Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Jill Lepore on the Difficulty of Writing about Subordinated Subjects

In a recent interview about her new book on Benjamin Franklin’s sister, Harvard history professor and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore talked about the difficulty of writing appealing narrative about historical figures whose life stories contain many negative markers such as personal tragedy, defeat, oppression, exclusion and/or discrimination and, concomitantly, a drastic failure to achieve to potential.  In fact, Lepore talks about putting her project on Jane Franklin aside for years because of this problem, until she finally figured out a brilliant way to avoid turning off her readers by starting her story centuries before and ending it centuries after Jane Franklin’s life.  After struggling with writing Defining the Struggle, a narrative about late nineteenth and early twentieth century racial justice advocates and the many defeats and often related personal tragedies they faced, I very much identified with Lepore’s problem and was thrilled to find her interview (pointed out to me by my colleague Robert Tsai).  Unlike Lepore, however, I never found a brilliant solution.  Here are two examples I really struggled with:  T. Thomas Fortune -- a law-trained journalist who founded the National Afro American League -- envisioned the founding platform the early NAACP would take up decades later; I like to describe him as the most important early civil rights leader no one in legal academia has heard of.  But the story of Fortune’s life trajectory is not a narratively appealing one.  Fortune started his adult life full of vision and positive energy, but in mid-life he fell under Booker T. Washington’s influence, in part because he was in desperate financial straits.  Washington stole Fortune’s newspaper from him and booted him out onto the street; Fortune had a nervous breakdown and became an irascible, erratic contributor of occasional articles, finishing the last half his life with a greatly diminished stature as compared to his younger self.  It occurs to me that part of why he is not well remembered today is that his life story does not form an attractive, coherent narrative arc.  It is hard to lionize someone whose life became such a mess after a relatively short period of early accomplishment.  My second example is even more tragic.  It involves the Niagara Movement’s only test case plaintiff, Barbara E. Pope.  Pope was a talented literary writer and left wonderful historical evidence of her views in gems such as a short story in which an African American woman and her husband, a lawyer, argue about whether she should fulfill her strong ambition to become a lawyer.  Her husband wins the argument.  Given my interest in women’s quasi-legal reform activism, I even thought about starting my book with Pope.  But featuring Pope became very problematic once I discovered that she had committed suicide several years after a jury returned an insulting verdict in her test case, awarding her only one cent in damages for the dignitary rights violation of being thrown off a Jim Crow train and forcibly arrested.  I did put all this information into the book, of course, but could not start with it; who wants to read a book that starts with such a sad tale.   A host of other important figures had similarly tragic stories; racial justice activism in the nadir period was a hugely draining, personally taxing endeavor that quite literally destroyed people’s lives.  I am wondering if others have faced similar problems and what solutions, if any, they found to them.


Shag from Brookline said...

Living long and leaving an extensive paper trail contributed to many writings on John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Filling in the gaps in the lives of "subordinated subjects" requires extensive digging revealing limited fragments, making it difficult weaving a meaningful narrative for potential readers. In some instances the use of fiction and imagination may lead to a good story; but that's not history.

Darren Hutchinson said...

Why do we need happy endings? Why are we afraid to detail the horrors of racial and class oppression?

Oppression isn't happy. It wasn't made to foster joy. It is destructive in emotional and physical terms.

Psychologists are only beginning to understand how racism has relates to mental illness and physical conditions such as high blood pressure. A lot of evidence finds a strong correlation, if not causation between racism and ill-health.

What's the "victory" for those who need one? These people tried to maintain their dignity when no one thought they had any. They tried to make use of ZERO resources to contest oppression. Their humanity reveals itself in their losses. Their heroism reveals itself in their desire to make something better (old black southern saying: "making a way out of no way"). That's a victory.

I thought of two things as I typed this. 1. Derrick Bell's Racial Realism - which says that victory comes in fighting even if you lose; and 2. Toni Morrison's Beloved, which graphically portrays the legacy of slavery better than anything I have ever read. She does not hold back. That's why I had nightmares after reading the book. But people lived that. Morrison succeeded by showing us this nightmare without flinching. And, perhaps by doing so, we can avoid repeating the past. Horror creates a sense of urgency that happy endings can dilute.