Monday, June 16, 2014

Favorite book that should be pulled from the shelves

Prodigal Women, by Nancy Hale, is one of my favorite books. It tells the story of three women who live in a suburb of Boston in the 1920's and experience love in dangerous and difficult ways. They eventually find their ways back to wholeness and self-understanding.

It was pulled from the shelves of a library a few years back. Should it have been? My answer is yes.

The book contains the line "operated by a reeking colored boy."

Once upon a time this line would not have drawn much notice. Stereotypes were not challenged, and calling an African-American man "reeking" and "boy" was not met with much notice. "Colored" was considered a polite way (sort of) to refer to black people then, although somehow it sours my stomach. Hindsight? Maybe.

But the implication that a black person would smell simply cannot be excused, even when the author wrote it in the 1920's. Generally "accepted"? In some circles. Angrily and rightfully criticized? Yes, in some circles.

"Boy" was of course also used often to refer to black men. The implication that they are and were not mature enough to be called "men" or perhaps deserved to be addressed in the tone that would imply some kind of hierarchy, as opposed to not  being addressed at all, was more prevalent in the South, but was certainly not exclusively its property. And "property" was the thought directly in back of this entire phrase, that this black man was "owned" by someone, or had been in the recent past.

And this, in short, is why even though this book is one of my favorites, and remains one of my favorites, I am glad that it was pulled. I hate the idea of having readers assume that a) this kind of stereotype fit the description of any or many black people in the 1920's, and that b) there were not enough people who despised such descriptions at the time the book was written.

As with many books that seem to express or perpetuate negative stereotypes of ethnic and racial groups, many of us make our very shaky peace fraught with ambivalence and caveats.

I am glad I read  Prodigal Women. I am also glad that it will not see this particular library's shelves again.

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