This is my blatant attempt to start a conversation in the blog’s comments. I figured I should be up-front about that! I was re-reading some things I posted last year at this time, and I saw a question I had raised that I’d hoped at the time would provoke a response. It didn’t, so I’m taking another shot.
The thing I wonder is, how early does a book actually get race “right” in America’s history? What is the first book you’ve read that seems to you to handle race appropriately—avoiding stereotype, considering characters as people in their own right, etc.? (It doesn’t have to totally avoid the depiction of unpleasantness, obviously: it just needs to be a book that here in 2012 we don’t have to apologize for with “oh, but if you remember the times in which it was written” every time we recommend it to someone.)
In this situation, I think what I’m looking for is a novel (that’s our genre of choice) and ideally a novel that deals with more races than just the author’s own race. My baseline nominee is To Kill A Mockingbird (1960), which happens to be a Pulitzer winner—but your nominees can definitely come from anywhere! Is there an earlier book that does this well? Am I, in fact, being too kind to Mockingbird, and the first novel to meet my criteria came later? I’m hoping not to just hear the title and author of a book you’re suggesting, but to hear a little about what works about it for you.
Why ask this? One of the central issues in America in the 20th century (in seemingly every century until we get it right) is race, and I’ve made no secret of my sadness/anger that so many of the novels I’m reading use race very cheaply and with real callousness. I’m wondering when the “it was the times” excuse should fairly run out on these authors….and of course I’m also very curious who did it first, since I’m going to want to think about that person and their book. Please don’t be shy (and comment even if you didn’t see this right as I posted it). I look forward to hearing from you.