Sunday, October 16, 2016

July's People by Nadine Gordimer

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

For those who are unfamiliar with my Banned Books Week project, each year I read a banned book during (more or less) Banned Books Week. As I have explained each year, I count only books which have been banned by a government somewhere in the world at some time. “Challenged” books do not count - although they are worth reading too - for purposes of my project. For more on the difference, and my philosophy, please read my post on the project.

There are essentially two broad categories of banned books. The first is a ban of books that violate “moral” standards of the time. Or, to put it succinctly, books that have sex in them. Governments tend to ban these in response to pressure from religion and culture. Since cultural and religious standards change with time and place, these bans tend to change too, and many books once banned are readily available.

The second category is books banned for political reasons. These books threaten the current power structure in a society, and thus are banned by governments for their own protection. The worse the government, the more they fear ideas which threaten their power. Thus, of all the banned books, I believe these are the most important for us to read.

Here are the past Banned Book Week Selections:

Areopagitica by John Milton (2011) (Written in defiance of censorship laws - and thus pre-banned in England)
Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (2012) (Banned in the Confederate States)
The Quest for Christa T. by Christa Wolf   (2013) (Banned in the author's native East Germany)
Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz (2014) (Banned throughout the Arab world)


July’s People was written in 1981, and was banned in South Africa, Ms. Gordimer’s native country. At the time, of course, the law of South Africa was Apartheid, a separation of black and white along strict lines of hierarchy. (With the whites on top, of course, not that anyone doubted that.) It is pretty obvious why this book was banned.

First of all, this is a profoundly uncomfortable book. Gordimer does an impressive job of bringing to light the problem of white fragility and privilege - and I will confess that this book made me profoundly uncomfortable.

Gordimer (a white woman, for what that is worth) imagines a horrible future for South Africa. The blacks have rebelled, and, unlike past rebellions, they have the firepower to carry out a revolution. Neighboring countries have lent them military weapons, including aircraft and missiles. Cuba and Russia sense an opportunity to get involved and add another communist nation to the quiver. The airport is shut down after civilian aircraft carrying whites seeking to flee the country are shot down. There is no escape. Johannesburg is being reduced to rubble by the fighting, and the outcome is very much in doubt. 

In this mix, you have Bam and Maureen and their three kids. They are a middle class white family - white collar, but not really rich exactly. But, like most white families of the era, they have a couple of black servants. A cook and a “house boy.” Bam and Maureen - particularly the latter - are liberal, decent people, who want to see Apartheid gone, and who do their best to treat everyone well. But, of course, as a 21st Century American can see easily, they are still taking advantage of the racist system. They have servants.

When everything goes south, so to speak, they withdraw their life’s savings, and flee the city, hoping eventually to get to safety somewhere. Or at least ride out the hostilities until they can rebuild their lives in whatever is left. They don’t flee to some remaining white enclave, however. They go “home” with July, their servant, to his village. Hence the name, as they go live with “July’s People.”

The problem is, the adjustment to this new life is hard on everyone. In essence, they are all dependent on July’s beneficence to survive, which is a total reversal of the previous hierarchy. Negotiating the new reality gives everyone fits. July is conflicted between his loyalty and his simmering rage at his lower status. Bam has lost the essence of his manhood: that of strong provider and leader. Maureen has prided herself on being progressive, and finds out that her good intentions don’t merit much outside of the racial reality she inherited. And she also finds that she cannot look at her husband the same way once he has lost his “manhood.” Even the kids cannot readily figure out what to do without the ability to purchase what they want, and eat “normal” food.

A few incidents are telling. While Bam essentially shuts down emotionally, and ignores the tension, Maureen attempts several times to engage with July, only to be reduced to shock and unbearable discomfort as July refuses to cater to her illusion that they had been friends before, rather than master and servant. Likewise, nobody will outright discuss the question of who now owns Bam’s “bakkie,” a little jeep-or-truck-like vehicle. This is how they made their escape, staying off roads, and following July’s intimate knowledge of the countryside. Bam and Maureen want to believe that it is still theirs, but it becomes increasingly obvious that July considers it to be his now.

This novella-length book never resolves the tension. At the end, there is essentially a “The Lady or the Tiger” moment, and it is over. Do the white protagonists get rescued? Or do they fall into the hands of the rebels? And in each event, what happens to July?

I fear I have done an inadequate job of describing the issues raised by this book. It is always awkward trying to discuss race in a productive manner, as Maureen finds out to her dismay. And sometimes, the world is so broken that there are no good answers. Most likely, everyone loses in the end in Gordimer’s dystopic view.

The silver lining, though, is this:

The real life future turned out to be much better than this book.

While I am certainly no expert in the history of South Africa, the end of apartheid happened during my lifetime - during my formative years, so to speak. When I was a kid, I knew about segregation in significant part because it was still very much real and enforced by law in another part of the world. (The issue if de facto segregation in the United States wasn’t really on my radar at the time.) The end of apartheid was a really big deal, and I remember it well. I remember being excited at the prospect, and - I’ll be honest here - a bit puzzled at the hostility of many I knew toward Nelson Mandela. It really hasn’t been until the events of the last couple of years that I have realized just how deeply racism and white supremacy is embedded in our culture, and how explicitly racist many, many friends and family really are. (Thank you very much, Toupee Who Shall Not Be Named. And thank you Ferguson for bringing this to light as well.) That’s perhaps a future post or two. 

 This one hits a bit too close to home. I've heard too much that is similar to this lately.

Back to the positive part. It would not have been a surprise in 1981 if Gordimer’s vision had come to pass. Ultimately, the state of affairs was unsustainable, and it was taking ever increasing levels of repression and violence to preserve the status quo.

Fortunately for everyone, productive progress was made. While some credit is certainly due to white liberals like F.W. De Klerk, who took action to end the legal apartheid system, we must absolutely never forget that the African National Congress, which took control of the government after the first free elections in 1994 (!!!), showed absolutely amazing restraint and grace. After decades - nay centuries - of oppression, murder, and hatred, it would have been fully expected (and very much in line with the history of European nations in the preceding centuries) if there had been mass purges, and an extermination or expulsion of all whites. It would not have been exactly unjustified. Queen Elizabeth I herself did no less to her political enemies.

But the ANC did what had to be the hardest possible thing to do, which was to forgive and move on. And we should never forget that Mandela eschewed revenge in what has to be one of the most striking instances of “In war, resolution; in defeat, defiance; in victory, magnanimity.” (To quote Churchill.)

Now, I am not saying South African society is perfect. I suspect that, like our own, there is plenty of remaining racism and privilege. But it is unquestionably better than it was in 1981. And the transition to legal equality (or close) was handled in a peaceful manner which is admirable.

So, in the end, things were not as bad as had been envisioned. While Gordimer’s book was banned, the ideas that it contained were spoken and spread by many others, black and white, and influenced the history that was to follow. What actually happened is both cause for optimism, and also a cautionary tale.

It is positive in that it is possible to move toward justice without a total destruction of society. It is rare, but it does happen.

It is a cautionary tale in another sense. Injustice cannot last indefinitely. Right now, in our nation, we are seeing a buildup of pressure and discomfort over injustice. As always happens, there is a natural reactionary tendency that arises in the ranks of the privileged to oppose it. Sometimes, as in the American Civil War, the tension is released through terrible bloodshed. In other cases, such as the Civil Rights Movement (which resulted in a number of important laws in the 1960s), there is unrest, some isolated violence, and social change. We are now on the cusp of another Civil Rights era, and we have our reactionaries. (Le Toupee’s entire campaign is based on racial reaction to a black president, Hispanic immigration, and islamophobia. That IS the campaign.) The warning from history should be apparent to the reactionaries. In a best case scenario, justice will flow. Impede that justice enough, and it will be purchased at the cost of many lives. The choice is yours. It is ours. Do we work to end the injustice? Or do we resist at the cost of far too much.


A personal story:

I grew up in Los Angeles. Specifically, in the eastern San Fernando Valley. For those who know the area and care, I was born in Van Nuys, and lived in the Arleta area from age 9 to age 16.

In 1991, an African American man named Rodney King was beaten on videotape by members of the LAPD.

This incident took place 4 miles from our house.

I remember seeing the video, and knowing, somewhere in my 14 year old soul, that this was wrong. Deeply wrong, and that there was a problem that I didn’t quite understand. It didn’t help that one of the officers referred to King and his buddies as “gorillas in the mist.”

Of course, in the aftermath, I heard a bunch of perspectives from white people. I had (and have) relatives who work with LAPD and other law enforcement agencies. And I would say that on balance, they are the good cops. But the wagons were definitely circled.

One reason that the beating went viral was that the person who filmed it initially notified the LAPD, and they blew him off. He then went to a local TV station, and it seriously blew up. I suspect that 25 years ago, nobody really anticipated the change that would occur with video cameras on everyone’s cell phones. But change was indeed coming.

The officers involved in the beating were eventually charged criminally. The aftermath of that trial would eventually lead to much of what we face with Black Lives Matter today. (I’ll try to explain at least a bit of that.)

The trial was moved from the area in which the incident occurred (the San Fernando Valley) to Simi Valley, west of the area. This was justified by the supposed notoriety of the incident in LA. But in retrospect, as an attorney, it is pretty damn obvious why the trail was moved. The eastern Valley, where I lived, was dominated by people of color. (We were one of only a few white families left on our block when we moved away.) Simi Valley, in contrast, was and is one of the premier areas for white law enforcement officers to live, while working in LA. And it was and is heavily white and middle-to-upper-middle class. (Venue will be important later in this discussion.)

To the surprise of pretty much nobody white in Los Angeles, the officers were acquitted. This is not to say that there were no whites that were surprised. Famously, then president George Bush "Viewed from outside the trial, it was hard to understand how the verdict could possibly square with the video. Those civil rights leaders with whom I met were stunned. And so was I and so was Barbara and so were my kids." But they weren’t from LA. I think we all knew that this would be viewed as cops threatened by the scary black people who were then justified to use any and all force.

And then Los Angeles rioted.

It is difficult to overstate the effect that the riots had on people. We heard the gunshots from our house, and my parents sat up with our firearms just in case we were the next to be looted or killed. It was a frightening time.

After the riots stopped, my dad was physically threatened by a (probably mentally ill) black man while getting gas near our home. By the end of the year, we had left LA for good. As did many, many others. I can count several dozen who headed to Oregon, or Idaho, or other states dominated by white people.

I can see a number of things that resulted from the riots. Most positively, the Rodney King incident and the Rampart Scandal led to reforms in the LAPD. Again, things are far from perfect, but I believe that some positive changes resulted to law enforcement in many places, not just LA, as a result.

Less positively, the Riots marked what I see in retrospect as a hardening of hearts against blacks on the part of many whites who were otherwise inclined to be progressive. Certainly I saw it in my own family. And, I’ll be honest, in my own heart. We saw ourselves in Reginald Denny, and this would make it, forever after, more difficult to see ourselves as Tamir Rice.

To this day, I am convinced in my heart, the resistance of many otherwise decent middle class whites - particularly of a certain generation - to Black Lives Matter, is a visceral reaction to the Riots. Whatever sympathy toward Rodney King arose in our hearts was extinguished by the riots.

This all happened 25 years ago, and I will admit that it wasn’t until perhaps the last 5 of those years that I myself have actually been open to change my mind. Such is the aftermath of those days. And such are the poisonous results of fear.

And the results linger to the extent that I have had to walk out of some conversations with friends and relatives, because to them, there is no possible answer other than that every single black person who is beaten or killed thoroughly deserved it. I hate to be blunt about this, but it is the truth. I have been told straight up by otherwise decent people that Black Lives Matter is a media creation, and that there is zero problem with our policing of people of color.

But the Rodney King incident had other effects. I feel awkward speaking of what I have not experienced, but let me at least give an educated estimate. I would say that the acquittal of the officers ruined whatever faith most African Americans had in the justice system, and in policing. It is pretty hard to think of a more convincing proof that black lives do not in fact matter in our system. A beating filmed in its entirety did not result in a conviction. (And no, the later civil rights trial of the officers didn’t erase the stink of the first trial.) And, as more and more videos come out, and there are still practically zero convictions, it just gets worse.

I also think the Rodney King incident and the Riots had a profound effect on law enforcement in other ways. One that I see is that there is a tendency to go to the gun first, rather than the taser or baton. Two factors contribute, in my view. One is an increased fear of blacks. The second is that after the verdicts, it is clear that there will pretty much never be consequences. In the vast number of cases, cops know that a dead body will never be their fault. And they aren’t wrong. Tamir Rice proves it. If gunning down a 12 year old with a toy gun within a split second of arriving at the scene doesn’t result in charges, what will?

So yes, I think this event, which took place within a few short miles of my home, had profound and largely negative effects on the next 25 years. And more. It saddens me that police brutality and criminal justice reform have largely (although not exclusively) taken on partisan overtones. One can pretty much predict a person’s view of the Tamir Rice killing based on the (R) or (D) after their voter registration. One can do the same with Black Lives Matter. And if you are talking about a white person over age 50, well, you can pretty much put it in the bank. I can count on one hand the number of white people over age 50 I know who support Black Lives Matter. And several dozen who are openly hostile. Once, an (R) meant a George H.W. Bush. Now it means, well, I don’t even need to tell you.

This breaks my heart. We can do better than this.

In telling this story, I know I am just another privileged white male, and that my own fears and insecurities are a bit silly by comparison. I am probably the safest anyone has been in recorded history, and the chances of my suffering harm from a person of color is vanishingly small. (If I am murdered, it will probably be a gun-toting redneck ex-boyfriend of a client…) But it is my story, and I hope it at least gives a picture of a certain perspective. My hope is to at least explain some of the emotional landscape that profoundly affects and dominates our current discussion of race, policing, and politics.

I am trying to do better, I want to do better, as do many of us. Perhaps the best I can do is to encourage people to immerse themselves in the perspectives of those outside our own little white middle-class tribe. 


More of the story:

It got late and I got tired, and I forgot to finish the story.

After the Riots, I believe the theological trajectory of my family changed as well. The Riots weren’t the only factor, of course, but I believe they were one of three. First, we got more into the “philosophy” of homeschooling, which meant Dominionism  and eventually Reconstructionism. (Bill Gothard was in all important respects, a Reconstructionist, even though he didn't use the term.) The second was that my sister hit puberty. In both my wife’s family and mine, the embrace of the Fundamentalist lifestyle coincided with the oldest girl developing breasts. I cannot help but think that there was a great deal of fear surrounding sex, particularly by females, and this was a driving factor.

But the Riots were very much a third impetus.

It was around this time that my parents read Larry Burkett’s fearmongering book The Coming Economic Earthquake. Like many at that time, they bought the baloney that the national debt would cause civilization to collapse. And they bought the outright slander that it was welfare payments to minorities that caused the debt. (In reality, by far the greatest portion of the federal budget is payments to old people. It’s not even close. And it is also the fastest growing portion of the federal budget by a large margin. If we suffer an economic collapse, it won’t be because of Jamal and Juan - it will be because of Leroy and Irma.) In the event of an economic collapse, we and many others believed that the brown skinned people would riot and pillage as soon as the welfare checks stopped, and that we would be targeted.

In the aftermath of the riots, in addition to leaving Los Angeles, we seriously shopped for some acreage somewhere that we could flee to when the inevitable race war erupted. Some place with white people, and where we could grow our own food. We even considered buying 5 years worth of food to weather the storm. We never truly followed through, fortunately. The “Prepper” rabbit hole is not a nice one. In particular, one had to be prepared to kill anyone who sought help, starving or not.

(This was, I suppose, the very thing that Bam and Maureen didn’t have, which is why they ended up with July’s people…)

Along with this, though, we also discovered Bill Gothard. I distinctly remember my parents being impressed with the large numbers of Institute teens, all dressed neatly in navy blue and white. And also that they looked like “middle America.” Meaning, a certain era’s white middle class look. And yes, even in LA, they were overwhelmingly white.

I have become more and more convinced that this was a large part of the appeal. It wasn’t just a desire to recreate the past. It was a desire to return to a time when racial tension didn’t reach beyond the ghetto, when an average white family could ignore the problems. Honestly, ever since the Riots, there has been an undercurrent to this effect. Kind of a dream of finding a place where uncomfortable racial problems never have to be faced, where one can still believe that opportunities are equal, and everyone has the same chance at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But this was, and always has been a fantasy escape.


Just to be clear: Black Lives Matter. They have not mattered enough to us, and we all too often act as if they don’t, but they should. May it truly be so within my lifetime.


  1. This was an interesting piece from 538 that came out during the primaries, in the midst of the inevitable rhetoric about "average Americans" that crops up every election cycle. Turns out "average America" is no longer white small-town. Instead, demographically, the most average metro area in the US is New Haven, CT (followed by Tampa, FL and Hartford, CT).

    This was amusing for me, living in CT. When I told people about it they didn't believe me and started badmouthing statistics.

    Believe it or not, I had a brief flirtation with the edges of prepperdom, just after the 2008 financial crash. The Christian element was obvious then too. It seems to come in a specific Reformed Baptist variety. The biggest website, SurvivalBlog, is run by a Reformed Baptist guy and now features a list of "prepper-friendly" churches in the "American Redoubt" (i.e., the mountain Pacific Northwest). There's also a lot of overlap with the Vision Forum crowd, if you know what to listen for (didn't Rushdoony advocate for "retreats" as well?). Thankfully I was never in a position to actually implement basically any of the recommendations, and I realized after maybe two years that the mindset was terrible for me and quit voluntarily.

    The racial rhetoric this election cycle has been depressing. Le Toupee really has acted like a kind of acid that reveals a person's true character upon exposure. My dad esp. is dabbling in awful things online (though that's not really news - he's the conservative I mentioned once who defended Ray Rice) and I really don't know what to think about him anymore. Like, I didn't think you believed shit like this. You didn't LOOK like a horrible person. It isn't just my dad, but a bunch of conservatives I know through FB as well. And just yesterday I saw a profile of a NV voter, a white woman married to a black/Mexican guy, who has had enough people voice concerns to her about "the dilution of the white race" that she's had to develop different strategies for whether the discussion occurs at work or in a normal social setting.

    This might interest you as well. Apparently the son of the founder of Stormfront (major white supremacist website) has renounced white nationalism and become a liberal.

    1. A friend showed me the Derek Black story - it sounds so much like coming out of a cult, doesn't it?

      "I really don't know what to think about him anymore. Like, I didn't think you believed shit like this. You didn't LOOK like a horrible person. It isn't just my dad, but a bunch of conservatives..."

      Wow, that is exactly my experience too - people who I really believed were decent people (and often are in person) turn out to have these poisonous beliefs.

      Living here in California, where whites are a plurality, rather than a majority, where interracial marriage was cool long before it was permitted elsewhere, and where I and my kids have always had non-white friends, this whole thing has been astounding. It is so hard to see the pain in the faces of my friends as their kids are bullied, where they are exposed to this crap every day.

      On a lighter note, I think what stuck with me from prepper culture was the tendency to keep a lot of food on hand. At least that's the lie I tell myself to explain why my pantry and fridge are always overflowing...

    2. I would absolutely expect white nationalism to qualify as a cult. Esp. since most of them tend to have religious reasons for their beliefs, ala kinism. But I mean, if things like "the dilution of white race" are getting mainstreamed enough that they're showing up in voter profiles...I mean...WTF. Just WTF. That's like KKK level shit, not even disguised.

      What's hard when it's a member of your family - and you live in the same house with them - is how can you tell when the poisonous beliefs will make the leap from theory to reality? How deeply do they believe this or are they just shooting their mouth off? If I ever had a black/Hispanic/other non-white boyfriend and/or husband, would this become a problem? And other questions you never seriously thought you'd be asking yourself. It affects the relationship. How can it not?

      I'm sure you've gone through similar thought processes with your own family's patriarchy connections.

    3. Yes indeed.

      One thing I will say from my wife's family's experience is that even those who say stupid racist things tend to behave better when it becomes personal. Her aunt married a Mexican-American, and even those older relatives prone to saying embarrassing things did the right thing and thoroughly embraced him.

      If anything, as the Derek Black story shows, the best cure for prejudice is often closer contact. I myself have changed a lot since my Gothard days, and a big reason is that I have a wide range of friends. It's hard to believe the worst when you know it is a bunch of lies. (That goes for Atheists, Muslims, LGBTQ people as well as African Americans, Latinos, Democrats, etc...)