Monday, January 19, 2009

In honor of today's annual commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr. and tomorrow's inuaguration of America's first black president, a racially themed novel from 1954.

The Barred Road
Adele De Leeuw
1954, The Macmillan Company

She was thinking happily, In spite of the Garritys, I'm glad we moved to Brookhaven... and I'm going to like it at High. She liked it now. She fitted in. It was amazing how quickly she had adjusted and found a place for herself. They had been in town only a few months; she had gone to High just since the opening of school, six weeks ago. And yet already she had friends, she was part of a crowd, people were asking her to do things.

Susan Trowbridge's life is so rosy and perfect at the start of the book, I had to laugh. Most teen novels start with the teen sulking, brooding or otherwise dissatisfied. A cheerful start is a guarantee that the character will face a horrific problem very soon. Susan's, of course, will be racism. Her new town is larger and more diverse than her old home, and there are racial tensions that simply didn't exist in her life before.

The first hint is a cool warning, delivered in that offhand, sideways style perfected by a certain type of teenaged girl, that Susan was seen walking with a Negro girl. Susan gets the message very clearly and is troubled; why should she not walk with Beth, who is a fellow singer in the Glee Club (and here I swoon at the sheer fiftiesness) and a nice girl?

Susan, a pleasant girl herself, discovers a streak of adamantine in her nature when it becomes clear that her new friends have an established practice of self-segregation within the school. She's still nice and remains on the committee to organize the Frosh Dance, but she quietly insists on involving two Negro students in the planning committee. When the silently understood segregation re-asserts itself and George and Fern fail to show up at the committee's party, a steely-eyed Susan stands up at the dance and publicly thanks the whole committee and says she must thank the two members who couldn't make the party. From then on, the whole school has an opinion on Susan.

Susan struggles with the situation. She's never quite sure if she's doing the right thing; in a few instances there's gross racism that she reacts to instinctively, but much of the time it's so subtle and so easy to ignore that she wrestles with whether she's doing the right thing by refusing to go along with the crowd. What inspires her and drives her on is a speech given by a local author who made good.

The trouble with being like everyone else... is that it gets to be a habit. It's an insidious habit... it starts with innocuous things like dress, and it creeps over you until you're acting and thinking like everyone else, too. No matter whether it's right or wrong. Just because it's easiest.... Dare to be different!... If there's something you want to do, and it's right and best for you - whether others are doing it or not - go ahead and do it! If you believe in a thing, work for it - whether others believe or not. By your belief and your work you can change them. By changing one person, you may change the world.

A fairly standard modern viewpoint, complete with the lack of questioning as to whether your difference is a better way, and the morality of changing other people. The rest of the speech, though, is more interesting.

But by staying true to yourself and your beliefs you will grow and achieve the status of a true adult. An 'adult' being one who knows what's right, and what is honorable. Nowadays, when so much depends on individual thought and effort, you have to be surer than ever that what you do and say is done and said because it's your actual conviction... something you've reasoned out for yourself and are ready to stand up and fight for - if it comes to that.

This is a more challenging idea, then and now, and one Sue will come back to for reassurance. For some people dismiss her actions as those of a girl who wants attention, or just a perverse desire to be different. A style, in other words, instead of a conviction.

As David, the boy she likes initially and who drifts away after she begins arguing against the racist behaviors of her crowd, says:

I like people who mean what they say. I didn't believe you at first - thought you were just a trouble-maker, or maybe trying to call attention to yourself by not running with the herd. A maverick, sort of.

Imagine a time in which it was the substance of your behavior that mattered, not the style.

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