Friday, March 12, 2010

The Camel Bookmobile

This 2007 novel by Masha Hamilton stirred some debate in my Book Group, mostly over whether pre-literate cultures should be left alone so they can preserve their traditional way of life or whether individuals in those cultures could benefit from access to the opportunities that literacy and formal education can provide in a global society.

Afterwards, I went back to see if I could find a basis for claiming that the novel itself takes a position one way or the other.

The novel does not romanticize the experience of living "close to nature." Its opening chapter dramatizes the attack of a hyena on a toddler in Northeastern Province, Kenya, leaving the child severely disfigured for life. Throughout the novel, the local nomadic tribe in Mididima struggles with hunger and the fear of an oncoming drought. Yet, the tribe and its traditional ways have survived for much longer than most human societies, much as the ubiquitous mosquitoes, referenced in headings before each of the six parts of the book, have survived since long before homo sapiens appeared.

A good case can be made that the novel supports the decision of the tribal leaders to move away from the camel bookmobile, a lending library run by a white, American woman librarian from Brooklyn. Just as the coming drought threatens the physical survival of the tribe, the coming of literacy and exposure to Western culture threatens the survival of tribal traditions. Yet, the American librarian has formed human bonds with members of the tribe, including a romantic bond with a male teacher, whose wife wants a divorce so she can marry someone else. The librarian offers educational opportunities to a young girl who longs to see the outside world and to that disfigured boy who shows a remarkable artistic talent that only the American librarian seems to recognize and value.

The conflict between tradition and change is a major theme of the novel. In the end it seems that tradition wins out, as the American librarian is left grieving the loss of the tribe that has moved away. Yet the seeds of literacy and exposure to the outside world have been planted, and the reader senses that the internal tribal struggle between tradition and change will continue, whether the camel bookmobile finds the tribe in its new location or not.

And so I concluded that the novel takes an ambivalent stance in the debate over preservation of tradition vs. openness to change. For every loss of tradition, there is the possibility of gain in the embrace of new ideas and practices. For every gain in individual and social opportunity there is the loss of traditional stability and cultural cohesion.

The triumph of tradition at the end of the novel is temporary. Change is inevitable and will overtake the tribe eventually. When that happens there will be losses to grieve, but there will also be gains to celebrate.

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Speaking of the American success story (see previous post), Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography is a classic of the type.

Franklin was one of the first to secularize the American personal narrative, which, whether it took the form of historical adventure (Columbus, John Smith), spiritual autobiography, captivity narrative (see post on Mary Rowlandson), or travel narrative, until the 18th century could not be separated from the religious world view.

While Franklin somewhat perfunctorily invokes the "Creator" and "Providence," his primary focus is on material success in this world, not salvation in the next. He quite explicitly proclaims himself a Deist, not a traditional Christian, and seems to view morality in practical, utilitarian terms, rather than in terms of divine command. He offers himself as a role model and his autobiography as a kind of self-help book for those who want to emulate his success. And success is not the result of God's grace so much as the result of one's own efforts. "God helps those who help themselves" is one of the maxims in Poor Richard's Almanac.

As one of the first, now iconic, American success stories, Franklin establishes the classic formula: poverty and obscurity--hard work and virtue--opportunity--wealth and fame. Franklin did not actually start out in poverty. He was born to a middle class family and was apprenticed to his older brother, a printer. He ran away, though, and did start out in Philadelphia with no home, no job, and just a few pence in his pocket. From there he rose to become a successful businessman, writer, inventor, civic leader, and eventually delegate to the Constitutional Convention and ambassador to France. And, yes, he was very hard-working and ethical. However, he also was very lucky. His Autobiography records as many coincidences in his favor as it documents his work ethic.

As for virtue, he confesses to having frequent "Intrigues with low Women that fell in [his] Way." His "Project of arriving at moral Perfection" is, perhaps, the best known part of the Autobiography. It is a masterwork of subtle satire, revealing both his moral seriousness and his tongue-in-cheek mockery of moral seriousness. What could be less humble than his precept for the virtue of humility: "Imitate Jesus and Socrates"?

The autobiography is a literary form that allows writers to present themeselves as they want to be seen rather than as they truly are, though a certain amount of candor is necessary to establish credibility. And Franklin is very successful in creating an image of himself that has stood the test of time.

Monday, March 8, 2010

A Raisin in the Sun

The other day I attended a meeting where people of color talked about problems they face living in the local community. They told stories of their experiences with individual and stystemic racism in the schools, the job market, and the criminal justice system; limited access to public transportation; lack of adequate and affordable housing; and barriers in the health care system.

Having grown up in the South during the Civil Rights Movement and having seen significant progress in race relations during my lifetime, I found it extremely disheartening to hear these stories of racial prejudice, cultural ignorance, and institutional norms that continue to favor whites over people of color. It almost felt like we were living in an unofficial and informal system of apartheid. It was hard to believe that one year ago we were celebrating the inauguration of our first US President of color.

The 1957 play A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry seems a lot less dated to me after hearing these stories. When it opened in 1959, it was the first play by a black woman ever produced on Broadway. Its dramatization of an African American family struggling with economic deprivation and aspiration, racial discrimination, cultural pride, and black manhood "sometime between WWII" and the late 1950's seems painfully similar to stories I heard from people of color a few days ago in 2010.

For all the progress I have seen in the last fifty years, it seems there has been just as much persistence of the same old patterns.

The title of Hansberry's play comes from a poem by Langston Hughes published in 1951:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
Like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

Americans love the redemptive narrative and will prefer the stories of emancipation from slavery, of civil rights victories, and of the achievement of the American dream by such as Barak Obama, but the tragic stories of dreams deferred are just as much a part of our history and culture. We just don't want to hear them.

A Raisin in the Sun is itself a redemptive narrative. We could no doubt never have made the progress we have on racial issues without hope and faith on the part of people of color, but all Americans need to remember that for every triumphant story there are hundreds of tragic ones; for every American success story there are hundreds of unsung stories of American failure.