Recently I read the book The Ear, The Eye, and the Arm by Nancy Farmer. It is children's literature but it holds up well for adults as well. There are children who go out for adventure, learn about the world, become stronger in the process, and it is just all in all awesome.
What I want to talk about, though, is my personal struggle and experience through the book. This book is set in Zimbabwe. It very clearly delineates the people of English descent, so it should be a trivial matter for me to conceptualize correctly the racial images of the characters of this book.
The truth is that it was not a trivial matter at all. I didn't even recognize the problem until I was half way done with the book. I was visualizing all of the characters as white. This is ridiculous, and illustrates how messed up the subconscious can be. In order to make the characters more understandable to me, I visualized them as white. I was horrified when I realized that that is what I had been doing.
I took some time away from reading, just sitting there, thinking about the characters. I tried to recontextualize them in my head. Meditate on more accurate pictures of who they really were. Interestingly as well, I did not have a hard time conceptualizing the characters with body deformities. I probably under estimated She Elephant's size, but the detectives were deformed, which is how they got their names. I had no problem thinking about Arm's long arms when his character came to the page. Part of that might have been the fact that the name gave me a clue but to have no problem at all with it and find race so paralyzing felt revealing to me.
As I continued through the book. I tried really hard to keep race in mind, just so that I would visualize the characters correctly. It was actually very difficult. I had to stop myself frequently to recontextualize the characters and the story. This isn't for lack of writing skill either. I knew the whole time that the story was in Africa. There are frequent reminders of the culture, climate, and other aspects of the area.
I guess for me this post is about coming clean and reflecting on this challenge. I don't really want or need to talk to others about this. To burden others with my story, especially when they have to deal with the realities of people of color not being taken seriously on a daily basis. What I walked away form the book with, among other things actually related to the story, was that if I am working this hard and struggling this much and still failing, our society is seriously messed up in this regard. Many have called me a social justice warrior. I go out of my way to try to understand different people's experiences, to try to check my privilege and stop being an asshat. I am already deeply disturbed by the racial disparities in society. I put a lot of energy into this and have for years. And I was defeated by the exercise of visualizing african protagonist children as black in a children's book. Reflecting on this I feel like I've been climbing down a cliff to understand the depths and I just got a glimpse of the distance down this cliff. Just enough of a glimpse to know that it is impossibly deeper than I can possibly imagine.
In other news, for this article I had to look up the author's name because I suck at that. And I ran across her blog and a blog post about the book and why it can't become a movie. I'm just going to put that here: http://www.nancyfarmerwebsite.com/blog/movie-option
Anyway, this isn't the best writing I've ever done, but I'm sick and this has been bugging me for a while and I just wanted to put this out there and come clean about it. I am definitely adding this book to the list of books to come back to every few years. I'll probably seek out more work by this author as well.