Readers, students, scholars, those with access to books in the twenty first century hardly consider the characters present in them to be anything other than white. How can it be so? Some jump to the action of “pandering” as a concern by confusing the term to refer to others getting special treatment, despite the definition implying otherwise, because the straight white person did not make headlines for the day. Others who are outside of this group of people oppose this calling for more diversity when most of the media we consume is still written, acted, you name it by the so glorified white. When we limit who is able to be present in the lines we read and scenes we see on tv every day, as a society, we also silence those born with a voice meant to be shared to better the world around us.
Beauty in manuscripts
Let us head back in time and investigate where exactly books went wrong in having a diverse set of characters and writers. Before COVID-19 and the widespread protests of the US, I started one of the most famous medieval works, “The Romance of the Rose” only to realize its allegories represent its time. A modern read proves difficult when the characters lecture the reader on how religion, relationships, education, and more topics should be in their life. Contemporary times have changed these institutional norms when we consider the context around the publishing and writing of this work and the others created around the same time. I’m talking about how now countries and societies allow an accessible education and there is more than one correct religion; not everyone has to be tied to a religion anymore as well since there is much less of a fear put into that. But what about what the characters looked like as far as their dress, skin color, can all modern readers find a character relatable?
Simply put, the answer is no. However, I would assert that physical descriptions in Romance of the Rose and similar manuscripts of the time were rare. Author’s back then acknowledged the reader through lectures as I said and maintaining arguments about faith, relationships, and other life questions with references to books older than their own from before the 12th century and the Middle Ages. I find it notable how when a physical attribute is mentioned, they uplift the adorned white characters there for allegorical argument. The translator, Horgan, translates Reason speaking highly of herself when she tells our dreaming protagonist to; “Gaze on this form and see yourself in my bright face. No high-born maiden was ever as free to love as I am” (Horgan 89). Do not get me wrong, I understand this line hardly implies reason’s skin color, but it is not difficult to find pictures from the adorned manuscript online.
Why does the appearance described in the text and seen imbedded on the page matter? “These books are highly interactive. Nearly all medieval manuscripts provide ample space in the margins for readers’ notes and comments.” (Khan Academy). Simply put, descriptions in the manuscript of who is speaking are rare, I struggled finding my quote from above. Instead, the author’s concerns lie in their arguments on biblical and natural rules from friendship to marriage justified by Ovid and philosophers in the likes of Plato. Essentially, they discuss topics relevant to groups of power at the time who may pursue these life milestones since they are literate and can read manuscripts on how to do so. Some readers could claim it is easy to simply picture these characters who are role models to the story as good look like them if they just tell themselves such a lie. However, I would like to pinpoint the Khan Academy source and how it does relate to interactivity is important, take for example the higher social standings present in the above picture made clear by the beautifully stitched decorations and detailed outfits. The pictures not only show their superior dress to the reader themselves who more than likely does not look ready for a tea party at the Queen’s while reading in their dorm room. No, instead it also means if you represent any group of non-white people, the arguments laid out in front of you are especially not for you to interact with since you cannot find a pixel in the picture shared by you. Where is my point going with this? As a reader, the lectures Reason, Fair Welcome, and the rest of the cast undermine everyone encountering the text for the first time or maybe even a second when they lack a WASP background. This was a group of people who conquered the land where Guillaume De Lorris, Jean De Meun, and Chaucer wrote without the preceding knowledge they would prior to dominate the playing field of literature for centuries, all the way until today. Here is a link for more context which I found feasible.
Knowing this definition and the pictures from the decorations adorned in the original Rose manuscript, a twenty-first century reader questions if they are even worthy of reading. They do not fit the outfits or even the skin color in some cases of a group seeming to be morally perfect the farther along into the chapters they get. Sure, the point of views we hear in certain chapters contain bias filled with more lines of men’s fear of women cheating on them and intelligence coming from the books you read. However, the Rose text depicts its life advice works on heteronormative white people from the morals of the story and those able to read at the time, hence the struggling white couple on the cover.
Let us talk about freedom for a minute before moving on to a 20th century work. Romance of the Rose is a product of its time as we have been talking about. I found it interesting in the chapter containing advice from the old woman, she mentions the following predicament: “Moreover, woman are born free; the law has bound them by taking away from them the freedoms Nature had given them.” (Horgan 214). I still think back to a time in my medieval literature class where we read a story where the good Christians paid no remorse for slaughtering Muslims for their skin color and differing beliefs when it came to God. It is still buried somewhere in my memory what the name of the manuscript was, but you do not have to look far in the middle ages. The Canterbury Tales offers ironic descriptions of a diverse cast of characters whose author encourages dislike of the traits making them different than the everyday folk of the century. According to the previous quote, one is born free into the natural world surrounding them, if only we understood this key advice now when we judge others before they can exchange names with us.
We take these manuscripts, knowing they were first published and chosen by the few able to write them in the first place. resulting in masses reading about themselves. That is for those able to read at the time We were a class of all white students backgrounds unknown who couldn’t imagine a world where those born of another demographic cannot read the same books we were reading. Little did we know this used to very much be the case, feel free to read more here.
Centuries later, the reader presence matters
Moving on now to the twenty-first century, a huge jump but you’ll understand why, I want to talk about the readers of today who now have access to manuscripts, novels, and short stories, pretty much a plethora of reads from more sources than ever thanks to the ever expanding internet. I am talking Wattpad, Reddit, those sorts of places which let us avid readers continue learning every day, whether it involves picking up a book or not, it cannot be denied that literature serves as a tool. Schools have total utilitarian power over this considering almost every class requires a book or two created by an author with a purpose in mind. Yet most readings still come from the outdated perspective see from manuscripts of courtly love, to the esteemed novel of the Nineteenth century. This background is a WASP one engrained in the readings as the institutions of publishers and schools continue to primarily push what a white person relates to and finds their names/faces in with ease. Yes you can say it simply is what was popular, but I maintain it has become a system where difference is hard for others to accept and I’m going to cite the one black reading I had in high school for senior year to describe this first impression discomfort.
Remembering what you read in high school? Do not worry, this is a rhetorical question as I am sure it was nothing special besides that one with the rich guy who partied a lot, no I do not mean your classmate, but I’m talking Gatsby. The beginning of K-12 practically sets up expectations I’d say around middle school for English class readings and they usually end up being a chore of a reading with good guy, first off usually a guy right, dealing with problems he easily conquers thanks to his privilege which we probably didn’t realize at the time. Let us be clear nobody liked English class or the assigned reading unless you were similar to me, maybe where you were always looking to expand your library and even learn how to write from these canonized authors. Take my senior class, a group of young adults some already 18 tackling the novel “Beloved” by Toni Morrison. It is a work canonized and now asserted as pinnacle in the movement of black literature as it depicts loss of agency and happiness in a time of slavery. Sethe, the central protagonist, loses her daughter whilst escaping slavery only to have her show up in her life again but in a supernatural reincarnation of someone else’s body. There is so much going on that it is a lot to summarize very quickly so I just recommend reading it for yourself to see what you think.
As a group of mostly white standard conservative school district students ready to graduate, we did not fully grasp what was going on. Looking at the novel as sort of a test we had to pass instead of an important piece of art which was selected as our reading for a reason. I also think this was due to the style of writing which appears convoluted at first with the disconnected narration and ghostly elements to the setting and the house the characters live in. You really get used to the white style like the manuscripts I talked about where we see a hero, typically of WASP nature or heritage, and they go along on their quest perfectly fine without the obstacles of others stopping them and taking away what is theirs because of the color of their skin. We, as a class, were presented with a novel breaking all of these norms we were used to thanks to most of the literature published and written until now; and I feel we were not as present in the discomfort of reading something new as we could have been.
I had to look up some beloved quotes because I need to read it again. I am close to finishing my current read and I am against starting multiple books at once. The one which immediately resonated with today, no questions or doubts was this one. “Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.” (Morrison). The trustworthy community for those quotes that sick with you after the initial read. I forgot the context of this part; however, it sounds accurate to the racial tension post-civil war movement and it still does now. Another detail I remember from the text was the style and voice Morrison carried which we did not agree with as it opposed everything we read in the previous year.
These were the chapters with little context besides short sentences on the page described as the thoughts one has inside their head but keeps to themselves. Once you get into the last arc of the book especially, it lets go of its readers hand by throwing out a word for word recounting of a conversation or a plot device being set up for the next chapter. Instead, these later chapters present an obscure mixture of being inside someone’s head for the first time where you don’t know where you are or what’s going on, a literary device classified now as stream of consciousness. This leads to asking yourself questions such as who is this name? What did they do? Requiring focus from previous cryptic, melancholy chapters providing clues for this moment.
Seeking out a quote on google led me to someone’s Quizlet for studying, thanks to them here is one I found. “She played with me and always came to be with me whenever I needed her. She is mine. Beloved. She’s mine”. (Morrison). I can feel the emotions of this chapter without the context from my vague memory of the plot. While yes, this series of chapters leaves out a fully detailed heroic point of view, the thoughts here are brutally honest causing the reader to resonate at least a little bit with the main character’s recurring sense of loss. She is unable to get over it, especially when everything around her from family to place of living reminds her of the failure to keep a child safe in a time of slavery. My point is this stream of consciousness style filling you with more questions than answers, which at that time was different from other novels, causes us to pay attention. The reader becomes truly present with the loss and the struggles the black main character did not choose to deal with but had to because of the color of her skin. I would argue Morrison is using her power as a published black author by breaking down the systems we are used to in a culminated work more worthy of publishing. Our thoughts are jumbled up sometimes in this crazy changing world. Having an audience to share them with helps since you will no longer be alone but reaching those who have been through it to or want to try to understand.
How do we prevent ourselves from being so turned off by these new forms found in black literature for example? One way I think is reading more without letting our bias get to us and what I mean by that is to not focus so much on the name or even a book cover containing a culture unlike our own. There is a psych theory of mere exposure, to put it concisely, the more you involve yourself in groups other than your own, you will feel more comfortable. This is also why websites such as Wattpad are easier to publish on since you create any username you want, cover your books how you would like, the whole deal. At first, this seems like the way to go to get your name out there, but it does make you think about how important a name can be with publishing in the real world. I had a professor once who used to have only her last name used to get her work in academia published, they still in the twenty-first century would sometimes push aside a “woman looking” name. The internet and its free public use platforms like famous old Wattpad, allows for a change to the game of your worth being determined by a silly misconception of the “sounding” of a name or even color of your skin instead of by your words on the page.
If you cannot tell from this blog, my literary theory class, and most of my college career as an undergrad in general changed the way I interact with any piece I am reading. We cannot change our past, but the future is fully capable of being shaped and this is the way I now approach what I read and the things I say. For example I’ve been working on letting go of saying the word “ghetto” for describing flimsy objects or a mechanic in a game because I learned it isn’t a word to use freely given more context from an insightful Instagram post. Another good thing to note here is expanding your reading library will not directly translate to improving your actions, what you say, or what those around you say. Sure, it may lead to improving it eventually but becoming more aware of how we apply what we learn and read is the important part.
The opposite end of what I mentioned is claiming language is becoming too “correct” to the point that freedom of speech has gone away. I disagree with this and believe realizing words we say have a history and a meaning and more authors deserve the space for their word to be heard when I consider books and literature as works of art which also help us learn. They are an educational tool sometimes to the point of didactic, which pretty much means taught in a condescending way, used in schools and homes everywhere in the United States and other countries I am sure. When I consider this fact that they are such a tool, it is hard to agree with the standard group of mere conservatives who claim their ownership and centrality to a story is being stripped away from them when we have told their story for not one, but over centuries.
Here is a list of resources to educated yourself and donate to black lives matter causes. I am sure there are more and if I missed a good one, feel free to comment
- George Floyd Memorial Fund
- Ahmadu Arbery Fund
- Justice for Breonna Taylor
- Justice for Elijah McClain
- Reopen Kendrick Johnson’s Case #J4Kendrick
- Tony McDade Fund
And, finally, here is a works cited as I take no credit for the quotes or images that I used above. They were purely to emphasize my argument and help this blog look prettier.
Lorris, G. D., Meun, J. D., & Horgan, F. (2008). The Romance of the Rose. Oxford: Oxford University Press.