Wednesday, April 20, 2011


  E. Ethelbert Miller asks this question:

Q. Where did the idea for the story "Cultural Relativity" come from?  If I was a young black woman I might be upset with the ending.  Must black women settle for frogs?  What happens when readers can't look pass reality to embrace what is simply a story?  This story seems to bring back the old question -What is the role of the black writer? Do you have an answer?

"Cultural Relativity" is probably the silliest, most playful, sly, and whimsical story I ever published, and intentionally so. But what is wrong with a story making someone upset? Is the role of the black artist---or any artist---one that dictates he (or she) should never ruffle any feathers? (If that is the case, we will have very few black, editorial or political cartoonists.) Surely we, as a people, aren't that thin-skinned. Are we? 
This story was originally written for the yearly fund-raiser held each year in Seattle by Humanities Washington, and the theme or topic at that time was "A kiss goodnight." I at first called the story, "Felicia's Kiss." It was published in Indiana Review (May, 2002); reprinted as the lead piece in After Hours: A Collection of Erotic Writing by Black Men, edited by Robert Fleming (Plume, July 2002); and made into a short film by David S. DeCrane, which was shown at the Newport Film Festival on April 17, 2004. And I'm corresponding right now with a Seattle actress who may adapt it for a film she is doing.
It's a simple enough story about a young black college student and her African boyfriend who won't kiss her because kissing is forbidden in his culture. (Do a little research on the history of kissing, it's a very Western practice.) But the story's protagonist, so certain she's right in demanding that he kiss her, forces the issue, ignoring his warnings about the relativity of cultures, and the consequences of her desire and insensitivity lead to a preposterous but classic conclusion.
More and more I'm reminded these days that many Americans, black, white, and otherwise, don't know how to read and understand a story. But is this surprising when 1 out of 5 Americans is functionally illiterate and cannot read with comprehension a newspaper editorial or the directions on their prescription medicines? They've not taken many (or any) literature classes in high school or college, courses where stories are analyzed and discussed. They've not been exposed to many different kinds of stories. They are uncomfortable with irony. They've never been taught how to raise appropriate questions for literary fiction. Nor do they have a critical vocabulary for such discussions. Many will look at a dense, intellectually and imagistically layered passage on the page and simply not recognize what they are looking at (especially its literary and philosophical allusions), or know how to interpret it---usually, they will skip over it, as if it isn't even there. 
And all of this points, tragically, to a startling failure in our system of education, especially in the humanities. I can't tell you how many times I've heard from black readers that they had to look up too many words they didn't know in my fiction, reading with a dictionary at their elbow. Well, guess what? Writers love words, so much so in my case that when I was in graduate school I read the 2,129-page Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary (a Christmas gift from my parents) cover to cover in order to create my own personalized lexicon.
Michael Gorman, a librarian at California State University and president of the American Library Association addressed this problem when he said, "It's appalling---it's really astounding. Only 31 percent of college graduates can read a complex book and extrapolate from it. That's not saying much for the remainder." He expressed dismay at how few entering freshmen understood how to use a basic library system, or enjoyed reading for pleasure. "There is a failure in the core values of education," he said. "They're told to go to college in order to get a better job, and that's OK. But the real task is to produce educated people."
As an educator, I have to agree. I saw what he describes every day in the classroom, and increasingly over the last 10 or 20 years. Other college professors will tell you that, too.
So, if indeed a "young black woman" (or man) gets upset by the ending of "Cultural Relativity." I suggest they remember something philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote about the proper way to approach an artwork before one begins criticizing it. In The World as Will and Representation, he wrote: "Everyone must stand before a picture as before a prince, waiting to see whether it will speak and what it will say to him; and, as with the prince, so he himself must not address it, for then he would hear only himself." 
And black readers will also do well to recall what James Weldon Johnson said in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. This remarkable and enormously influential novel was published 99 years ago. Over the past century it has moved from being a "novel" to becoming  an essential cultural artifact for understanding the American experience. Portions of it devoted to a description of black life in 1912 read as if they were written last night:    
"In fact, it may be said that the majority of intelligent colored people are, in some degree, too much in earnest over the race question. They assume and carry so much that their progress is at times impeded, and they are unable to see things in their proper proportions. In many instances, a slight exercise of the sense of humor would save much anxiety of the soul.”


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