Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” and other unpalatably racist comments. For this, the American Library Association dropped her name from their children’s award, which was begun in 1954. Theodor Geisel, known as Dr. Seuss, depicted a Chinese man in a derogatory stereotypical fashion in, I Heard It on Mulberry Street. For this, the Springfield Museum removed a mural with the image from its wall. There are countless authors who have written and said offensive things. Edith Wharton was an anti-Semite, as was T.S. Eliot. Ernest Hemingway was a misogynist, as was Norman Mailer, who was also homophobic. Other racists include Rudyard Kipling, Jack London, Walt Whitman and Roald Dahl.
How do we deal with these revelations in troubling times? Do we erase works from the canons of our literature because their authors were a product of their times, or worse – just abhorrent people? Should books, like statues from some of America’s most heinous past, be destroyed, banned, or permanently stored away? Do some of our most beloved literature, which reflect racial and other biases, and were read in our high school curricula, contribute to a virulent racist atmosphere in our country?
I am unable to resolve this complex issue within myself. Marlon James, who won the Man Booker prize for his book, A Brief History of Seven Killings, has a solution for himself. He is the first Jamaican to win the prize and is a professed lover of Dickens’ books, even emulating him in some of his writings. This is surprising since Charles Dickens, a racist imperialist, supported a brutal suppression of a rebellion of ex-slaves who worked on British sugar plantations in Jamaica. The suppression was so vicious, that many in England were appalled – but not Dickens. The ex-slaves killed 18 men for a legitimate cause – near starvation; the Governor of Jamaica gave no remedy and in retaliation, killed 400 because he could.
In Bigots on My Bookshelf, Marlon James asked, “What should a black reader do if he finds out that one of his favourite authors was racist?” Ultimately, James concluded, the books deserve to stand on their own merits, without regard for their author’s views.
Marlon James’ philosophy is something to consider in September, which is Banned Books Month. What do we lose when we ban a book, a mural, an author? Sometimes, we lose a lot.