Source of book: A friend recommended and lent us this book
After the kids and I read Island of the Blue Dolphins together last year, a friend suggested we read this one too.
The basic story is that of a young boy, who becomes stranded on a tiny island in the Caribbean after the ship he is on is sunk by a German U-boat during World War Two. He is blinded by a blow to the head, and becomes completely dependent on an elderly Caribbean black named Timothy.
Sandy Cay, near the Virgin Islands, an island similar to that described in the book.
This book was published in 1969, and shows its age a bit. The central tension of the story is that of the boy, Phillip, gradually losing the racism and sense of privilege he acquired from his parents as he becomes friends with Timothy. Phillips thoughts, as well as the words he hears from his parents - particularly his mother - sound very much like the attitudes common among people of those generations. Phillip’s parents, like my great-grandparents, would have been born in the early 1900s. Like my ancestors of that generation, they would say such things as “blacks aren’t like us. They’re different.) Phillip would have been the same age as my grandparents, who might say stuff like “those happy Mexicans.” Or maybe fill in Phil Lancaster and the “happy, singing” African Americans of the civil rights era. (Um, yeah. Ouch.)
It helps to note that this book was written at the tail end of the Civil Rights Era, when political changes had been achieved, but faced a strong social backlash.
It was a bit weird reading this to my kids for that reason. We read Tom Sawyer in 2012, so they were already reasonably familiar with prejudice, the N-word, and slavery. But that book seems so far away, in many ways. Even The Cay probably seems like a bygone era to them. This isn’t to say that racism doesn’t exist - because it definitely does - but that my children don’t hear the same things that I did, or that my parents did.
A good example of this lies in the fact that even a generation ago, my grandparents’ generation was scandalized by interracial marriage. My parents’ generation began the current trend of mixed race families, but they tended to worry that the kids would suffer. By the time things got to my kids’ generation, a high percentage of their friends are interracial. (At least here in California. Your mileage may vary.)
This was particularly awkward because we have a friend somewhat similar to Timothy. Some good friends of ours are a mixed race family, and the father is from Puerto Rico. (It’s been fun explaining how a place that isn’t a state can be part of the United States…) So they know from personal experience that “not like us” is a ludicrous lie. Our own extended families contain an ever-growing spectrum of skin colors. It’s different for them than for those born 100 years ago.
On the other hand, this book, like others, does help explain how racism persists even in good people. Those elderly relatives would, I have no doubt, act in an admirable manner toward any actual people of color they encountered. (In fact, my experience has been that they have embraced those who have married (or been adopted) into the family.) But we can’t help but wince once in a while at what is said around the dinner table.
As with all important issues, this is one that is an ongoing discussion in our house. There are many facets to the institutions and attitudes that continue the categorization of people based on race, gender, and so on. It feels hopeless to try to fix everything, and to protect my kids from the poison that permeates society. At least I can say that things have gotten better over the last few generations, and the trends are positive. Perhaps my children and grandchildren can work further to realize Martin Luther King’s dream.