the Mackenzie Valley, reporting for the CBC. Now, 40 years later, Wake is still telling the story of the Berger Inquiry in the form of what she calls a teaching exhibition. In the past five years she has brought her teaching exhibition to over 30 destinations across Canada with over half the stops in the Northwest Territories and Yukon. The exhibition has been to major universities across the country and a visit to Dalhousie University is planned, which will mark the first time the exhibition has been to the Maritimes.

The spark that ignited Wake’s university tour happened in 2009 when she found a cache of audio recordings on cassette tapes. The tapes featured the voices of aboriginal elders talking at various Berger Inquiry consultations.

“Some of them were tapes from the formal hearings and community hearings, but others were interviews. I knew nobody else had the interview materials, so I said to myself ‘I have to do something’. The original instinct was to get them into the archives in Yellowknife so that people could listen to them as part of the historical record,” Wake says.

But there was a problem. Some of the voices on the tapes were unknown. Wake and photographer Linda MacCannell decided to see if they could identify the voices by traveling to the communities along the Mackenzie Valley. Along the way, MacCannel captured portraits of people involved in the Berger Inquiry. “As were doing that, we realized that we had enough material to build an exhibition,” Wake says.

The exhibition’s large format photographs, signage and booklets provide the setting for an educational, participatory process normally centered on student debates. However, in September, a group of journalist students at Calgary’s Mount Royal University experienced the exhibition in a novel way. The student journalists played the role of 1970s reporters directing questions to Justice Berger, who was on site to answer questions.

No matter the format of the exhibition, Wake thinks the educational goal is the same. “That’s what has been so fascinating. I say, ‘so what does this experience say to you?’ It’s almost invariable that young people say, ‘well, it makes me question the current process. We no longer have inquiries that are this detailed and this careful in their assessment’,” Wake says, adding, “So I think of this as a dialogue between generations.”