Making sense of an unjust world

26 August 2017

9:00 AM

26 August 2017

9:00 AM

These three timely works of creative nonfiction explore the question of race: chronicling histories of colonialism and migration; examining the institutionalisation of prejudice; and charting movements of change and the resistance to change. Maxine Beneba Clarke’s memoir, The Hate Race, tempers a tale of schoolyard trauma with gentle humour; Reni Eddo-Lodge’s debut, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, is a broadside, a roar of outrage; while Eula Biss’s elegantly structured essays in Notes from No Man’s Land are delivered with a deceptively quiet insistence that nevertheless leaves the reader shaken.

They focus, respectively, on Australia, Britain and the United States. ‘Racism is a shortcoming of the heart,’ Clarke writes in her introduction. ‘Racism is about the strategy of systemic power,’ Eddo-Lodge asserts, and ‘power never goes down without a fight’. Biss says, ‘race is a social function’.

Maxine Beneba Clarke is the daughter of black British parents of Guyanese and Jamaican heritage who emigrated to Australia as newlyweds. Clarke, her elder sister and younger brother were all born and brought up in the Sydney suburb of Kellyville. Their lives were decidedly ordinary and middle-class — except, of course, they were black in what is a white country, albeit one, as Clarke acknowledges, founded on the genocide of its original inhabitants.

She opens by recounting a morning’s walk to school with her infant daughter and pre-school son. A man in a van pulls up alongside, snarling racist abuse at her and, more terrifyingly, her children. Clarke diffidently explains her extreme reaction. It has been, she writes, at least ‘ten months since I was publicly abused’. The appeal of Clarke’s approach is how she confronts the troubled past of the country of her birth, and the unremitting bullying she faced as a schoolgirl, both reflectively and with wit. As a youngster watching on television the return of the sacred site of Uluru (Ayers Rock) to the Pitjantjatjara, she does not believe her parents’ explanation that the black people featured are the original inhabitants of Australia. If the country once belonged to black people, she wants to know, where are they?

If Clarke’s memoir reads as a conversation with a new friend whose life story unfolds over several meetings, Reni Eddo-Lodge offers an impassioned lecture. Wanting to understand her existence as a black woman in Britain, and realising how much her school lessons had omitted, she decided to educate herself. With the indignation of a keen young mind making sense of an unjust world, she sets out a condensed history of black Britain. To anyone who has not thought much about the subject, what she finds will be a revelation. To anyone who has lived the reality, or engaged with the history, these impassioned and often moving essays will offer no new insights. Her book reads, at times, like a primer: Race in Britain 101. So while that base knowledge is undoubtedly essential, this is — ironically — ultimately a book talking to white people about race.

Notes From No Man’s Land opens with a meditation on Alexander Graham Bell and the invention of the telephone. ‘Imagine the mind that could imagine this,’ Eula Biss writes. ‘Even now it is an impossible idea, that we are all connected, all of us.’ That essay, ‘Time and Distance Overcome’, begins as a fascinating account of the public response to the nationwide erection of telephone poles — mistrust, outrage and, at times, direct sabotage. The New York Times reported a ‘war on telephone poles’ in 1889. Then in a detached, poetic narrative voice that is as mesmerising as it is sure-footed, Biss deftly turns to a consideration of what happened next. Once the telephone was recognised as the life-enhancing invention we now take for granted, the telephone poles themselves, at first chopped down and defaced, began, in some areas of the US, to serve a dual purpose — as convenient instruments of lynching: ‘Sometimes two men to a pole, hanging above the buildings of a town. Sometimes three. They hang like flags in still air.’

So it is with the rest of this wondrous book. Biss muses on the conquest and subjugation that underpins the American dream, offers anecdotes from her own life, and commentary both general and specific, sometimes intimate. She begins in one place and confidently leads somewhere unexpected. She picks and worries at the idea of race in America — incarceration, education, social welfare.

Here is a writer not as concerned with the ‘us’ and ‘them’ at the heart of most discussions of ‘the race problem’ as she is engaged in an immersive interrogation of where we (her people, all Americans and, by extension, all peoples living in multiracial societies) came from and where we find ourselves at this point in time. Lyrical she may be, but she is also exhilaratingly bold.

Notes From No Man’s Land offers an uncompromising interrogation of a troubled land by a writer who refuses what could be her birthright as a white woman — the complicity and entitlement that so marks America’s current administration. Just as she catalogues what it means to be a black person there, she asks too what it means to be white. ‘Whiteness,’ she laments, ‘is the distinction many of us cling to when we have nothing else.’ There are recurring themes here of her own awareness of ignorance, of privilege and of the cost of that privilege. Biss is rare in that she does not treat her own race as the default (the norm from which ‘people of colour’ are somehow deviating). The fact that this in itself is remarkable proves the value of her endeavour.

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