Many literary works in “Western” literature (and perhaps all of the longer ones) show the scars of the racist impacts on their authors’ experiences. In some cases, Uncle Tom’s Cabin or The Invisible Man, for example, the effort to negotiate a culture’s racist arrangements is central to the text. In other cases, in Moby Dick or The Tempest, the authors lean heavily on racism to establish character, to create tension, and (of course) in the use of metaphor. In other works, a culture’s racism may seem to be a minor factor, but on closer inspection its relative absence is conspicuous – Emma comes to mind (the gypsies, sure … but also, where did the people get all that money for those parties?).

Perhaps, as readers, we come to literature carrying our own scars and open wounds (knowingly or not) and if in reading we are seeking some kind of respite from them, we are likely to be disappointed. But what does one do? How does one enjoy the artifacts of an imagination with racist dependencies? If, in order to really read, one must lend your impulses in part to those of the author – such that, for example, you understand that a character is not to be trusted because they have the stereotypical, physical features of a group of people that the author does not trust, are you not, as a reader, wearing the author’s Klan suit?

Even if a reader found a list of racism-free literature, it would probably be all but impossible to read those works to any depth (such that one understood the allusions) without ingesting a toxic oeuvre. I guess I’m suggesting that the poison of racism is always there in the broth of reading and in the bones of what we read.

Another case in point: what of Don Quixote can be appreciated while flinching at anecdote after anecdote in which young women are “rescued” from the “Moors”? On one level it was simply in the soup of the author’s days; to tell a story, Cervantes called on the shared experiences and racist sympathies of his readers. (And, sadly, these racist tropes still work for many contemporary readers – though, of the people that offer the worst expressions of racism in our current day, I would guess that few are reading books like Don Quixote.) Without access to this soup of stereotypes and racist assumptions, Cervantes would have been hard pressed to develop his characters and, in many of the nested narratives, the writing would lose much of the energy required for both comedy and plot. But, as the reader, what does one do? Is it possible to read Don Quixote without agreeing to play along with the racism? And if one refuses to play along with the racism, is one actually reading … by which I mean, I guess, surrendering some piece of the imagination to the work and not (merely?) exacting an autopsy?

These questions are not new. Shakespeare and the anti-semitism. Kipling and the imperialism. Wagner and the Wagner.

But, without some kind of grace, at some point, all reading becomes, if not a chore, a “guilty pleasure.”

Jere Odell, CC-BY.