I just finished reading Red River by Lalita Tadamy. This book is a fictional account of her forebears from the last events of Reconstruction after the the Civil War down to the early adulthood of her father.
This book focuses mainly on the men of the family. I understand her previous book, Cane River, was mainly about the women.
The main theme I sensed throughout the narrative was the struggle of these men to claim their right to be simply accepted as full and equal men—”real” men with the exact same wants, talents, curiosity, freedom, striving, and quest for happiness of all men. But, they couldn’t escape the “mark” of their race. A touching element throughout was their desire to learn. From the struggle to be allowed to learn to read to the pursuit of higher knowledge they had to waste incalculable energy just to fight for the mere privilege to get ahead. One character prized his hard-earned “library” of mostly used books and wouldn’t let just anyone touch them. These books took on a symbolic role for him. They represented knowledge, and thus freedom and self-determination, but they also represented his defiance toward the role the whites wanted to impose upon him. It is sad to think of all the wasted potential these men possessed—wasted because they were expending most of there reserve energy struggling just to get the same opportunities taken for granted by the white men.
This book illustrated for me the depth and variety of personal inner struggles of each of these men—struggles I did not understand well, being a white man, but Tadamy described them through her character’s thoughts in a way that resonated and helped me comprehend, at least to a little better degree, the world facing black men in an overpoweringly white culture. Each of the men she created and developed responded to their society in different ways, but there was the common element of oppression throughout all their lives. These singular struggles taken as a whole were formed by, but also shaped the truly unique American society we live in today.
I wouldn’t say this novel has a plot in any conventional definition. It is written more or less in the style of a family history—stories you would hear at family reunions, but more as it would be told through the thoughts and minds of the storytellers. The book starts off strong with a lot of action and heightened emotional tension as the black men experience a tragic struggle to retain the rights they thought they had been awarded with emancipation. Tadamy bases her, at times quite dramatized, accounts on actual history, but it is a very fragmented history that for many years was hidden and much was thus forgotten. Later, the book slides into a more prolonged account of the multi-generational effects of the realizations acquired through the earlier pivotal struggle.
In some ways these black men and many of the African-Americans today would define themselves by their struggles. This, in my opinion, is somewhat tragic. I’m Mormon, and throughout the early years of Mormonism, and to a lesser extent today, we were almost overpoweringly defined by the persecution heaped upon us. Even today, I think, we spend an inordinate amount of time in our worship services emotionally honoring the sacrifices and struggles our forebears experienced to the expense of the whole point of our religion, that point being to become as Jesus Christ is. Not to denigrate the pain and efforts of those who came before—their perseverance through struggles is certainly an aspect of Christlike character—but, it seems to sometimes overpower the many other aspects of Christ’s teachings and example that are equally important. This, in a way, has happened in African-American society on the cultural rather than religious front. Rather than taking more pride in their unique and colorful heritage, they harp on the discrimination they’ve suffered, and sometimes still suffer, to the expense of original thought and their own personal and cultural development. Yes, their past struggles define them to some extent, but I hope they don’t allow themselves to become like the Shiite Muslims who still hold a lethal grudge for a single assassination nearly 1,500 years ago. It’s kind of like blaming the Jews of today for Christ’s death 2,000 years ago—at some point it simply becomes stupid.
I can’t imagine a thousand years from now the descendants of today’s African Americans still harping on the abuses their umptenth great grandfather suffered through slavery, but that risk is always there. We should not deny the reality of their struggles, but books like this, if not countered by equally emotional positive reinforcement of all the good and the progress we have made, could needlessly prolong the healing. It’s like Mormons continuing to hate Missourians for running us out of their state 150 years ago, ridiculous!
This book runs this risk because it poetically dramatizes some incredibly horrible things. It is all based on facts, but the details of those facts are missing. The author does a superb job of filling in those elements with highly emotional experiences, which could be taken as gospel-truth when it is still only poetic speculation. I wouldn’t change any of it necessarily, I would have just liked to have seen, since she is speculating anyway, more positive accounts of good things whites did to sort of counterweight the horrible.
Unfortunately, I kind of got an idea of where the author stands through a comment she made in the back matter of the book about the “victimization” of African Americans in the hurricane Katrina catastrophe. This is what stupefies us white folk. We feel we are bending over backwards to not be prejudice and then African Americans continue to make blaming remarks like these. Saying we “still have a long way to go,” and such. African Americans have every opportunity and then some that white folk have! Occasionally they may have to put in a little more effort, but don’t we all sometimes. For every black caught in the floodwaters of Katrina there are many, many more who have excelled to their potential, much like the author of this book. Simply because some have not chosen to take advantage of opportunity, they find it all too easy to blame “The Man.” No one is holding the blacks in New Orleans down! When the hurricane was coming, no one told them, “No, you can’t leave.” No one said, “You got to live (or continue to live) in the low land where the water might come.” They all have television, they all know what opportunities are out there—they’re not stupid! It’s sometimes just easier to blame, and their successful “brothers” all too often take their side, merely on racial grounds rather than character. Not to denigrate the Katrina victims and their trials. Many chose to stay for good reasons, whatever they might be, and we should help them like we would help anyone, black or white.
Now, all that said, there will always be some injustice in the world. As long as people are still human, there will be someone out there who hates me because I have green eyes. You will continue to find a few knuckle-dragging, emotionally damaged, prejudiced people out there, but they should in no way be allowed to even cast a shadow on the vast, vast majority of us who could care less about how much melanin someone has in their skin.
To conclude, this book is an excellent read and should be read by all who want to gain a better understanding of the dynamics of African American culture. Just need to remember to feel gratitude that, for the most part, we have all overcome—blacks and whites alike.
Below is basically what I’m getting at: