Seth had to read Catcher in the Rye for English this past school year.
Catcher in the Rye, Catcher in the Rye. What is it that makes this particular book so beloved? A habit, a laziness, a patina of gold. If the point is to talk about growing up, dealing with the inevitable betrayal of adults as we all must, aren’t there perhaps one or two other books that might fit the bill? Featuring more modern teens, featuring girls, queers, people of color, people from other cultures, other classes?
I recently rediscovered Colson Whitehead, easily as good a writer as J. D. Salinger (oooh, it felt deliciously naughty to write that!!). What about his novel Sag Harbor? The narrator is a middle class black boy from New York City whose family owns a house in Sag Harbor where they always spend the summer. He is an outsider, smart, horny, lost, observant, funny, flawed, lonely, vulnerable, sweet. It’s a story about growing up in America. It’s an anecdote to too much Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace and The Great Gatsby and even to To Kill A Mockingbird. White people holding forth, their stories presented as quintessentially American, the only stories that matter, still drowning out other voices after all these years.
Seth just got his wisdom teeth out, and on the waiting room table was a copy of Essence in which I read an excellent article about Prince and a poignant column by Melissa Harris-Perry about music and parenting a middle school girl, a child of color attending a mostly white school. http://www.essence.com/2014/05/05/melissa-harris-perry-listening-sessions
I pointed out to Seth that the magazine display is a political choice, but this was after the extraction and he may not have been paying much attention. Then again, he probably was, given that this is the surly lad who got a B- on his final English speech for not addressing the topic (“What is the American Dream?” “How do the authors we read this year define happiness?”). Instead, he busted out a fiery rant, challenging the English Department to step up and assign more relevant books, ending by referencing the school’s logo (a stylized version of a sculpture of an American Indian), saying that people are not mascots or symbols, and that if the students read stories by folks other than straight, white men or boys, the hurtful and racist logo might have been questioned and done away with by now.
Ok, to me, that’s a fucking A fucking plus. And the two kids of color in his class came up afterwards to thank him. Double A plus.
I’m glad that Seth is proving an ally to the kids of color in his mostly-white school, but even more, I hope he is learning that paying attention to issues of inequity and systemic racism is going to make him – Mr. White Boy – a better person. White people go around acting like fools, and it’s not only embarrassing, it’s soul crushing. To people of color, it goes without saying, but also to the white people themselves. I just read about this exhibit in New York where white people were particularly egregious at an exhibit pointing up the extreme toll the sugar industry took on people of color (http://www.indypendent.org/2014/06/30/why-i-yelled-kara-walker-exhibit). I couldn’t help thinking that those folks all probably read Catcher in the Rye in high school and perhaps truly had no reference point for thinking about an other-than-white life experience or history and no good reason for educating themselves as adults. (Or maybe they’re all assholes, says Tex, also a good point.)
Which (finally) brings me to Mark Spitz. “Mark Spitz” is the nickname of the main character in another Colson Whitehead book, Zone One, his take on the zombie apocalypse. There is nothing more delicious to me than books where my life-long loves of fuck-up-the-man, politics, anti-racism, feminism, queerness, science fiction, post-apocalyptic survival, and horror intersect, and not many people can do it. Fledgling by Octavia Butler comes to mind, and I would have to think long and hard to dredge up some others. But Zone One comes close. For as long as it took me to read it, I lived with Mark Spitz, heart and soul. I miss him so much, even now.
That is the mark of a good novel, of course, that you are left wanting more, and that the characters live on in your heart and imagination. Although perhaps not on the best seller list, those novels really are plenty thick on the ground, novels written by authors who are any combination of not white, not straight, not male, not able-bodied, not rich or even middle class. I’m not holding my breath that membes of our suburban high school English Department will suddenly see the light and kick back against decades of stultifying tradition, but I’m proud of Seth for calling them out. And for continuing to educate himself outside their narrow parameters: he’s about half way through Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony as we speak.
Real education for white people is out there, but it’s up to us to do that work. It’s up to us to question tradition. It’s up to us to open our hearts and minds and stop being so ignorant. It’s up to us to keep reading.