My Weird Juneteenth Reading Experience

by | Jun 20, 2022 | Articles | 0 comments

Today is a federal holiday, the second year Juneteenth is officially recognized as such. I don’t have it off, and neither does my wife, but I respect the holiday and the need for it.

In thinking about today’s blog, I wished I had something intelligent and insightful to say. I don’t. I’m Caucasian, my wife is Asian, and I don’t think I’ve ever discussed Juneteenth with an African American friend or colleague.

The topic of slavery, however, and all the white supremacist insanity that accompanied it, has been on my mind a lot these past couple of weeks.

Not from anything in the news or popular culture, either. It was entirely because of what I’ve been reading, or, in one case, re-reading.

Allow me to explain.

 

What Are The Odds?

Like many couples these days, my wife and I wind down side by side in bed each night, looking at our respective devices. She’ll watch or listen to something completely different from me. An hour or two before bedtime, though, I get off all screens and switch to a paperback.

That means I’ll either read something I’ve never read, or, more likely, reread a novel I first read 30+ years ago. (My memory’s not that great, so it’s like a whole new book for me!)

Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been rereading William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner. Styron’s one of my favorite novelists, and he won the Pulitzer for this book in the late 60s.

Those unfamiliar with Nat Turner’s story might be interested to learn about Turner’s bloody rebellion. He and a group of other slaves killed dozens of white men, women, and children in an 1831 revolt in Virginia.

Modern readers often take Styron to task for his relentless language, including dialect. Really, though, the whole book is relentless, from the details of murders to the outrages committed against slaves.

But none of that is what made me write “What Are The Odds?” as the header for this section.

After finishing rereading Nat Turner a couple nights ago, I picked another book at random, one I’d never read: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, Edgar Allan Poe’s only full-length novel. I started with the preface, which discussed Poe’s background and what was happening culturally at the time. Poe was raised in Virginia, and the preface went into some detail about…you guessed it, Nat Turner.

 

Coincidence? I Think Not.

As you can imagine, my mind was fairly blown by this “coincidence.” Of the hundreds of books I could have picked off the shelves, I picked one that references the very rebellion I’ve just been reading in fictionalized form. Even more oddly, the preface explores Poe’s “racial anxieties.” Without getting too far into the weeds, I must admit I skipped ahead to the text of the novel when it became clear that the preface has a fair number of spoilers.

Now, there’s nothing radical or shocking about the notion that a white man raised mainly in Virginia in the 1830s had some fairly old world ideas about race. (“Can you believe what Poe said in 1830?” “Uh, yeah, I can.”) Whether he was a racist or not is not for me to say, but the evidence suggests that he believed black people mainly did not wish to mix with whites, and vice versa. I’ll know when I get further into the novel, but apparently there is quite a lot of cultural division.

What I’m wondering about now is why I was meant to reread Nat Turner right before starting Arthur Pym. Maybe it means nothing. I don’t know. But at the very least, it made me think maybe I need to expand my racial sensitivity even beyond its current level. I tend to think I’m pretty evolved on these matters, but I’m sure there’s always room for improvement.

Happy Juneteenth, everybody!

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