Wednesday, January 28, 2009
A note on the reactions to the death of John Updike (R.I.P.)
This isn't really about John Updike, may he rest in peace, but about the descriptions of John Updike on the radio.
I found myself yelling at the radio this morning. Yes, me, yelling at my blessed NPR shows in the car on the short drive to work.
Updike was a great writer, no doubt about it, and an art critic and thinker and many other things. So this isn't a dissing of Updike.
What is getting to me is how everyone is speaking of him as a writer about (the United States of) America, American post-war life, the American middle.
Updike wrote about white American post-war life.
Of course, he wrote about other things too. I have had his novel about a fictional African country, The Coup, on my shelf for years and have been meaning to read it, and I will read it in memory of him. Updike was, as one critic said, kaleidoscopic.
But Rabbit is not (the U.S. of) America.
Is Rabbit a part of it? Of course. A significant part of it? Of course. The whole story? No. "Representative" (of the whole story)? No.
We are so (as the kids would say) not out of the era of white privilege.
If we're going to name the fact that people are chroniclers of Jewish life or Black life in these United States, then let's name the fact that people are chroniclers of White or White Protestant life in the United States. (Or, for that matter, of the U.S. white middle class, or of middle-class Northern men.)
Either that or I want the obits for Toni Morrison (long may she live and continue to write) to say as much as the obits for Updike that she wrote the Great American Novel.
'Cause if you think that slavery and its aftermath or love and work in Harlem or the U.S. South have not been as American as apple pie and as the life of suburban white businessmen, you are still thinking of white America as normative --as the rule, the standard, the "normal"-- and the rest of these United States as the exception or the other.
White privilege is not just present in what we do or in what happens to us, but in how we think and how we speak. *
Think about it.
*See, for instance, re: the American novel, item 7 in the list on the document at the "white privilege" link above.