Delivery nurse Ruth, a black woman, is given the directive not to touch the newborn baby of white supremacist Turk and his wife Brit. She is shaken by this injustice, for she has lived her life as an upstanding citizen. When the infant goes into cardiac arrest Ruth, being the only available caretaker nearby, takes a split second too long to help save his life. The baby dies at Ruth’s fingertips. Containing his grief from spilling into violence, Turk puts Ruth on trial. She now faces a life behind bars.
Reading Small Great Things, I learned a few things about race relations. That’s always valuable. Through the voice of main character Ruth (she is one of three first person narrators, the other two being Turk and Kennedy, Ruth’s white well-meaning lawyer), I got a sense of what it might feel like to be black here in America.
It bothers me that I didn’t learn about it from a black but a white author.
A book like this needed to become a success this year. Sadly, it takes a writer like Jodi Picoult, who has never lived a life of racial prejudice, to climb onto the soap box and get people to listen. This is a media climate problem. Picoult and Ballantine Books make a buck shedding light onto something, people of color have been shouting about for years. By publishing this piece, however, they are operating within systemic racism, something they are so desperately trying to help change. These very platforms need to be given to people of color. I’m talking true resources (publishing deals, publicity, book tours, funding, movie green lights) that would make these stories available to the same audiences that Picoult reached. I can’t help but ponder the irony of the following statement character Kennedy, Ruth’s white woman lawyer, makes:
“Ruth accused me of wanting to save her, and perhaps that was a fair assessment. But she doesn’t need saving. She doesn’t need my advice, because really, who am I to give it, when I haven’t lived her life? She just needs a chance to speak. To be heard.”
I have a feeling deep down inside Picoult knows this wasn’t her story to tell. She felt the need to include an epilogue — written in her author voice — describing the great lengths she went to prepare for the book. As if she could anticipate the backlash, she was basically saying, hey, I got the means and the audience. Please don’t yell at me for doing it. At least I interviewed a bunch of black folk.
And that ending though? Not a fan. That was as pink a ribbon bow tied neatly around a story as I’ve ever seen one. It’s hard not to talk about this without spoiling it for you, but let me give you a hint. It involves the word “redemption.”
When it comes to stories about race in media, it is ALWAYS important to keep in mind who the storyteller is. I see no issues with white writers and filmmakers making their protagonists people of color. In fact, that should happen way more often. But when the narrative’s main elements have to do with culture, ethnicity and race, it gets dicier. And because the history of minorities (gawd, I loathe this word) in America are often rife with acts of oppression by white people, part of me — the part that has experienced prejudice in her own right — feels offended on behalf of my black brothers and sisters.
Interestingly enough, the main quarrel I have with this book is also its strength. Jodi Picoult talks candidly about race in America and reaches a key demographic that needs to build a working vocabulary to talk about race: white women. This is a group that has traditionally been apathetic about the plight of people of color, though white feminists certainly can and do empathize. The main enlightening takeaway drilled into the reader’s mind is this: you, the individual, might not feel as though you have a single racist, unkind bone in your body. After all, you “don’t see color.” But you fail to realize that your entire being thrives in a system that is made for people who look like you, while it pushes people of color to the fringes. That is a powerful and necessary realization if you haven’t had it yet.
The more people begin to wake up, the better. Picoult is waking up. Double cheer. She doesn’t deserve a brownie for it, but it helps, and her book may help others wake up too, even though everyone should have been long jostled from their naps by the horrendous crimes that have been committed against innocent black citizens, let alone the numerous storytellers who have chosen to use their art to shed light onto the very same issues. But it is what it is. And so, though not my weapon of choice, Small Great Things is an effective tool to get through to White America.
As an Asian American woman, I live life with a certain set of privileges that are afforded to white people (I don’t fear for my life when I get stopped by a cop), and yet that privilege can also be taken away from me in a split second (I might get pulled off the plane by cops for not “voluntarily” giving up my paid-for seat with blood dripping down my temples). We, too, have a history of war atrocities committed against us, forced labor enslavement, and hate crimes. Our voices are continuously hushed, and we are made invisible by everyone around us. But whatever pain we have felt, we must always remember that the successes of Asian Americans (and other groups) are built on the backs of the work the African American community has done for decades. They spearheaded the civil rights movement. We reap the benefits. #blacklivesmatter. They suffer, and because they fought so hard, we get to suffer a tad bit less than them. On the hierarchy ladder of shitty things that happen to people of color with white people at the very top stomping on everyone below (remember, I’m not speaking to you, the individual, but to you, the group and system), Asians are not at the very bottom. We exist in a limbo between the peak of privilege and the nadir of hardship, just enough to be glossed over from the top down or the bottom up. I realize that there is a tiny amount of privilege, as minute as it may seem to some of my peers. It is my duty to educate my ignorance away. I, too, do not deserve a brownie for this realization. I knew this before reading her book, but her writing reaffirmed my commitment to keep on learning.
If the success of the book is measured by how many people are suddenly looking inward, I’d give this five stars. Being in Turk’s (the white supremacist’s) head was a rare treasure. I’ve never been this close to a racist’s thoughts before. His voice felt authentic and real. But just as racism can’t be compartmentalized into black and white, grey hues keep me from giving Small Great Things my full support. It is a superbly plotted, griping piece of entertainment, but Picoult and Ballantine Books, you can do better.
Originally published at The Pen and Camera.