Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Our National Disease

by Hillary Jordan

Get ready for a blitz. Between being out of town for several days last week, Zeke's death, and unreliable Internet connection at home, I have not been able to post much lately. Therefore, I have quite the backlog and plan to be much more active on the blog this week. I may even compose post #100! Ta-da!

A member of our congregation recently gave me a cool bumper sticker that she got at a conference on diversity. It says "Racism: Our National Disease. Getting sick was not our fault. Getting well is our responsibility." I see writers like Hillary Jordan speaking the truths that we need to hear if our country is ever to truly get well from this pervasive sickness. Jordan won the Bellwether Prize for fiction for Mudbound. The Bellwether Prize is awarded every two years to a first-time novelist who shows promise in writing about issues of social justice. Mudbound is well deserving of the honor.

Mudbound has lots of elements but is fundamentally about issues of race and relationship in Mississippi just after World War II. When black American soldiers returned to the Deep South after serving our country just as bravely as their white counterparts, they expected to be treated with respect and gratitude. Instead, they found the same old hatred and fear and intimidation from white people waiting for them. Mudbound is about one such soldier, a tank commander named Ronsel Jackson, who returns to the tiny town of Marietta, MS and is no longer able to adopt the subservient posture that has been his key to survival for his whole life.

Mudbound effectively explores a wide range of relationships and perspectives - from those of black sharecroppers struggling for economic justice to virulent racists who are determined to maintain the status quo to more benevolent whites who think they are magnanimous in their treatment of blacks but who are nonetheless paternalistic. Inevitably, these different worldviews clash, leading to tragedy and further discord between the races. The attitude of the Klansmen is ridiculous to people of my generation, those of us who grew up after the Civil Rights Movement. I believe, though, that it is crucial for my generation to hear these stories and when the time is right to pass them on to our children. When we see where we have been, we appreciate how far we have come. More importantly, we grow firmer in our resolve to continue building bridges with others until we live out the truth that we are all children of God, created in God's image. Although Mudbound is a work of fiction, it articulates atrocities that truly happened in pre-Civil Rights America and reminds us that we never want to go back to that place.

Mudbound is a real page turner. We sense from page one that there is an explosion brewing, and we read faster and faster to find out what it is and how the various dramas get resolved. My only qualm about the book is that I wish Hillary Jordan had spent a little more time developing her characters. The narrative moves along so quickly that it feels at times that the characters are cardboard cutouts that never become fully human. We have characters that fit a lot of stereotypes: the vile racist, the patriarchal white farmer, the aforementioned noble sufferer, the soldier wrestling with nightmares and post-war demons, and several others. I think most people are more complicated than a pigeonhole characterization, and Jordan's characters deserve better because they are the actors in such an important story.

Nevertheless, this is a well-written story with a critical message. I highly recommend it and will be watching for more work from Hillary Jordan. Incidentally, we rented a movie this past weekend that also is an important contribution to the history of race relations in the United States. It is called The Great Debaters and stars Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker. It is a beautiful movie - well-acted and a compelling, prophetic story. Plan to see it!

Reverent Reader


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