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Race Matters

What Should Be Said? Who Should Be Heard?

Not long ago I published my first ever blog post. I began by providing context for how, as a lifelong professor of literature, I came to write a blog post. I wanted to communicate my thinking and to invite you to respond. Such exchanges—missing from the scene of scholarly literary criticism—might serve as the life-blood of my blog. They would keep it current--and pertinent.

Penny Weinstein, "Vineyard Byways"

My issue in this post is a hot-button one. How should we discuss—in public—racial realities in America? Anyone reading recent newspapers knows that the officials in certain states are trying to police this discussion, insofar as it takes place in those states’ public schools. The issue is hot-button for a reason. Our country’s handling of racial realities is at the heart of our history, from our founding forward. How we understand who we were shapes how we understand who we are—and who we should become. How should we talk about these matters? Whose voices should be heard?

My personal history intersects with this larger issue. I grew up in the deep South—in Memphis—in the 1940s and 1950s. My school (like all the public schools) was segregated. While growing up, I never knew anyone to quarrel with this system. More, like many other Memphis families at the time, my parents hired a black maid to help run our household. Her name was Vannie, she worked with us for 30 years, and I grew to love her like a second mother.

From this point forward, my focus is Vannie.

My brothers and I went to East Coast colleges, and some years thereafter, I earned a PhD in English. I became a college professor, with a lifelong interest in the work of William Faulkner. For work purposes as well as for personal reasons, I realized I had to come to grips with our country’s racial history. What I learned, as I studied this history, cast a lurid new light on my childhood experience of race in the South.

Vannie became, suddenly, a focus for incompatible realities. On the one hand, she was my beloved second mother. On the other hand, she was an available black woman my white family was able to hire as a maid to do the “heavy lifting” in our domestic arrangements. Cooking, washing, house-cleaning, baby-sitting: these were all Vannie’s responsibilities.

Growing up, I saw nothing strange in this arrangement. Grown up now, I find everything about it strange. In time I realized that I wanted to write an essay that would allow me to explore both these realities. That essay (“Vannie”) soon became an essential part of my new book, Soul-Error. Essential because no other personal experience of mine dramatizes so powerfully (as I put it in the Author’s Note to my book) “the takes, retakes, and mistakes that beset our journey through space and time.”