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|Sticks and Stones|
The Best of Martha [lesbian] Living
Sticks and Stones
"My words are like a dagger with a jagged edge
I think this year will be the last time I teach Faulkner. I do like the rich prose and the unique point-of-view of "A Rose for Emily." I like the simple story of a boy becoming a man in "The Bear" and "Barn Burning." And I’ve taught those stories to college freshmen for a few years now. I preface them with a speech about how if we don’t read Faulkner we might forget how things were in this country. I then tell a story about a little girl who sued her grade school because a Social Studies text said that blacks came to this country to help whites with farming. The text didn’t mention that blacks were forced to come here, that they were tied down in the hulls of ships and many of them did not survive the trip. This social studies book left slavery out. So I tell my students that we will read Faulkner with the offensive "N" word because it represents the truth about this country. But that word has become harder and harder for me to reconcile. Plus I have noticed that the blacks that Faulkner populates his stories with are little more than objects—wallpaper against which the stories of whites are told. Unlike Mark Twain, Faulkner’s stories dehumanize blacks.
A collogue of mine says, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the first great American novel." When she said that to me, I decided to see for myself, so I reread the book. I couldn’t determine the quality (though I suspect the ending was drawn out and contrived) because I was so uncomfortable with the language—specifically, that "N" word. This book is on the top of the list of books that are banned from public schools. So I am asking myself, is my distaste a form of bowing to censorship? Am I permitting a generation of young people to forget where this country has come from, how easy it is to hate an "object," and how painless it is to lynch the target of that hate? Moreover, I can’t help connecting this issue to words that stimulate hate in the gay and lesbian community.
I used to think that we could reclaim those "hate" words. I thought that if we used them ourselves the words would become neutralized. I now believe that the only thing that has weakened their impact is time. As I mature, words like faggot, dyke, and queer don’t sting as much. But that doesn’t mean that those words aren’t more powerful than ever to a sixteen-year-old who is taunted at school. A survey of 4000 high school students (cited in The Boston Globe) found that over 10% of Massachusetts high school students had attempted suicide. Broken down by sexual orientation, about 40% of lesbian, gay and bisexual students had done so. Public officials were quick to point out that this rate is not due to higher rates of mental instability on the part of gay students, but instead to "victimization by their peers" (Robin Tyler, Gay and Lesbian Review). And where, I ask you, did these "peers" learn hate? They weren’t born that way.
Hate speech encourages discrimination and brutality. If you don’t think words count, talk to a politician or an advertiser. The rap artist Eminem whose lyrics contain faggot and lez was asked by Rolling Stone if he would say the word nigger on a record? And his response was, "That word is not even in my vocabulary." The artist went on to claim that race wasn’t the same as gender. Well, I don’t buy it. And since when do we look to a teen-idol-bad-boy for truth? Eminem rests his backside on the first amendment. But at some point as a free member of society, we have to focus not only on our rights, but also our responsibilities to each other and to our young people.
Returning to the topic of literature, I think Mark Twain’s writing is less racist than Faulkner’s. The character, Jim, is depicted as a person with a family, a sense of adventure, a fear of snakes, and a big heart. Faulkner, the master of place and setting, relegates the entire black race to landscape. Both writers do honestly reflect a piece of our history. I’m sure neither of them was any more racist than his neighbor. Maybe I am the one who has changed here because I can find no way to neutralize the "N" word any more than I could reclaim the epithets that have been tossed at me and neutralize them.
It has been said that to teach tolerance we have to tolerate. I am starting to believe that the opposite is true. We can’t tolerate hate speech that objectifies human beings. As anyone who works with violent crimes will tell you, the first step toward the attack is to dehumanize the victim. And here’s the deal, whether by their own hands or at the hands of skinheads, our young people are under attack more savagely today than you and I ever were.
So, Faulkner is going back on the shelf.
Martha Miller’s books Nine Nights on the Windy Tree, Skin to Sin: Erotic Lesbian Love Stories, and Dispatch to Death are available through New Victoria Publishers, 1-800-326-5297 or www.newvictoria.com.